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MEXICO CITY — As blue chip galleries courted international collectors at the city’s biggest art fair on the fringes of the tony neighborhood of Polanco, a smaller and more intimate fair opened on Thursday night across town. Now in its second year, the Material Art Fair featured 40 galleries and project spaces from the Americas and Europe. Founded by Daniela Elbahara and Brett W. Schultz of Yautepec Gallery and art advisor Isa Natalia Castilla of Incontemporary, it bills itself as “Mexico City’s first and only contemporary art fair dedicated to emerging practices.” Last year the balance between Mexican and foreign galleries was more even, whereas this year the exhibitors were primarily from abroad, with only four hailing from Mexico City.
On opening night, the atmosphere was festive and friendly, as visitors were greeted by a SpongeBob SquarePants performance by Puppies Puppies in the Queer Thoughts booth. Although selling work was certainly on everyone’s minds, it didn’t seem to be the sole reason for attending. Many gallerists I spoke with had little knowledge of the collecting scene in Mexico, and instead expressed their enthusiasm over being part of a close community of like-minded galleries and artists.
“Last year we didn’t sell a thing, but we had an amazing time. There was great energy, it just felt like a really good community,” said Michael Clifton of New York’s Clifton Benevento, adding that he did sell work after the fair. “I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the galleries that were showing here, but the quality was really good. It just seems like there’s a lot of potential here, a lot of people coming from South America as well.” His gallery was showing work by Gina Beavers, a New York-based painter who had never exhibited outside the US. The gallery also works with Mexican artist Martin Soto Climent, who runs local project space Lulu, another sign of the supportive spirit that many gallerists I spoke with cited as one of Material’s greatest strengths.
Another New York gallery, Regina Rex, was thrilled to be back at Material for its second year. “This is a really incredible community-building experience,” said Craig Monteith. “Even though we already have this kind of community in New York, when we come here we’re kind of pulled together, you really get to know a lot of people.” Some of the work the gallery brought showed a connection to Mexico, such as Michael Assiff’s paintings that combine Chipotle bag designs with Aztec glyphs, and a tattooed cactus by There There.
Many of the dealers who were here for the first time said they were drawn by the experiences of friends and colleagues who had participated last year and gave the impression of a big family or at least a small club. “We are really close with Regina Rex and we had heard about the experience they had last year and we were eager to be involved,” said Zerek Kempf of Brooklyn’s Helper. They were showing Gavin Kenyon and Jeff Williams‘s “Microwave Mint” (2014) — a sculpture that melts metal — paintings by Ben Dowell, and hosted a meditation performance by Berlin-based artist Marco Schmitt.
Hadley Vogel of East Hampton Shed — housed in an actual shed behind her parent’s book bindery — said she heard about the fair after subletting an apartment from Schultz, one of its co-founders, last year. She spoke about being drawn to the art scene in Mexico City by the influential Preteen Gallery, a sentiment echoed by others with whom I spoke. Vogel was showing horse-racing themed work by Larissa Lockshin.
“I wish I had done it last year, but for a gallery outside of the market of New York and Los Angeles a fair is always risky, and because it was their first year I wasn’t sure,” Jeanine Jablonski of Fourteen30 Contemporary in Portland, Oregon, told me. “I emailed colleagues, like John from Green Gallery, and Michael Clifton and Simon from Cooper Cole and everyone adamantly was like, ‘it was amazing.’ I’ve sold work since I’ve been here and it’s been open two hours. It’s really well organized, aesthetically it’s on par with my program.”
Mieke Marple of LA’s Night Gallery cited the intimate nature of the fair, as opposed to the larger Zona MACO, as part of her motivation to participate. “I’ve been to MACO and even though there’s great galleries there, it’s pretty big and it seems like it would be pretty easy to get lost,” she said. “Here, the company seemed more in line with where we are, François (Ghebaly) is our neighbor, Michael Jon, we share a lot of artists with him, Shane Campbell is a friend, and a lot of the other galleries we identify with are here.”
Tyler Park of François Ghebaly, one of the most established galleries here, also said that sharing the space with colleagues like Milwaukee’s Green Gallery and Michael Jon from Miami and Detroit was a big motivation. He said the gallery was was also drawn to Mexico City by the strong institutional presence, especially the Coleccion Jumex. François Ghebaly had brought work by a selection of artists from the gallery’s program including a Joel Kyack video, Sayre Gomez paintings, Patrick Jackson mugs, and a delicate flower of carved wood by Yoshihiro Suda.
“With the exhibitions at the gallery, the artists don’t have to make market-driven work, they’re allowed to do whatever they want,” said Chadwick Gibson, who runs LA’s Smart Objects, which straddles the line between project space and gallery. “Coming to a fair to me is an opportunity to kind of leverage the market to give artists more freedom.” He was showing paintings by Keith Varadi, whose had painted words related to Mexico on canvas and then obscured them by sandwiching them against another canvas.
Adding to the festive atmosphere was the inclusion of Beverly’s, the bar and project space run by Leah Dixon on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She had turned a subterranean space below the main floor into a mash-up of a club, performance space, and exhibition area including work by 14 artists. Dixon said that friends from Yautepec had asked Beverly’s to join the fair. It was beginning to seem like everyone at Material knew each other, or if they didn’t yet, they would by the end of the weekend.