This year’s Volta NY spoke many different dialects, but most of them seemed to stem from the same language. Although there were a total of 95 galleries exhibiting, with works ranging from the very minimal to the very ornate, a large chunk of the art on view was either obliquely or transparently narrative. Lord knows I love a good allegory, but fairs, as is their nature, tend be distracting, brain-numbing events; with so many stories competing for attention, it was hard to know who to listen to.
Mark Jenkins’s sculptures at Now Contemporary’s booth were particularly theatrical. Jenkins transformed the space with figures strikingly similar to humans in build and body language but all covered in synthetic fur, like a subspecies of Bigfoot. None of the “people” had faces you could see. One was missing both arms, which rested on the floor beside him. A girl with long blonde hair seemed to weep in the arms of a man with an enlarged teddy-bear head. In another corner, more stuffed animal heads were stacked into a totem pole, which appeared to be giving birth to beanie babies. The work felt morbid, almost macabre; it was easy to find yourself in it, not just because of the human similitude but also the youthful materiality. “These are fantastic,” one viewer remarked, and I had to wonder which sense of the word he meant. The installation was like a well-crafted bad dream, filled with all of your favorite childhood objects. (I highly suggest checking out Jenkins’s site-specific city sculptures.)
Throughout the fair, garden-variety materials like this were being used in abnormal ways, to varying degrees of success and failure. I still can’t decide which side of this spectrum Greg Haberny’s mixed-media installation falls on. The work covered the walls of the Lyons Weir Gallery booth in canvases of Disney logos, flags, and a lot of cigarette butts. Everything was gritty, layered, and peeling. It was as if someone had taken a whole lot of Williamsburg street art, put gilded frames around it, and sent it to market. Porch lights hung above the booth, giving the space a twisted, convivial air. I wrote in my notes: All that glitters isn’t gold.
Another set-design-like booth was that of Jarmuscheck + Partner, exhibiting artist Marc Fromm. Fromm is known for his sculptures that seem to defy gravity, in which wooden likenesses of the art historical icons float above the ground. His sculpture of Mäda Primavesi, drawn from Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her, was almost spectral from a distance, with her delicately painted body hovering over a bearskin rug. Up close, she takes on a more domestic, almost familial aura. A small stain on her left heel could be a birthmark. Even more arresting was “Hallenserin,” Fromm’s two-dimensional wood relief of a pretty teenage girl with facial piercings. She looks over her shoulder at the viewer, the frankness of her stare competing with the blush of her cheek.
With their pomp and pageantry, however, large installations like these quickly get old at fairs, giving more nuanced, quieter works a chance to come through. Amy Bennett, an artist whose work I’ve enjoyed for years, was showing with Richard Heller Gallery and did not disappoint. Her small-to-tiny paintings of human interactions, like snapshots or film stills, capture an idling kind of drama: a bird’s-eye view of a restaurant where a man is collapsed on a table, a handful of people sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. It’s as if something is just about, or has just, happened. The effect of the paintings is not so much visual — though they are wonderful to look at it — but emotional. Little realities are rendered without enough information to make them complete, rendering them private, vulnerable, and intensely lonely.
Most of the narratives running through Volta were commentaries on what constitutes reality. Allusions to dreams or memory, objects and materials parodying themselves, augmented physics as well as a lot of surreal and hyperrealist paintings lurked around every corner.
Kris Knight’s deliciously campy paintings depicting lonely-looking young men are both erotic and haunting, questioning the way see ourselves and each other. Maria Torp’s oil paintings capture, with sheer skill, the corporeal quality not just of her subjects (mostly women) but also their clothes, spaghetti dinners, varicose veins, tabletops, and more.
Overall, the paintings scattered throughout Volta really stole the show — er, fair. Such an abundance of powerful, two-dimensional work was refreshing and let me catch my breath in between the showier installations. Although narratives aren’t for everyone, they often allow the viewer to connect with a work in a more immediate way than abstraction. And in this case, they also prevented my brain from falling into the usual fair-induced, numbing black hole.
Volta NY took place March 7–10 at 82 Mercer Street (Soho, Manhattan).