Volta bills itself as a “rigorously curated, boutique event — along the lines of a sequence of intense studio visits versus a traditional trade show environment.” An art fair can dream, but Volta is, for better or worse, like all the others of its ilk, just that: an art fair. Ninety-six solo booths (though some are actually duo) do not curation make.
Last year, though, Volta NY added a curated section — a special eight-artist display organized by fellow artist Derrick Adams — to up the critical caliber of the show. This year, it continues the tradition with another eight-artist section curated by writer Wendy Vogel. Curiously, both the 2016 and 2017 displays focus on the body. Adams sought to “explore the idea of the body as a site of reckoning, transformation and departure,” while Vogel has chosen artists “who foreground the precariousness of the body and identity in a time of political turmoil.” In retrospect, the progression seems almost natural, as much of the country, especially artists, has moved from a period of possibility mixed with anxiety to a time of terror. Political precariousness reminds just how vulnerable our non–white, straight, cis, male bodies are.
I didn’t see last year’s curated section, but it should be noted that labeling the current one — which is titled Your Body Is a Battleground, after Barbara Kruger’s 1989 work — an “exhibition,” as the fair materials do, at times feels like a stretch. The display is comprised, essentially, of eight single-wall “booths” arranged in a rectangle, a formation that works well for the works shown inside the shape but awkwardly cuts off the ones on the outside. They feel mostly like independent solo presentations, though Vogel’s success is evident in the the meaningful connections that emerge between them.
The showstopper — of both the section and the entire fair — is Kent Monkman, presented here by Peters Projects. The queer artist of Cree and Irish descent continues to address the very serious subject of historical erasure and representation without barely a hint of self-seriousness. In Monkman’s hands, humor is a real weapon, a means of pointing out the absurdity of the white, colonial, European tradition, and by extension its dangerousness. When he paints an elaborate pastoral scene of homoerotic Native American men riding on horseback near white people who are pouring alcohol onto a flame atop a man’s head (“Baptism by Fire,” 2017), he puts you in a specific position — of having no idea what’s going on. It makes you wonder if everything you’ve ever seen in a history painting is just the invention of someone else’s imagination. A similar phenomenon is at work in his new series, Fate is a Cruel Mistress (2017), which casts Monkman’s alter-ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, as the protagonist in a number of famous Biblical scenes involving women: Judith cutting off Holofernes’s head and others. Decked in headdresses and heels, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle reminds us that we only understand stories as extensions of who tells them.
This is a major theme of a body of work made by Carmen Winant for the fair and presented by Fortnight Institute. In one of the new series of collages, all titled “Anita Told the Truth,” Winant gathers images of Anita Hill testifying before the Senate in 1991 about being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, who had formerly been her boss and went on to be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice. The pieces feature images of Hill and other black women in grid formations alongside images of white men and bodies, all of them covered with severe applications of what looks like graphite or black paint. The coatings represent a kind of literalization of the way Hill was smeared, while the juxtaposition of black and white bodies — and in one piece, a border of raised, broken hands — prompts a questioning of which bodies and stories we instinctively trust.
Nona Faustine, here represented by Baxter Street at the Camera Club of New York — where she recently had a solo exhibition of much of the the same work that’s on view at Volta — uses her photographs to directly challenge such assumptions. In Faustine’s strongest work, she places her own black, female body, often fully or partially naked, at historical sites of US slavery. (Her pictures of national monuments with black bars across them are less compelling.) Sometimes she poses directly facing the camera, but even when not, the challenge she’s mounting is explicit: Reckon with your history, America, rather than attempting to bury it or wash it away. Recognize my body and the history it carries.
Whereas Faustine insists on inserting herself — and by extension, her people — into the national narrative, Sable Elyse Smith grapples in a more nuanced way with presence and absence. Smith’s presentation, brought by the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), is the most coherent of the group, featuring a series of works centered on one topic: prison, and more specifically, her father’s imprisonment. Smith approaches the subject in different ways: aerial photos that evidence the scale of prison complexes, reproduced and deconstructed family photos taken inside prisons, a text piece and video about the anxiety-inducing experience of visiting prison. As a conceptual group, the works gracefully balance personal narrative with systemic reality. Smith uses her body as a kind of surrogate for her father’s; its presence points to the conspicuous absence of his, and of the over two million others hidden away behind bars in this country.
Zachary Fabri also works across media, and also uses his own body to explore and understand his place in the systems around him. Co-presented here by the Rockelmann & gallery and Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art — where Fabri had a show earlier this year that included some of this work — his display feels the most like a fair booth, with a sampling of works that doesn’t quite come together. The two strongest pieces, however, drive home his abiding interest in the black male body: “Aureola (Black Presidents)” (2012), a grid of images of black men playing presidents in works of fiction, and “The Big Payback” (2009), an alternately funny and discomfiting video showing two black men dancing to James Brown on a Harlem street. These works, as well as others not at Volta, show how keenly attuned Fabri is to representations of black masculinity and the way they circumscribe him in society.
Across the way, Joiri Minaya, presented by Casa Quien, does something similar with ideas of Dominican femininity. After conducting a Google Image search for “Dominican women,” Minaya printed out the results at life-size, but broke them into body parts — an arm and leg here, head of hair there, a stomach — which dangle from the ceiling like a pixellated puzzle. The backs of the pieces sport tropical-print fabrics, much like the ones in which Minaya has entirely cocooned herself for a nearby set of funny, faux-sexy beach and jungle photos. There’s indignation here, but also, as with Monkman’s work, a sense of playfulness. Minaya subverts stereotypes of sexiness by refusing to indulge our desire for the perfect body.
The last two artists in the show — Deborah Roberts, presented by Art Palace, and Melissa Vandenberg, brought by Maus Contemporary | beta pictoris gallery — are the weakest. They deal with related themes of womanhood, racism, and patriotism — Roberts in collages made from magazine pages, Vandenberg mostly in burn drawings — but in more simplistic ways than their peers. The show does a great job of taking a resolutely intersectional approach to a phrase that emerged from white feminism; in that vein, Vogel might instead have brought in another one or two LGBTQ artists, who, even before Trump instructed states not to comply with Title IX, were facing a vice president who has worked to oppose their rights. A nearby booth that’s part of the main fair speaks to this possibility: Samuel Freeman Gallery is showing a project by Danny Jauregui that elegantly traces the history of the coded gay address books that Bob Damron began compiling in the 1960s. Alluding to absent bodies through the use of human hair, it’s of a piece with Your Body Is a Battleground.
Still, Vogel has done an impressive job putting together a timely and thought-provoking show. It’s especially valuable for reminding us that the real world doesn’t magically disappear when we step inside the artificial environment of an art fair.
Volta NY 2017 continues at Pier 90 (W 50th Street at Twelfth Avenue, Manhattan) through March 5.
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