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Escape 2 New York (Chronicle in 3 acts and 1 epilogue)




Art fairs have turned into sophisticated urban entertainment centres, and that's the reason why they are competing or even outdoing biennials as cultural events. I enjoy visiting art fairs as for a curator it's the perfect place for networking, even better than a biennial, where networking is by definition horizontal among those at the top and never down-up.

With so many biennials and art fairs we hardly have time for studio visits! And we shouldn't forget that that's where everything starts. I took time off to do some studio visits with Monika Bravo, Vargas Suárez-Universal, Pedro Barbeito, and Nicola Verlato. I even went to Newark to see a group show with works among others by Regine Schumann, Tim White-Sobieski and [dNASAb]. According to the gallery's press release their 30,000 square foot space makes them the biggest private gallery in the United States. I'm talking about Rupert Ravens Contemporary.

But, as I have been asked to write about the art fairs, I will stop my elliptic writing. Now, I do visit many art fairs, but going to New York for the sake of the Armory was never on my mind, so I had no big expectations.



Vargas Suárez-Universal working on State Vectors. Courtesy of the artist.

ACT 1: Small isn't beautiful…

One of my favorite books is Small is Beautiful by Austrian economist E.F. Schumacher. He basically says that people can only truly be people when in sufficiently small groups. What then would be an adequate size for an art fair? Or rather, what would be the maximum, desirable limit of participating galleries for a fair?

With the economy slowing down and the art market too, I would like to believe that art fairs will reframe themselves towards smaller platforms with a more focused and "curated" artistic proposal, better and less speculative quality, and challenging booth presentations. I think this is a more than reasonable argument, nevertheless Merchandise Mart prefers to idolize "greatness" and the motto the bigger the better. As the reader may know, Merchandise Mart -which is owned by Vornado Realty, who in turn is owned by the Kennedys, started collecting art fairs recently, buying Art Chicago in 2006, The Armory Show and the VOLTAshow in 2007, and The Toronto International Art Fair (TIAF) in 2008. Art Chicago and NEXT increased the number of participating galleries in 2008 and the result was poor, and now The Armory Show too had many more galleries participating this year. The result was dull, as were most of the art works on display (referencing undoubtedly the less bright economy and more conservative tastes) the presentation was so-so, the alleys small, the carpet irregular, and the opening lacked the glamour of Art Basel Miami Beach or FRIEZE. So, I rather share my opinion of the parallel art fairs where I have to admit I feel more at ease and less overwhelmed than when there is such a big offer of art that requires such a high level of concentration that I'm not able to attain.


ACT 2: (un)clear positioning

Heath and Potter demonstrate in The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't Be Jammed that the true nature of consumerist society is not conformism but rebelliousness and the need to differentiate. Marketing experts Al Ries and Jack Trout invented back in 1972 the crystal-clear term "positioning".

Now, I have to admit once more, that I like to read the press releases sent out by art fairs as I hope they help me as a potential visitor to understand their positioning and encourage my visit. So, following are some examples to prove my point taken from the press releases sent out via e-flux by PULSE and SCOPE: "Following PULSE's largest show to date in Miami 2008, described by critics as the City's new 'second' fair after Art Basel Miami Beach, PULSE New York returns to Pier 40 in Greenwich Village […] PULSE bridges the gap between main and alternative fairs, and focuses on showcasing new works." (February 24, 2009); "Building on SCOPE Miami's overwhelming success, SCOPE launches the 2009 season in New York for the eighth year with its flagship invitational fair, March 4-8. SCOPE New York 09, proudly returns to Manhattan's […] SCOPE Art Fair has evolved from an industry niche to an influential global contributor, with ongoing events, educational programs… " (February 26, 2009). So, according to PULSE they are the main "second fair" in Miami and in New York "they bridge the gap between main" -The Armory Show- "and alternative fairs" -SCOPE, VOLTA NY, and Bridge. Besides their supposed success, is there a big difference between let's say PULSE and SCOPE? Apart from a better presentation and higher overall quality among the participating galleries at PULSE, there isn't a clear artistic positioning. SCOPE behaves more like a funky big family, with works available for the small collector, set ups and presentations that are not too complicated, and sometimes claustrophobic; some usual galleries from SCOPE walked over to PULSE: Galerie Römerapotheke, Magnan Projects, Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts, Pierre-Francois Ouellette, Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, Curator´s Office, Praxis International Art… and some who stayed faithful to SCOPE are thinking about a possible reallocation.

