At the Independent Art Fair in Tribeca, Manhattan this week, I found myself standing in front of a large painting of the ubiquitous American media personality Kim Kardashian.

Slightly impressionistic, artist Ruby Dickson’s oil painting (a diptych) appears to be based on a paparazzi photo of the famous model, captured in black leggings, silver-dyed hair, and a baseball cap that conceals her eyes. Next to it, there was another painting by Dickson evoking a dramatic scene from the TV series Sex in the City in which the main protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), tumbles and falls into a body of water during another breathtaking encounter with her then-elusive lover, Mr. Big.

Left: Ruby Dickson’s portrait of Kim Kardashian; right: another painting by the artist evoking a famous scene from Sex in the City

These works are presented by the London gallery Harlesden High Street. The booth attendant, who was friendly and professional, said something to me about how these works “critique celebrity culture” and how Dickson is observing this cultural phenomenon from the position of someone who comes from an underprivileged background. But I could see in her eyes that she was struggling to utter these words with full conviction.

Standing there, I wondered to myself: “Why am I wasting my time on these paintings?”

But then an epiphany arrived: This is it! This is what it’s all about, and what art fairs exist for — the marriage of commerce and art. And upon this insight, I gained an appreciation for Dickson’s work.

“Independent feels the coolest,” a gallery worker said.

For the uninitiated, the Independent Art Fair is where the cool kids hang out. It’s chic and slim with only 74 exhibitors, mostly small and mid-size galleries presenting the work of a single artist. It’s not your stuffy, airport-style art fair, like Frieze and the Armory Show, which can easily exceed 200 exhibitors. To be clear, the galleries here are not impoverished artist collectives; they know how to sell work and they do so. Rather, it’s a boutique art fair where the works on display bask in soft natural light beaming through the windows of Tribeca’s stylish Spring Studios.

Sky Edenfield, a gallery associate at New York’s Derek Eller Gallery, explained it best. “Independent feels the coolest,” she told me. “The vibe is young and everyone is dressed so well. Other New York art fairs can feel a little stiff.”

On the seventh floor of the building, I stumbled onto French-Haitian artist Gaëlle Choisne’s solo presentation with Air de Paris and the London gallery Nicoletti. The room was filled with paintings, hanging sculptures, and fabric pieces on the floor. Immediately, I noticed the works were dotted with paper-cut painted cigarettes. Choisne, who’s capable of better work, would’ve been wiser to avoid them.

Oswaldo Nicoletti, founder of his eponymous gallery, kindly explained to me that the work is concerned with “ecology and colonialism.” Those “burning” cigarettes, he said, are symbols of “struggle and globalism.” I suddenly felt a strong urge to light myself a real one. 

Leonard Baby, “Going Out Dress” (2023), acrylic on wood panel, 5 1/2 x 13 inches

Although the art was more bad than good at Independent, some booths deserve praise. My favorites were Edie Fake’s arresting gouache mural-like paintings with Broadway Gallery, Leonard Baby’s cinematic acrylics with Fortnight Institute, and Joseph Olisaemeka Wilson’s messy and wild paintings shown by Derek Eller Gallery.

So should you visit the Independent or avoid it? If you want to see art in the company of good-looking people, then go ahead and buy a ticket — especially if you care about colonialism and the environment.

Joseph Olisaemeka Wilson, “Wali’s Evac” (2023), oil on linen, 81 1/2 x 82 1/2 inches
The fair basked in soft natural light
Edie Fake, “Ringside at the Orchid Show”(2023), gouache on panel, 36 x 36 inches

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...