Not even blizzard conditions could keep the crowds away from the 2018 Armory Show, the opening of which yesterday was like a doorbuster sale with VIPs huddled in the snow outside the entrance of Pier 94 at 11:59am, eagerly awaiting its opening at the stroke of noon. One of the largest and arguably one of the most steadfast contemporary art fairs in the United States, attending Armory is indeed a bit like shopping at a Black Friday sale — it’s always packed, typically with the same cast of character customers who’ve integrated the event into their annual family traditions. And, really, with seemingly endless rows of roughly 200 booths spanning two Hudson river piers under bland fluorescent lighting, with juice and champagne carts dotted among the aisles like Dippin’ Dots stands at the mall, it’s hard not to feel like the show is a just another Great American shopping center.
But perhaps the strength of the Armory Show — now in its 24th year — is that, just like a mall, I know exactly what to expect when I go there. To be sure, art isn’t simply a mass-produced commodity, but nothing spurs some wallet flapping like an industrial-sized marketplace. With that in mind, I decided to approach my Armory fair experience this year as I remember spending my mall rat days — empty-pocketed, energy drink in hand, looking for the trendy stuff I aspired to one day own.
You have your major department stores carrying the big names, and while they’re mostly filled with stodgy stuff your parents like, occasionally there’s something you’d be seen in. For me, that was Gagosian at Armory this year which returned to the fair after abstaining from it since 2013 — although the gallery has seemingly been at every other fair across the globe since then. The gallery’s booth at the front and center of the fair’s entrance boasts a 2005 work by the king of video art, Nam June Paik. The installation, comprised of a colorfully painted lion sculpture atop a platform and set off by an archway both comprised by 28 variously sized blinking TV screens, is hard to miss. And, given that it was created just before the artist’s death and hasn’t been publicly shown since 2006, it’s worth seeing.
As with window shopping, however, it’s easier to identify the major trends by spotting the looks that crop up at more than one middle-market shop. Works by Kehinde Wiley — a mainstay at most fairs for the last several years — makes multiple appearances, which is unsurprising given that the recent unveiling of Barack Obama’s official portrait by the artist has only increased his popularity with the general public. Los Angeles’s Roberts Projects, Galerie Templon of Paris and Brussels, and New York’s Sean Kelly gallery all brought their freshest canvases by Wiley, all dated 2018, although Kelly claims to have the first work completed by the artist after he polished off Obama’s portrait. It’s a wonder the paint was even dry on those babies!
Trendiness need not be a symptom of the status quo, though. Portraiture of black subjects dominates a lot of the booths, and graciously so, given the lackluster legacy of white America rearing its ugly head over the past year. I was even borderline surprised to see a Jeff Koons front and center at one booth, the name of which I’ve forgotten because I don’t stop for Koons. But Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman gallery has a healthy smattering of work wrapping their walls, including older works by Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Derrick Adams, and Deana Lawson’s always-powerful photographs of black lived experience. Meanwhile, Mariane Ibrahim Gallery of Seattle is a show-stopper with its ornate black and gold booth installation highlighting beautifully intricate paintings of black women by artist Lina Iris Viktor.
Armory isn’t known for being overly political. Instead, it aims for the pleasantly palatable, which makes Tabita Rezaire’s work at Goodman Gallery’s Focus section a standout among the booths. Rezaire’s digital photo collages of herself as the archetypal maiden, meditative dance video, and pink ob-gyn chair complete with stirrups offer a timeless vision of the divine feminine. And by timeless I don’t mean classic, but literally without a fixed time. Rezaire’s aesthetic, with its Lisa Frank color palette and overlaid meme-like text, positions her squarely in the millennial age bracket. But she merges it with ancient folklore, holistic healing practices, and ancestor worship, along with a healthy dose of historical critique. This is best evidenced in her Armory installation by the pink chair, in which visitors are allowed to sit while listening to a soothing voice emanating from the video that coos “honor your womb with dance” and “I birth through by seat of creation” while the artist twerks on screen. It’s a nod to Western medical practices that are the result of experimentation on female slaves, but offering a path for healing and a resounding call for a more female future.
Also refreshingly political is OSL Contemporary’s presentation of Vanessa Baird. The Oslo-based gallery has papered its booth from floor to ceiling with long scrolls of the Norwegian artist’s darkly comical, cartoon-like drawings that incorporate pop culture figures ranging from Snow White and Spongebob to Melania and Barron Trump. From afar these works look like bombastic, decorative wallpaper with which to spruce up your penthouse. Up close they are awash in drawn fecal matter with many a character depicted mid-penetration by someone or something. It’s a Freudian id-inspired nightmare revealing a complacent, media-saturated, consumer-driven culture that may have royally fucked us.
One thing that would have made the Armory Show better in my opinion? An actual Dippin’ Dots cart. Maybe next year.
The 2018 Armory Show continues at Pier 92 and Pier 94 (711 Twelfth Avenue at 55th Street, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan) through March 11.
See Hyperallergic’s Concise Guide to Armory Week 2018 here.