“My kid could do that” is the world’s most clichéd dismissal of Modern art. But at this week’s Art on Paper fair, which focuses on work made with or on paper, a group of anonymous child artists are showing more original work than many well-known adults. Some of the strangest stuff at the fair is made by 8- to 18-year-old members of the Alphabet City Art School at the Lower East Side Girls Club, a community center on Avenue D and 8th Street.
Front and center at Pier 36 is a sprawling installation by Beijing-based sculptor Li Hongbo, which resembles a rainbow-hued Disney castle rising out of a sea of colorful paper slinkies. Behind that is “Girlville,” an installation of paper doll sculptures made by members of the Lower East Side Girls Club from elementary school art supplies. Framed by crepe-paper streamers, there are “Supergirls” with twine arms, girls in tissue paper tutus, girls with yellow yarn braids, girls with black plastic bug eyes and mouthless glitter faces. Since the collection was made by a group of eight-year-olds, most will probably see it as merely cute, but if it had been made by “a full-grown educated adult,” it might have been declared a feminist outsider art masterpiece.
Another standout from the (anonymous) Girls Club artists is a sketch of a little dog with evil eyebrows under the scrawled phrase “Cutest, inoccent Dog! Or is he.” This piece is funnier but not punnier than Crucial Artworks Involving Animals and Politics, a series by author-artist Dave Eggers being shown by San Francisco’s Electric Works gallery, which includes a drawing of an egret labeled “EGREGIOUS.” In terms of formula, “Cutest, inoccent Dog!” is identical to most of Eggers’s artworks — a simple drawing of an animal paired with a pithy phrase. But Eggers’s works try a little too hard to be clever (and to emulate David Shrigley), and so lack the un-self-conscious weirdness of “Cutest, inoccent Dog!”
Work from the Alphabet City Art School is also arguably more politically poignant than most at the fair. In The South Carolina Church Massacre Project, part of the students’ ongoing Art and Activism series, they created pieces honoring those who lost their lives in the mass shooting in Charleston last June. And the students’ work is, by far, Art on Paper’s least expensive — prices are by suggested donation and range from $20 to $60. Proceeds go to the Girls Club and are shared with the artists.
Paper is one of the oldest media, so it’s hard to make it as new and exciting as, say, a diner full of sculptural gourmands. Many of the 65 participating galleries are showing safe, decorative, and trendy work. There are some hidden gems here, though: a Mickalene Thomas collage of a woman posing, odalisque-like, on a patterned couch (“You’re Gonna Give Me the Love I Need,” in the Van Deb Editions booth); Six Snapshots of Julie, a series of woodcuts by Grayson Perry on display in the Manifold Editions booth that chronicles the life of fictional Essex everywoman Julie Cope, who evolves from girl in barrettes to biker chick to world-traveling divorcee; and fantastic surrealist paintings by Pedro Friedeberg (Lisa Frank fans in the Lower East Side Girls Club might like his star-spangled neon horses) in Ruiz-Healy Gallery‘s booth.
The paper pulp sculptures in artist couple Adam Frezza and Terry Chiao‘s series The Whitney Lump Nubbins, on view in Owen James Gallery‘s booth, live up to their curious names: “Glowing Loop Sprout,” “Vibrating Blue-Cap Sprout,” “Splotch Blossom.” Painted neon and sprouting wire prickers, they look like alien plants from The Lorax.
The fair also features some excellent 20th century throwbacks: Galerie Fledermaus is showing a nice collection of Egon Schiele prints; Jerald Melberg Gallery is showing works by Romare Bearden, Helen Frankenthaler, and Wolf Kahn; and McCormick Gallery is showing striking collages by the late abstract painter Jack Roth, which feature magazine images — shots of Elizabeth Taylor, a nude mid-jumping-jack — mashed up with his signature color fields. Aside from these older and bolder works, the rest of Art on Paper’s offerings pale in comparison to the likes of “Girlville” and “Cutest, inoccent Dog!”
The Art on Paper Fair runs at Pier 36 (299 South Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until March 6.