We live in a time of high anxiety. If I were an art collector with a checkbook at the ready, I’d be in the market, ideally, for works that could momentarily soothe my mind. Some of the most memorable art offered at this year’s New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) New York, though, deals with distress, evincing an array of ordeals both personal and relatable. Now in its sixth edition, the art fair moved from May to March to coincide for the first time with Armory Week — in a sense, its organizers and exhibitors, too, were anxious to attract a larger crowd at a time when the market is hot. (Though 50% of proceeds raised from ticket sales are also going to the American Civil Liberties Union.) Changing dates meant changing locations, and booths now take over a whitewashed open floor at Skylight Clarkson North in the West Village. There are 100 exhibitors from 14 different countries — 30 of which are first-timers — and 36 project spaces.
Not all that evokes anguish is, on its surface, dark and grim. The piece many fairgoers will likely find far too real is a comical and unearthly one: Jeremy Couillard’s “Alien Afterlife,” a kinetic sculpture at the booth of yours mine & ours that features an alien shackled to its desk, where it steadily types away on a laptop and stares without expression. Couillard’s message is painfully explicit: we’ve become alienated from the real world as we labor away in front of our screens. In this current political climate, the piece resounds even more, reminding us of how we can’t stop feeding our media diet even if it tends to drive us insane. A glimpse at the extraterrestrial’s screen reveals that it’s typing in a near-empty chat room that you can actually access in your own browser — so you, too, can shout into the void.
A similarly immobile recluse presides over bitforms‘ booth. Surrounded by cement blocks cleverly shaped like skulls is “Surfer (With Head),” a stick figure made of steel that pokes at an iPad. The work of artist Siebren Versteeg, the installation evokes a post-apocalyptic wasteland with construction ruins that double as memento mori. It’s a lonely and depressing scene, envisioning an end in which we’re still endlessly scrolling.
One notable and telling trend is how so many female artists here, in comparison, express anxiety through graphic images of the body, which they do not render in full but in fragments, often exposed and torn asunder. I got used to seeing flesh in a state of vulnerability and suspension, literally hanging in the air. Athena Papadopoulos’s eye-catching crimson sculptures at Shoot the Lobster’s booth are bright and plush, but they hang on butcher hooks and resemble animal parts. They’re in fact self-portraits, with photos of Papadopoulos incorporated into their surfaces, along with other artifacts, from jewelry to small animal bones. The red results from dying sessions with store-bought liquids such as nail polish, hair dye, lipstick, and red wine: all items that suggest self-love but are instead used to stain a body that cannot escape harm.
The same motif appears in Cristina Tufiño’s solo booth at Galeria Agustina Ferreyra, where a banner of a dangling drumstick hovers near pastel sculptures, a couple of which recall limbs — severed, but strangely serene. About 10 booths down, at Signal, Ivana Bašić has cast herself as a broken, incomplete body made of painted wax. “Stay inside or perish” (2016) is elegant yet rife with trauma: The headless figure looks like a fainted aerialist, arched backwards in the air and supported by bands; she has fragmented glass bottles in place of shins, and metal bars, like prosthetics, root her into the ground. The title ominously warns of the violence that’s visualized, suggesting anxieties about the outside world, with all its possible threats to the female body.
Fairgoers will encounter more dangling bodies two doors down at the booth of 315 Gallery, although these seem at first like benign banners. Amy Brener‘s transparent, silicone bodies are thin and embedded with pieces of technology, their heads and breasts reassembled to form sterilized, synthetic designs. No longer human, the female figure is splayed like a motherboard, with her manufactured innards inviting us to scrutinize her as specimen. Behind these is a striking piece by Cecilia Salama that echoes a clothesline — but one weighed down by flesh-like sculptures that are roughly textured, folded, and limp to visualize violations of the female body.
Rubber is an especially evocative material to use to represent flesh, and another artist who harnesses it to accentuate violence against the body is Hannah Levy. At Galerie Parisa Kind‘s booth, she contributes two chairs constructed of pink latex stretched over curved steel. The glossy surfaces look like chewing gum stretched thin, or distorted tongues, or sinews pried apart, now offered up to us as seats.
Respite from these traumas does appear in numerous forms. Radamés “Juni” Figueroa at Proyectos Ultravioleta’s booth offers a kitschy, obvious way to self-medicate: his paintings take the form of enlarged objects that generally calm and comfort, from a bottle of Klonopin to a slice of pizza to a joint and freshly packed pipe. Weed as therapy appears a number of times, actually. Omari Douglin fills Mrs.’s booth with small paintings of very stoned, red-eyed characters caught in mid-puff — playful but necessary reminders that sometimes we just need to not give any fucks. Across the fair, Safe Gallery has a cheery installation with works awash in soothing colors, including glass bongs by Alex Eagleton that attempt to elevate pipes to the realm of art: they’re not usable, but they sure are aesthetically sexy.
These works may help you lighten up, but others offer more poetic means of momentary, THC-free escapism. Virtual reality is no longer a novelty at art fairs, and NADA has one piece at Moran Bondaroff’s booth by Jacolby Satterwhite that whisks you off to a dizzying, galactic realm. (A taste of his VR work is accessible on your phone as part of a New Museum exhibition that launched in January.) I also tried “The Mirrorbox” by Megan May Daalder at Five Car Garage, which is essentially a helmet for two people to wear for two minutes. Inside it, lights turn on and off to illuminate a two-way mirror from calculated angles, so that sometimes you see the other person’s face, but your visages will also meld together to form an eerie portrait. An exhibitor referred to it as an “empathy machine,” meant to create chance but prolonged encounters between strangers at an event that runs on high energy and fast transactions.
The most transportive piece, however, is an operatic video by the collective AES+F, presented by Transfer in collaboration with Mobius Gallery. Incredibly crisp and polished, the 38-minute-long “INVERSO MUNDUS” draws you into an absurd, seemingly utopian world, where beautiful people cradle fantastic, enchanting animals (like birds with seals’ heads or hairless cats with bat wings); a pig mercilessly butchers a man; and powerful, impeccably styled women spin men strapped to hamster wheels. You feel like you’re on some kind of drug for most of the piece, and although the scenes don’t appear to follow any clear logic, they’re carefully constructed and wholly mesmerizing. Every time I walked by the booth, the viewing area was filled with fairgoers, frozen by the epic tableaux and lost in their cryptic grandeur.
In the end, I found my favorite coping mechanism at the booth of Los Angeles Nomadic Division, where stress balls designed by Bettina Hubby to look like breasts fit my very non-VIP collector’s budget. Hubby made them as part of a project she started after being diagnosed with breast cancer — to create with a sense of humor was her way to respond to physical trauma. Representative of both unease and release, the ensuing creations now offer us relief of our own.
NADA New York 2017 continues at Skylight Clarkson North (572 Washington St, West Village, Manhattan) through March 5.