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About halfway through my tour of Armory Show 2019, I encountered the gigantesque and hollowed-out sculpture “Plastic Bags” (2019) by Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou. Nearby, an overeager gallery attendant explained to a small crowd of glittering culturati how this work speaks to the pollution seen in developing countries. With the exactitude of the artist’s Wikipedia page, she informed her high-net-worth listeners that Tayou wants to “redefine postcolonial culture and raise questions about globalization and modernity” with his work. It also looks really cool from the inside. Cut to the next scene: a woman shoves her french bulldog underneath the sculpture for the perfect Instagram photo as another woman in leopard print edges into the frame.
Let’s get one thing straight: art fairs are hellacious places to appreciate art. Here, contemporary culture rends artists of their political pretense and unmasks itself as a collection of shiny baubles for the rich, whom galleries pad with puffery and champagne. White carpeting, white walls, white artists, white gallerists, and white collectors: the homogeneity of these annual events is stifling when considering the great artistic potential of amassing hundreds of artworks under one roof. But for the many galleries that depend on art fairs for exposure and sales, fighting against these prevailing market forces is like spitting into the wind: it’s going to hit you smack in the face.
Those criticisms only partially apply to this year’s Armory Show, which feels like an earnest attempt to nudge the market toward diversity. Despite getting off to a rocky start, the fair’s 25th edition hosts an observable uptick in artworks by women and people of color when compared to past years.
Artist Stephanie Syjuco was an easy favorite of the press preview and VIP crowd. Ryan Lee gallery is showing a carefully curated selection of her probing photographs, which riff upon clashing concepts of America and current events. The San Francisco-based Filipino artist specializes in finding the artifice of everyday life and then making that the focus of her work. In her images, couples face their back to the camera, cloaked in green screen outfits. She creates applicant photos with migrants who shroud their faces in cloth. The checkered Photoshop pattern appears on a blanket that’s draped across a figure’s entire body; it’s like a request for anonymity or deletion. My favorite of all is Syjuco’s “Color Checker (Pileup)” (2019), which features a still-life of patriotic paraphernalia in the background and a rainbow ColorChecker card thrust into the foreground by the artist’s hand. At a moment when the politics of white nationalism threatens to engulf America, it’s hard not to see the colorful checker card as a reminder of our nation’s diversity. What other colors are hiding behind red, white, and blue?
Another impressive exhibition of political commentary was Federico Solmi’s orgiastic nightmare video-painting hybrids, on view at Ronald Feldman Gallery’s booth in Pier 94. The Brooklyn-based artist twists reverence for the Founding Fathers into a carnival masque of unwieldy ghouls. There is a childlike essence to the work, which collapses American iconography with a Nickelodeon palette of neon pinks and booger greens. Even his frames burst forth with cartoonish (but pertinent) juxtapositions: skyscrapers and rollercoaster tracks, Mount Rushmore and King Kong, Las Vegas and Washington DC. In one work by Solmi, “The Grand Masquerade” (2018), we see battalions of Native Americans and colonists fighting inside a football stadium.
Grander trends within this year’s Armory Show are likely obvious to anyone who’s hoofed around galleries in the past few years. Surrealism is back with a vengeance, alongside figuration. Erik Thor Sandberg (on view at the Connersmith gallery’s booth in Pier 90) works in a conceptual mode and color palette similar to René Magritte, but ups the existential ante — if you can believe it. For example, one of his works, called “Blossom II” (2017) features a subject peeling back layers of their own personhood, reflecting a variety of different personae from different ages, genders, and races. This type of work definitely indulges in the cliché and bathos of the genre — clocks shorn of its numbers, vacant stares mixed with expressions of abject terror — but it still holds one attention better than the many lackluster conceptual-based works on display.
There’s also indication that experimental film is slowly creeping its way into the art market’s arms. There were more than a handful of galleries that displayed compelling video work. The best was undoubtedly the small exhibition of José Val del Omar at Galería Max Estrella in Pier 90. The Spanish abstractionist may have died in 1982, but his dreamlike films remain captivating. Filled with amorphous blobs and biological forms, the Grenada-born artist’s work is an examination of film as a painterly medium. Included in the gallery’s show are Del Omar’s improvised projection equipment, which combine light gels and warped plastic lenses for a spooky effect.
Speaking at a press conference ahead of the Armory Show’s opening, executive director Nicole Berry said that she hoped this year’s edition would be a “reflection on the enduring promise of New York’s cultural and commercial scenes.” Emphasis on diversity throughout the fair’s curatorial programs is an important indicator of the Armory Show’s progress, but it remains to be seen whether or not the market will embrace this better vision of itself.
The 2019 Armory Show continues through March 10 at Piers 90, 92, and 94 near Midtown, Manhattan.