Even if there is no such differential artistic status as galleries go back and forth, some of the proposals that stood out in my opinion at PULSE were Mexican Galería EDS with conceptual work by Emilio Chapela; the latest video "Lighthouse" by Mariana Vassileva à la manière de Caspar David Friedrich at DNA gallery from Berlin; another interesting and also tremendously pictorial 3 video channel installation by Canadians Nicholas and Sheila Pye at Washington D.C.'s Curator´s Office; conceptually pictorial photographs from young French Laurence Aegerter at 2x2projects from Amsterdam; the ongoing and still challenging portrait series by Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens at artspace Witzenhausen from New York/Amsterdam; Galerie Roemerapotheke from Basel with equivocal fictions by young German Jana Gunstheimer; and, the daring cinema installation -"Miamuh Swamp Adventure"- by Clifton Childree courtesy of Galerie Ernst Hilger. At SCOPE I would highlight the multi-layered ovoid grids by New York based Pedro Barbeito at Charest-Weinberg Gallery from Miami; the exuberant pictorial installation by Indian artist Manil Gupta at Agró/Glickman STEP (1)/A> from New York; the fine ballpoint drawings by Spanish artists Francisco Casas at Galería Fernando Pradilla from Madrid; the paradoxical self-paintings by Richard Stipl at Toronto's Christopher Cutts; and the minimalist staged and political new photographs from the series HELMETS by Milagros de la Torre at Y Gallery from Queens.



Clifton Childree, Miamuh Swamp Adventure installation. Courtesy of Galerie Ernst Hilger

ACT 3: A focused art fair

"Not only is there no leading style" Peter Schjeldahl complained in 2006 in The New Yorker, "there is no noticeable friction between one style and another. These impressions might fade if you focused on any particular work, but fairs destroy focus." Of course art fairs are not contexts capable of generating significance, but I do prefer focused art fairs, and that's why I like VOLTA NY.

"VOLTA NY -says its press release- was conceived as a tightly-focused, boutique affair that would be a place for discovery and concentrate on current and topical art production."

VOLTA NY offered the possibility of engaging with the work in a more profound way by means of solo presentations that allowed the visitor to have a broader sense of the artist´ work, and in most cases the project/installation was carefully presented so that the focus was really on the artist. Personally, I hope more art fairs concentrate in the future on this kind of presentation as the usual and excessive accumulation of works and artists per booth, common to the traditional art fair, makes a thoughtful comprehension of the exhibited work very complicated, and the whole situation only gets worse by the fact that there is too much to see in general. More and more art fairs are resorting to curators, so the "curated art fair", that will help to enable or facilitate a positioning via projects that are specifically created for the art fair, is only a step away.

Curated by Amanda Coulson and Christian Viveros-Fauné under the title "Age of Anxiety", VOLTA NY was pretty good, although a smaller amount of galleries (now almost 80) would have boosted the overall quality. My favorite artists were British-Chinese Gordon Cheung at 1/9 Unosunove/Galerie Adler with his retro-futuristic paintings on stock listings of the Financial Times, Regina Galindo from Guatemala with her intense performance focused political actions and videos at Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani from Milan, Spanish artist Eugenio Merino at Galería ADN from Barcelona with his strong political installation with hyperrealist acid sculptures of Bush and Dalai Lama, Peruvian artist Sandra Gamarra with a beautiful card house installation consisting of small paintings at Galeria Leme from Sao Paulo, up-and-coming star Croatian Igor Eskinja with his sublime and illusionist wall installation made out of cardboard at Federico Luger Gallery from Milan, witty Marxist dialectical constructivist paintings by Russian Dmitry Gutov at Scaramouche c/o Fruit & Flower Deli from New York, the strange and illogical sculptures by Jewish artist Zvika Kantor at Dagmar de Pooter Gallery from Antwerp, the fascinating and sometimes ironical drawings referring to other contemporary artists by young Polish Mariusz Tarkawian at Program Gallery from Warsaw, and finally, Japanese artist Kaoru Katayama with her emotive and intelligent cross-cultural videos at Galería T20 from Murcia, Spain.



Eugenio Merino, First Blood, installation. Courtesy of Galería ADN

EPILOGUE: A new breed of collectors

Many people agree that the economical situation is going to bring normality back and move the art world away from speculation. The collector has had a central position in recent years. He represents a microcosm of society, and although motivations may be very different, "social capital" -to use Pierre Bourdieu's concept, or social acknowledge if you like, is at the very base of it. Now, there is a big difference between countries with state funded museums and institutions and the U.S., for example, where collectors in their capacity of trustee have a power that's hard to imagine in Europe.

Foolishly enough I was willing to think that the common [American] "collector as prescriptor", that is, he/she who imposes his artists and his/her artistic desires onto the curatorial staff of a museum, would herald their retreat towards the original figure of the "collector as patron".

The opposite is true, and to illustrate I might as well refer to the following, to me strange but for gallery owners very routine, anecdote: the top New York Y collector (I want neither to embarrass him nor publicize him) enters the booth of Gallery Z talking on his I-phone and accompanied by two art advisors. The dealer knows the collector and wants to say hello without being pushy and awaits the right moment; he asks me if I know who the collector is, and after shaking my head no he tells me his name; in the meantime the collector keeps talking on the phone, walks out of the booth, the art advisors behind him, without saying hello nor looking at any of the exhibited art works, and disappears in the distance without ever coming back. For me the first rule of collecting is buying only what you like. The problem now is that too many collectors are "interpassive": they buy with their ears not with their eyes. And as the art world is fed by money of the new and not so new rich, this kind of irrespective and unknowledgeable behavior is not likely to change among many art collectors. Maybe the time has arrived for a new breed of more passionate and less calculating collectors!



By Paco Barragán

Author of "The Art Fair Age/La era de las ferias" CHARTA, Milan
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