Detail of Ruben Nieto, "A-a-a-Are You Just Going To Stand There?"

Detail of Ruben Nieto, “A-a-a-Are You Just Going To Stand There?” (click to enlarge) (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

The Affordable Art Fair’s press preview and opening party on Wednesday was a clusterfuck par none. You’d think there were hundreds of eager collectors chomping at the bit to enter a race to obtain star works early, before the riffraff arrived to pick through the rejections. But this is not Art Basel. The Affordable Art Fair is always a mix of the good, the bad, and the lovely, but competitive shopping it is not.

This year proved no exception, with its predictable mix of big names and upstarts arranged in a manner so fortuitous, so cah-rayzee random that one could find a ridiculously cutesy paper dress like the darling confections by Mariko Ishikawa at Onishi Project’s booth and then turn around to see a well-composed postmodern piece like this one by Decorazon’s Ruben Nieto.

Left: Ruben Nieto, “A-a-a-Are You Just Going To Stand There?” (2010), oil on canvas, 72 x 48 in (image via; right: a dress by Mariko Ishikaw at Onishi Project’s booth

So it couldn’t be that the bumping and pointing, stopping and starting hoards were all there to snatch up desirable works of blue chip art — and they were certainly not there for the pink, sticky lemonade, Titos, and champagne drinks in plastic flutes with fall-offy bottoms. So, what? What could it be that made the Metropolitan Pavillion into a crawling, buzzing, boiling pit of coats and bags and press passes?

Seriously. You think I have an answer?

Yuki Sis had a great booth with jewelry by Hiroko Tsuchida. Here: Chain of Greed (2010), stainless fork, brass, silver, 8.6 x 7.1 x 2.7 in

Maybe it’s because they have a great package for attracting the masses: a website with a slide show, visitor info, photos of last year’s highlights, a blog, and events to keep the kids busy, all while upholding their promise of “A fun four-day event hosting over 80 galleries and a huge array of contemporary art.” Not two words you really expect to see together: “fun” and” contemporary art.” But hey, we are entering a brave new world where home decor, T-shirts, mass production, and old-fashioned formalism can be mixed and matched without (much) shame. So the Affordable Art Fair is bound to become increasingly popular.

When you are there, you can buy a Damien Hirst spot or two for a few thousand. These are what the retail stores like to call “items,” affordable pieces that even a mud rat like you can go home with as evidence that you shopped at a high-end store. But the cool thing about the AAF is that you can also look unabashedly for the red “Art Under $1000” tags, so instead of running to the packaging station with mere souvenir snippets from Damien Hirst’s rag bag, you can have them wrap one of Nina Jun’s swell enamel balloon wall sculptures for the kids’ room.

Nina Jun’s glazed ceramic balloons. The star is “Silence II,” 16.5 square in.

I think the AAF does well because it has a good thing going on: a balls-out eyeball pleasure party. There’s always been a fine line between home decor and fine art, between kitsch and irony. The auction houses have long been aware that wall power sells, that over and above concept and form, their buyers want branding, color, rarity, and charm. We want our Basquiats red and with crowns; we want the darling garish Picasso of a recognizable girlfriend. We want the bigger works, and we like Jeff Koons because he makes pretty stuff. Let the galleries and museums, art critics and academics keep rolling their eyes, pretending to be interested only in concepts and important ideas (or worse, pure formalism). The rest of us can shop at AAF.

Stunning work at Bayard Art, including Chris Wood’s “Tendrils,” dichotic glass and light (image via Bayard)

The Affordable Art Fair continues at the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through Sunday, April 7. You can buy tickets online.

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Cat Weaver

Independent curator, Cat Weaver is the Brooklyn-based writer and editor of The Art Machine, a blog that covers the art market in all of its gossipy glory....