Frozen at Frieze

    Detail from "Resonance 104.4FM"  by Bob & Roberta Smith

Every autumn the art world elite gather in their black on black uniforms to attend Frieze, London’s preeminent contemporary art fair. On a beautiful sunny September morn, I couldn’t bring myself to comply with the dress code. My gray sweater over black slacks was unacceptably gauche as I stared befuddled once again from the outside looking in at the finest current art that local and international dealers can muster. Not a single invitation to a private viewing, no press entourage to catch every profound breath, not even a free snack. Off I trudged with the rest of Saturday’s public minions to evaluate the state of the contemporary fine art industry.

First, the caveat. I love contemporary art. I'm inspired by unique approaches and idolize those who can combine creativity with uncanny talent. It still takes plenty to shock me, but I do insist upon integrity of intent and verifiable quality.

What? No paint?

Immediately apparent at Frieze and similar international art fairs is the blatant attempt to avoid paintings. In one particular expanse of a dozen or so galleries, the only brushwork I saw was a gallery employee spot-touching a patch on the wall after hanging a replacement menagerie of plastic and duct tape a tad lower than the original that must have sold the day before. Beautiful job with the white on white.

There’s plenty of mixed media work, especially that which incorporates photography, found objects and those ever-popular fabricated adornments better known to we the uninitiated as wall bling. Cut-outs and collage effects remain the rage in 2008, very handy for those who have learned how to snip pictures from glossy fashion magazines in fine art school but still haven’t mastered the crafts of drawing or painting. It seems that every artist wants to join the installation-happening-sculpture world of three dimensional physicality, often retrofitting a third dimension to works conceived for only two. Standup photos on cardboard carcasses straight from off-Broadway theater stages popped up like fair space dividers. Or were they? One artist wrapped a huge image transfer onto a piece of what appeared to be an airplane fuselage for no apparent reason other than to occupy floor space rather than wall space.

From the "scratch-your-head, please explain to the simpleton" file comes a simple question:  Was Pratchaya Phingthong’s perfectly viewable, finely-framed oil painting resting on the floor atop some loose bubble wrap positioned so that it could be categorized as an installation rather than “only” a painting? Or did Frieze just play cheap with the hooks?


Is art environmentally safe for household display?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the first wave of installation-type sculpture utilized materials that seemed somewhat tactile and organic such as leather, wood, rope and fabrics. Then came chains and metal followed by concrete, bricks and the nineties grunge borrowed from the stage props of Rent.

Today,  plastic and rubber are king, not to mention foam, spray insulation, industrial-grade everything, poly-this or uro-that.

So much for the “green” generation of new artists. With their penchant for non-biodegradables, don’t some of them seem a tad hypocritical? They lambaste industrialism, frown on capitalism, join hand-in-hand to disrupt movement around toxic sites and stall development whenever they hear about a reason to unite . . . but their donated works for  Save-the-Planet auctions are filled with enough toxins to contaminate our water supplies and disposal sites for the next fifty years. (Unpaid public service announcement from an occasionally devout tree hugger.)

Sterling Ruby's "The Bride" made from PVC pipe, expanding foam, urethane and wood.

(Note to self: Dump Winsor and Newton stock and buy shares in any DIY home improvement outlets operating near London’s east end art colony or within a few block radius of Goldsmith’s Faculty of Art.)


When are Human Genitals not Human Genitals?

frieze04Bjarne Melgaard's "God"

Freedom of sexual expression or twisted obsession?

I’ve been attending or participating in international art fairs on three continents since the late eighties. Whenever I see something that may cross the line of questionable taste, I stifle my premature disdain by imagining the shock of viewing Modigliani’s nudes for the first time in his Berthe Weill exposition in the early 20th century, or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, or even the comparatively loose and bold brushwork of Titian compared to his peers in the 15th century. We all need a little time to adjust, but we eventually accept talent.

I understand that ugly is the new beautiful, etcetera, etcetera, and that the human form is a wonder to behold as a piece of art in itself when treated with a modicum of respect and thought. Hell, I use plenty in my own work, but why do so many artists (at least two dozen at Frieze 2008) choose to depict dozens of floppy penises and call them "God," or degrade nude women by positioning them spread-eagled like plucked fowl?  Maybe I'm getting prudish with age, or perhaps I'm just being a father, but how does one possibly explain the frustrations of artists to a four-year-old when a bouquet of distorted weenies staring back at him at eye level will always be just a bunch of weenies? Or should we squeamish parents learn to master the Tate Museum's subtle side-step maneuver usually reserved to detour the Queen?

