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Portal Art Fair in the rotunda of Federal Hall on Wall Street (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Most tourists who wander into the rotunda of Federal Hall on Wall Street likely won’t be there for this week’s Portal Art Fair, but the three floors of mixed-media art may cause them to linger longer in the 19th-century space. The fair’s inaugural edition, opening today in the former United States Customs House, coincides with Frieze Week, with 28 artists exhibiting below Federal Hall’s towering dome and in its Doric column-lined hall.

The exterior of Federal Hall on Wall Street (click to enlarge)

Portal is coordinated by the nonprofit 4heads in collaboration with the National Parks Service. Like their work with the annual Governors Island Art Fair, staged in the former military housing on the New York harbor island, Portal is highlighting the city’s historic architecture along with emerging art. Federal Hall is often overlooked in comparison to the Stock Exchange across the street, and locals may have gone there once and never returned, or just glanced at the George Washington statue on the steps outside while pushing through the crowds of tour groups and vendors.

Trash can and raccoon sculptures by Will Kurtz, made from wood, newspapers, found objects, tape, glue, matte medium, and UV matt

Randy Polumbo, “Nymph” (2015), blown glass, welded aluminum

I’m all for roving art fairs that temporarily inhabit some historic New York City spaces, but walking through Portal, I did wish that the work interacted more with the space, especially since, according to 4heads’ release, it was all “selected based on submitted proposals that responded to and engaged with the distinct architecture of Federal Hall.” Since it is a national memorial, obviously the architecture can’t be altered in any way, but most of the two-dimensional work was crammed into a few small second-floor rooms, and felt unmoored from the space. I also didn’t see much response in the sculptural pieces, just the built-in contrast between the new and the old.

There were some creative plays with the interior, mostly with the sculpture, such as Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s “Gamelatron” adding a soundtrack to the rotunda with mellow notes from robotic Indonesian instruments, and Dong Hee Lee’s “Black Egg Cell” (2011), a strange orb made from black hot glue, filling a central void in the lower level. I also liked how the lightness of Jayoung Yoon’s cubic hair art (yes, made from real human hair) contrasted with the heaviness of the columns alongside it, and how Will Kurtz’s newspaper-formed, life-size people (and raccoon) blended in with the visiting crowd when viewed from above. Along with Randy Polumbo’s “Telephone” (2016), a phone booth crammed with blown glass and LEDs, the figures made for a strange street scene.

The Gamelatron by Aaron Taylor Kuffner playing some eerie beats in the Portal Art Fair at Federal Hall.

A video posted by Allison Meier (@allisoncmeier) on

However, I’d argue that neither Kurtz nor Polumbo are exactly emerging artists, both having exhibited extensively in prominent galleries and museums. Since Portal only includes New York-based artists, it would have been more exciting to give some truly emerging voices in local art such a stunning platform as Federal Hall, where many tourists stopping in might not have any art on their visiting schedule aside from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Huge “This Place Matters” banners are currently hanging on Federal Hall, part of the 2016 Preservation Month organized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. While the art in Portal is uneven, it’s an alternative approach to involving both locals and tourists alike to spend more time with this historically significant place. There’s so much that could be explored in contemporary art here, especially with Wall Street just outside, the very au courant Alexander Hamilton buried down the street, and the South Street Seaport steps away with its own preservation issues. If the fair continues in the future in this space, maybe that initial tentativeness to really do something radical in Federal Hall can be overcome, where the classically inspired architecture already commands, and deserves, so much attention.

Randy Polumbo, “Telephone” (2016), phone booth, blown glass, aluminum, silver, LEDs

Mixed media “Personal Effects” sculptures by Becky Brown

Sculptures made from expanded mild steel by Rodrigo Nava

Portal Art Fair in the rotunda of Federal Hall

Jackie Mock, “Matches (Gradient Study),” found matches in a handmade shadowbox

Taezoo Park, “Digital Being: What We Made” (2015), circuit boards, solar panels, and LEDs

Chin-Lung Chuang, “Color Field II” (2016), projection mapping installation

Art by Jayoung Yoon made from human hair and glue

Jayoung Yoon, “Form and Emptiness” sculptures installed on the ceiling, made from glue and human hair; Dong Hee Lee, “Black Egg Cell” (2011), black hot glue, installed below

Dong Hee Lee, “Black Egg Cell” (2011), black hot glue

Jackie Mock, “Breaking a Wishbone a Day for One Year,” wishbones in a handmade specimen cabinet

Sculpture made from repurposed plastic by Niki Lederer

Laetitia Soulier, “The square Roots Sculpture” (2016), maple wood and mixed media

Marie Koo, “Bad Moon Dancing” (2013), oil on canvas

Aaron Taylor Kuffner, “Gamelatron Cemerlang” (2015), bronze, steel, aluminum, wood, electronics

Installation by George Kroenert involving flourescent lamps, color cable ties, wire, and ballasts

The Portal Art Fair continues at the Federal Hall National Memorial (26 Wall Street, Financial District, Manhattan) through May 10.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

4 replies on “New Portal Art Fair Fails to Make the Most of a Lower Manhattan Landmark”

  1. Love the images, I wish the article scratched the surface a bit about the literal Federal Restrictions and planning challenges involved in installing in a government building. If you talk to anyone involved with this show, you would hear that many plans were shut down by the National Park’s committee. I think this undertaking was as successful as the Portal Organizers could have done, but again, squeezed by government restrictions effecting content, form, and installation.

    1. Yup.
      And then add the time constraints from waiting for bureaucratic green lights….

      But thank you Allison Meier for covering it. FYI, artist George Kroenert is from Okmulgee.

  2. Great pictures. I agree that some of the installations could have told more of the story of the building in which they were in. Some of the pieces look like they were just stuck there. Takes away the essence of the building itself. Losing respect for it. Like a mass take over. The two should reflect and celebrate each other not separate it.

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