I was reminded yesterday afternoon, while walking through mazes of pop-up galleries, tent-like hallways, magazine stands and oddly placed sculptures just asking to be tripped over, that the contemporary wing of the Armory Show — which runs through Sunday at Piers 92 and 94 — means different things to different people. Two elderly couples that ran into each other unexpectedly while touring the show’s preview exemplified this with their exchange: “Have you seen anything interesting to buy yet?” a member of the first couple asked, with great enthusiasm. One of the other pair replied, at first wistfully and then with excitement, “No, but we have decided that we each get to buy three things we like!”
The Armory art fair is, first and foremost, about selling artwork. Most of the artists on view and galleries present clearly reflect the reality that many of the Armory’s visitors are looking to buy. This is something I often forget, so great is the discrepancy between my income and the prices of artwork for sale. A photographer I know watched in amazement as a couple bought a Picasso drawing during Wednesday night’s vernissage.
Intellectuals, who seem to dislike the capitalist side of the Armory and perhaps the concept of art fairs in general, make up another large swath of the crowd. They can be seen and heard as they explain artworks to a friend or deride a particular artist. This group is mostly made up of critics, historians, professors and artists. Then there are the straightforward art lovers: not necessarily artists, intellectuals, or rich, these people enjoy looking at art and don’t mind the crowds the fair inevitably attracts. The Armory is like a condensed Chelsea, where all the walls and streets between galleries have been removed for optimum viewing convenience.
Because the same people tend to inhabit the March art fairs year after year, the Armory has become somewhat predictable. Like intentionally planned blockbuster shows at MoMA or the Met, the artwork is chosen for a specific purpose: to sell, and for large sums of money. Easily recognizable artists are the go-to for most galleries, who favor well-known names and styles; every year includes a gallery devoted to Damien Hirst, one too many Bill Viola videos and a couple of Nick Cave Soundsuit sculptures. Still, it’s the style of the work at the Armory that has become overwhelmingly predictable. Even as the artists shown change slightly from year to year, the look seems to stay the same: big, bright, bizarre, colorful, conceptually simple, fun and playful artwork. This is essentially the kind of art that appeals to children.
The first piece I saw upon entering the show was an oversize blue donkey by the Finnish artist Veikko Hirvimäki, titled “The King” (2012). Standing on its hind legs, looking alert and anthropomorphic, the creature seemed to embody the stereotype of “childlike” art without restraint that’s become so popular. From there I came across a drum with the neon word “ECO” written inside and a large wall mirror that appears to be covered by dripping white paint coming seamlessly off the wall. Both are installed at the booth of Baró Gallery from São Paulo, and both are visually arresting while simultaneously appearing to be meaningless.
The vibrantly green and textured floor of Milan’s Cardi Black Box covers the fun and playful end of the art spectrum, as does the rainbow-colored neon sign by British artists Tim Noble & Sue Webster that reads, “Fucking Beautiful” — as a general rule you can never have too much neon at an art fair. If I made a list of the many stylistic traits that have become predicable at the Armory, I could cross them off one by one like items on a grocery shopping list.
This year, however, a lot of the art at the Armory adheres to the trends without become a cliché. There’s more work that surprises, though not always at first glance. It’s as though artists have caught on to the predominant style but managed to tweak it ever so slightly away from what viewers, or galleries, expect.
The first piece I came across that truly surprised me was, unsurprisingly, by Marina Abramović, titled “Bed for Human Use” (2012). What seemed like yet another piece going for shock value — at at the several galleries I walked by that featured artists living in the booths — was actually a quietly thoughtful performance piece. In “Bed for Human Use,” a woman lies perfectly still on a slab of wood, a piece of crystal hanging precariously above her head. A comment on endurance and inspiration, it feels as though this meditative woman is waiting for enlightenment.
In another interesting performance not planned by the Armory, a young woman wearing a red polka-dot dress and equipped with a hardcover book and a bouquet of red carnations chose various public spots to arrange herself as either dead or sleeping. Shaking their heads and smiling as they walked past, viewers seemed interested in spite of themselves. I found a couple of other surprises in the work of Iván Navarro, whose political use of neon always seems to defy dismissal, and in Leon Golub’s large-scale installation at the Ronald Feldman booth. Full of violent images painted on hanging transparences, Golub’s piece was powerful and disturbing.
Every year at the Armory there are outcasts, galleries either foreign to or obstinate about the currently popular style of art. They tend to show small, quiet work that goes mostly ignored, and they’re usually among my favorites. This year’s highlights include a tiny piece titled “Eye Chart” (2011) by the normally large-scale sculptor and installation artist Sarah Sze, at the booth of Carolina Nitsch Gallery. On a pedestal jutting out from the wall, Sze has mounted a small piece of paper containing black pop-up letters arranged to form a three-dimensional version of that familiar eye test.
Echoing Sze’s scale are the hyperrealistic, almost photographic, paintings by the Canadian artist Mike Bayne at Mulherin Gallery’s booth. No larger than six inches tall, the paintings depict snowy buildings, gas stations and sleepy houses: all icons of modern life painted in the luminous style of Vermeer. At Blain/Southern gallery, I found a lovely, small-scale video by the British artist Mat Collishaw titled “Sordid Earth Panel” (2011). Set within an antique wooden frame, an LCD video loops footage of swaying flowers, dealing with issues of nature, unnatural decay and a postapocalyptic combination of the two. I was enamored, too, of the work of Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich at Sean Kelly Gallery. The piece “Cloud Collection” (2011) displays, diorama-like, different clouds of London, transparent and hovering within layered pieces of glass.
The Armory this year delivers on all fronts: it’s predictable in the ways it always is and it’s surprising when you don’t expect it be. But the Armory is never the place to see what’s new and experimental, what’s conceptually edgy and raw. It will leave you visually exhausted and yet hungry for something more substantial.
The Armory Show will be at Piers 92 & 94 (Twelfth Avenue at 55th Street, West Side, Manhattan) Thursday, March 8 to Saturday, March 10, noon to 8pm and Sunday, March 11, noon to 7pm.