LONDON — After visiting two of the art fairs being held in London this fall, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast Frieze London 2015 and Sluice_2015. The big divergence, of course, is between incalculable amounts of money and money plus sweat equity. That contrast clearly reflects the difference between a fair organized for international dealers and one organized by artists and curators, and the difference between art as commodity and art as experience. But then, there are things the two held in common.
Perhaps the single greatest commonality was the number of artworks displayed by each that, though they might spark a bit of frisson, ultimately are callow. It didn’t matter if their prices ran in the five to six figures, or in the two, three, and possibly four.
At Frieze, we’re supposed to equate high prices with indubitable importance. And, of course, by the time an object has made it through the vetting process to Frieze Masters, there can be no question of its merit. At Sluice it’s less easy to sort out because the fair features so many modestly priced works that are not really intended as ponderous but instead engage in a shared disregard for pretentiousness.
Even taking this lack of pretention into account, there’s a lot of thin art at Sluice. However, there also are projects that inspire respect, provoke thought, stir emotions, and instill desire. Some are noted here.
Lateral ArtSpace was featuring works by eight Romanian and German artists. Radu Oreian’s single Vectorial Skin Series painting marries science with abstraction. Made up of miniscule, cell-like bits of paint, whose colors blur to a sort of golden tan flesh tone, the work explores the material implications of skin. Lucian Indrei’s text pieces address forms of art world validation. It’s tempting to dismiss such statements as “Validated by Discourse” as glibly self-evident, but I’m inclined to extend them the benefit of the doubt.
The Black & White Project’s presentation overall was very strong, particularly two tightly focused figural works by Espen Erichsen. Erichsen’s labored painterly technique underscores the psychological depth of his portrait imagery. At once modern and medieval-seeming, the works suggest unremitting, ages-old sorrow. It might sound corny, but I literally cannot stop thinking of them. The Black & White Project also showed a single, small acrylic-on-panel painting by Alain Biltereyst, who translates everyday graphical signs into succinct, subtle abstractions.
Edinburgh-based artists space Interview Room 11 had a refreshing response to current political, environmental, and cultural instability: that artists need to “track, dig, point and question, but also to wait, listen [and] manoeuver more slowly.” Such a possibility, of artists waiting and listening, challenges pop-cultural norms of self-promotion. Among the artists in this group, the one whose work seems most aligned with that strategy is David McDiarmid. His tiny, progressively intricate prints operate as diagrams of architectural power structures and the institutional environments that shape urban life.
The Modern Language Experiment is run by filmmakers Matthew Stock and Keh Ng. Their presentation included two video projections. I wanted to stop watching Nail Spa by Mitra Saboury, but couldn’t. I didn’t want to stop watching Mall Walking: Omaha 2015 by Rob Crosse, but had to if I was going to see anything else. Nail Spa focuses on the artist’s carefully manicured fingers as they chip away at the dirty grout between bathroom tiles. After her nails break and turn back on themselves, it excruciatingly, but hilariously, loops. Mall Walking attentively records retired men and women exercising in a shopping mall and has a lovely, lulling rhythm to it.
The outstanding work in the Concrete Whispers installation — by a gallery or group whose name I never managed to identify — was Kathy Taylor’s group of portrait busts, whose pedestals are thermal carafes. Wickedly modeled heads of leaders from British imperial history at first seem comical, planted as they are on kitschy objects of everyday use. But they also inspire real anger at Britain’s exceptional assumptions of cultural superiority and right to rule others.
The quintessential installation of the fair incorporated works by Sluice project directors Yifat Gat (who also runs the Black & White Project) and Katherine Di Turi. Using marble dust and stencils, Gat created delicate emblems in the mullioned windows of the space that ranged around three sides of a large room. Di Turi installed small, black-and-white photographs of antique mirrors on the walls between some of the windows. In each instance, what was seen within the framed pieces of glass was doubled, and still images were paired with moving. Gat’s stencils overlaid views of central London, bringing what was outside of the room inside. The glass protecting Di Turi’s photographs also reflected figures as they moved about, placing the space of the room within the confines of her frames.
I experienced that last-noted installation with only a handful of other viewers present, and we all commented on the magic of its rough simplicity. That is, of course, what distinguishes Sluice from Frieze. At the former, roughness and simplicity are contrivances that provide a whiff of “authenticity,” when Frieze truly legitimizes what money can buy or is willing to endorse. Sluice offers the possibility of art actively transforming your time with it — no money required.