John Baldessari once explained that the art fair is no place for artists, that an artist entering an art fair is like a teenager entering his parents’ bedroom and seeing them having sex. “At fairs, gallerists are reduced to merchants – a role in which they’d rather not be seen by their artists.”(1)
Perhaps this also explains why art fairs tend to gravitate to boutique hotels, where the “merchants” book adjoining rooms and attempt to peddle their wares to a constant turnover of patrons, collectors, curators and the curious. Prowling through these rooms, one begins to understand what Baldessari meant: art as commerce does seem a bit sordid with the machinations so nakedly revealed.
I didn’t tarry long enough in any particular Capital Skyline Hotel room at DC’s (e)merge art fair to observe an actual art transaction. However, I did glance furtively at a lot of art. Some major DC players had representative rooms; Annie Gawlak, George Hemphill, Leigh Conner et al. Conner, in point of fact, helped launch this inaugural run of what is proposed as an annual art event, along with her Conner Contemporary partner, Jamie Smith, as well as Helen Allen, NYC art businessperson and a founder of PULSE International Art Fair. There were peripheral galleries – Hamiltonian, Transformer, Flashpoint, Curator’s Office, Irvine Contemporary (currently without actual gallery space) – and, surprisingly, only two NYC galleries to round out the “Gallery Platform.” The scant NYC presence may reflect a “wait and see” attitude from the Big Apple about DC’s newest art fair.
The overarching scope of such art fairs, of course, is moving product and there are differing strategies on display. Many galleries approach their hotel digs as a focus site and feature one or two artists on the limited wall space and this is definitely the best way to work in the relatively small square footage of typical single-bed hotel rooms. Strongest usage of this strategy was Conner Contemporary’s focus on one of their newest “gets,” Victoria F. Gaitán, whose imaginative trajectories through eroticism in her large-scale photography mini-show in one of two adjoining rooms managed to generate both saliva and tumescence. Another strong contender, Oliver Bragg, was well represented by Galerie E.G.P. with one entire wall devoted to his works on paper, plus an adorable tiny sculpture that exuded the proper post-post-punk attitude.
Less successful were Flashpoint and G Fine Art, whose absent-minded handling of their artists detracted from their potential impact. Lisa Dillin’s striking light-and-cut-ceiling-panel piece in the Flashpoint “suite” suffered from extraneous clutter; all the other works in the room distracted from the quiet immanence of Dillin’s work which needed a cleaner presentation. The subtle enigmas quite obviously present within Julia Oldham’s video projection in G Fine Art’s room were impossible to fathom without a contemplative ambiance; there’s just no space to plop down and spend time with such intellectually rigorous art. Furthermore, Jenn DePalma’s exquisite paper works seemed strewn atop the hotel bed as an afterthought. Quel dommage!
Without a doubt, the most interesting work at (e)merge was not even in the hotel rooms but out at the pool and down in the parking garage. The collaboration between Kathryn Cornelius and Jeffry Cudlin, or Team Cornelius and Team Cudlin, respectively, engaged in a "Triathlon of the Muses" which offered up athleticism and aestheticism in a lean conflation. Competing head-to-head in a trio of events (swimming, “biking” and “running”), the duo sweated for their art to a vigorous soundtrack that ranged from the Ramones to Gaga, all the while engaging our realization that art fairs are nothing short of a “competition.” (Cornelius won handily, by the way, although Cudlin was penalized for apparently peeing in the pool.)
In the subterranean, sweaty parking garage caution seemed thrown to the wind - here the art really started to push boundaries. Steven Jones invited visitors to straddle his trussed and coin-op turkey-trot. Food figured also in Dan Gray's "morning after" memorial that smartly melded AB-EX critique with a Rosenquist citation. Art Whino, "new kid" on the DC gallery circuit, had beefy presence with a cluster of grafitti-cum-artiste types that might actually shove the shop-worn genre of "street art" in new directions; Angry Woebots, Charlie Owens and TMNK were stand-outs. And, exuding a quiet, (Post?)Modernist energy was Fairfax-based artist, Adam Lister, in a thrilling homage to Mondrian, Sol Lewitt, optometry and Mr. Wizard that spanned across four parking spots.
And there was even Free Art: the Brooklyn duo of Sean Naftel and Chris Attenborough called "Peacock" was giving away paintings, drawings and assorted knick-knackery in the name of "value assessment." Spotting a gorgeous abstract by Brian Dupont, I latched on to it quickly while chatting with proprietor Sean about "how art is valued in the contemporary market place and how it's assessed culturally."(2)
This is the question, isn't it? If the "art world," as represented in these ubiquitous fairs, is to continue privileging commerce as the authentic factor of "worthiness" or value of the art object, then do we only notice those shiniest, slimey-ist and sexiest objects? "Is there a value in having your work distributed in the atmosphere that surrounds major art fairs like Frieze or Basel or nay of the numerous, large commercially profitable international fairs?"(3)
I don't presume to know the answer but as I'm finishing this post and preparing it for publishing, I note that (e)merge has been "re-newed" for 2012. We can only hope that it is bigger and better, for that would be productive for the Art Scene our "little neck of the woods." What remains to be seen is how this year's (e)merge fares with the Big Apple scribes and critical eyes. Was there enough pizzazz, new blood and "art stars?" Time will tell, but for now we can bask in the afterglow of cultural recognition.
(All photographs property of individual artists and obviously well-protected under copyright law; the turkey-ride shot is mine.)
1. Thornton, Sarah. Seven Days in the Art World, New York, 2008, 94.
2. From "Peacock" project statement dated 2011 and provided as hand-out at (e)merge.