This past weekend’s Pulse New York offered many examples of uninspiring or downright cheesy contemporary art, interspersed with a few gems. This 2015 fair, whose theme was, rather broadly, “The Future,” featured 15 single-artist presentations, with an additional dozen or so booths showing only two artists. The curatorial impulse here was manageability and depth, both worthwhile goals in the age of the gargantuan art fair.
Abstraction featured prominently. Unfortunately, much of the work in this category didn’t advance the logic or the technique of the field in any material way. Take the works of Osamu Kobayashi, featured in the Mindy Solomon Gallery booth. “Pink Waterfall” (2014), an oil on canvas, shows a large pink stripe in the center of the frame; its sloped edges mimic the shape of water expanding as it falls. Simple yellow lines denote rock formations on either side. The painting is wonderfully pleasant — in the way that it would look great hanging above a couch of a complementary color.
Even the work of the Pulse Prize winner, Elisabeth Condon, left me cold. Condon’s multimedia work, shown in the Emerson Dorsch booth, mixes abstraction with hyperrealism. Her use of color is pretty, but the work raises questions it can’t adequately answer; there’s neither a clear formal nor emotional reason for the mix between abstraction and figuration, except that it looks nice.
And then there was the really cheesy: Gallery Poulsen exhibited Jean-Pierre Roy’s painting “Nachlass” (2015), reportedly purchased by Leonardo DiCaprio. “Nachlass” (a German word that refers to the literary ephemera of a dead scholar) shows a man crouching in a futuristic landscape. In place of his face are trapezoids — or is that a fashion-forward hat? He holds a boy with a head of rectangles over his shoulder — or does he have a mutant child appendage to his body? Who knew that after the apocalypse men would maintain superripped bodies but have faces like a Kandinsky painting? And at Emmanuel Fremin Gallery, Moby’s series (yes, the musician) of photographs, Innocents, whose theme seems to be Planet of the Apes meets cult sacrifice, might give me nightmares for years to come, of both of beasts and capitalism run amok. (One of the series doubles as the cover for Moby’s album of the same name.)
Photography and multimedia made a far stronger showing at Pulse than painting. Pictura Gallery’s exhibition of David Magnusson’s series Purity captures the sweetness and downright creepiness of purity balls, a peculiarly American tradition in which teenage daughters pledge their virginity until marriage and their fathers pledge to defend it. Magnusson’s portraits show deep affection between fathers and daughters, although the poses of each pairing and the white dresses of many of the girls suggest an uncomfortable semi-incestuousness — a real Freudian field day. For a more understated exploration of the nuances of “girlhood,” De Soto Gallery showed Assembly, a beautiful series by photographer Osamu Yokonami, in which the effervescence and adventurousness of groups of young girls is complemented by the starkness of natural landscapes.
My favorite works at the fair were by artist Katsutoshi Yuasa. Standing in the Gallery Yuki-Sis booth, he explained his process to me: He begins each work by taking a photograph, often of natural objects like flowers. He then transfers the image onto a wood block and carves accordingly. The wood block is then printed on paper, which he colors with water-based or oil ink. The craftsmanship of his work is immediately apparent, and it was a welcome change to the glibness of much of the work in the show. For example, Pulse Project “The Garden of Emoji Delights” (2014) by Carla Gannis, a reimagining of Bosch’s work, is funny and clever. But it’s also a little snide, and probably not interesting enough either conceptually or physically to stand the test of time.
Pulse seemed to strike an uneasy balance between curatorial integrity and crowd-pleasing works, or works by celebrities, that were sure to sell. Perhaps this compromise is the best an art fair can do in the current market.
Pulse New York 2015 ran March 5–8 at the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 W 18th St, Chelsea, Manhattan).