Reducing the footprint of your art fair by 24,000 square feet seems like something of a challenge. Portal, the young fair from nonprofit 4heads — which has produced the Governors Island Art Fair for a decade — debuted last year in Federal Hall, a 19th-century building on Wall Street with a soaring ceiling and Doric-column-filled rotunda. The fair returns this year in far less grand environs: a simple, 2,000-square-foot storefront tucked into the heart of Soho. It’s just around the corner from a Madewell store, where a book of photographs by Mark Ellen Mark adorns a carefully curated wooden bookcase alongside a denim hat, sunglasses, and a pair of strappy sandals.
“Soho was one of the first places known as an art neighborhood, and now it’s totally left. It used to really be the epicenter,” said Antony Zito, a co-founder of 4heads with Nicole Laemmle and Jack Robinson. The group got a hold of 435 Broome Street, the space for this year’s Portal, through an East Village anarchist friend who knew an old-school Soho guy who’d owned property in the now extremely pricey neighborhood for a long time. “We love that there’s still some parts of New York that have that old-world flavor, not just glass and steel.”
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In fact, the initial plan had been to return to Federal Hall, but that site is a national memorial, operated by the National Park Service; a US government shutdown — which now appears to have been averted — would have also shut down Portal. The 4heads crew decided to move preemptively and took it as an opportunity. “We like to play the hunt-for-a-space game,” Zito said. Plus, he pointed out, a privately owned space tends to come with fewer restrictions than a government-operated one, like Federal Hall or Governors Island. At 435 Broome, they could “just do what we want to do.”
What they’ve done isn’t especially political or risqué. Portal 2017 feels essentially like a big group show, with the attendant mix in quality. Some of the contributions err on the boring side, but the best ones are deliciously weird, like Deborah Simon’s faux scientific animal sculptures, Shannon McBride’s wax lips and other body parts embedded in flowers, and Robert Zurer’s nightmarish and surreal oil paintings (Zito joked that Zurer could be “Hieronymus Bosch’s long-lost grandchild”). There’s a thread running through the show of meticulous, borderline obsessive hand-crafting; you can see it in Marcy Sperry’s bright beaded paintings, Sui Park’s floating cells made from zip ties, Mark Lorah’s snaking cardboard boxes, and Kate Rusek’s window installation made with blinds — all of which transmute human-made materials into natural forms.
What’s missing from the fair is what’s become 4heads’ signature over its years on Governors Island: an architecturally distinct space and artists to engage with it. Portal feels refreshingly unpretentious amid its Soho surroundings, but in a city filled with white-walled art galleries and art fairs of every stripe, it could stand to do something more unique.
Portal 2017 continues at 435 Broome Street (Soho, Manhattan) through May 8.