(Happy footnote – My son adored the Haim Steinbach toy tractors and the Flanagan rabbits, although the latter now seemed rather blasé in the overall context of Frieze 2008 and similar fairs.)

Haim Steinbach's "Tonkong Rubbermaid I"
Flash Quiz: Frieze Art Fair or Toys R Us?


To Video or not to Video

I was relieved to see that new-media video presentations didn’t dominate the exposition as I feared they might. Nothing against the genre. Video work can be outstanding, but I think it’s a stretch to call it visual fine art. Performance art maybe?  Cinematography perhaps, or why not just plain ol' Film Art like it is? I don't see how the same criteria can be utilized for qualifying video and oil painting, conversely nor do I buy the notion that motionless art is stagnant or irrelevant in contemporary circles. Perhaps that’s just my preconceptions rearing their ugly heads again. Strong video presentations can augment any exhibition, I for one hope they don't smother the other visual arts in the process.

Who’s leading who here?

It is no surprise that museums and institutions continue to be major buyers at Frieze and other art fairs on the international contemporary circuit. They’re the only venues that can house most of these room-enveloping monstrosities. All well and good, the participants are no dummies. It’s the massive eye-catching, mind-boggling sensationalist works that always catch the headlines (with only a subtle reference to the annual Turner Prize shortlist.)

I think there’s a deeper issue here, that of the gallery/curator liasons who begin to mould the careers of young new artists often before they’ve graduated art school, let alone deserving of museum placement. Rather than build followings through a series of expositions as the artists mature and grow, dealers cater directly to the museums and auction houses which have taken over as the quickest route to fame and fortune. 

Museums now act as art speculators rather than showcases for nothing less than the best of the best. That I suppose was inevitable since boards and their budgets are just like collectors and need to maximize investments by buying as soon and as cheaply as possible. But have they not tilted the playing field by anointing young artists with their stamps of approval long before they are earned, in essence making an artist museum-worthy based on a purchase rather than a quality career?

Digital Incognito

I spoke to a few gallerists who steadfastly claim that they welcome digital art with open arms as long as it meets their gallery’s guidelines for quality and mission. Certainly there is plenty of it, some of it is extraordinary. But there are still many artists who call their computer work anything but digital, e.g. photo transfers, mixed media, pigmented ink on xx substrate, screen print, collage, etc., etc. All are valid artistic forms and usually legitimate descriptions of the respective works, but clearly many were at least partially printed directly from a computer as evidenced by obvious pixelization, colour fringing, resolution & dot gain issues, contrast flares, etc. Seems the acceptance level for digital must still not be there, otherwise the artists would tell the whole story rather than invent safer, more acceptable names.

Other Tidbits

1. Paulina Olowska’s sprawling, politically-charged monotone work of post-Soviet Poland bears a striking compositional, thematic and tonal relationship to Picasso’s Guernica. Honest.

2. A B&W photo of a tree with it’s trunk painted red most certainly has it’s roots with the Fauves. Copy-cat art, who would have thought in 2008? Same for an otherwise ugly close-up portrait sporting a lovely red streak down the nose in a blatant take off of Matisse. Been there, done that . . .100 years ago! C’mon gang, either respect and acknowledge your heritage or make a legitimate attempt to move forward.

3. In the first half of the 20th century Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso worked hard to simplify their works to the least number of elements possible, perhaps in an attempt to explore the uncluttered compositions, purity of line and uncompromised ideas commonly found in youngsters before they are tainted by the realties of a confusing planet. These days, many artists also revert to their childhoods in terms of technical quality and mission. Let the lightning strike, but there are some pretty thin mandates masquerading as fine art these days. I don’t blame this solely on the artists. Should we not be raising the dialogue rather than digressing to the lowest common denominator? Should we be allowing for-profit gallerists and their museum director buddies to be the exclusive purveyors of comparative worth? Some of this stuff is pure shit and I'm not afraid to say it.

4. At least none of the works viewed this year uses a penis for a nose like the Chapman brothers at a previous Frieze. Speaking of whom, even Jake and Dinos make frequent references to Picasso. Most obvious is the master's portraiture of his lover in “The Dream” complete with a facial appendage of its own, but also the Chapman's family woodcuts with mask-like faces that are said to be a play on the theme of collecting artifactabilia and absorbing these roots from other cultures ala Picasso & Matisse. Okay then.

But the McDonald’s chips container being held by the wooden masked gnome?  So seventies gents. Jake and Dinos sat autographing their books at White Cube as if they actually matter. The line-up waiting for their signatures tells me they do.

5. Speaking of the golden arch, what is this preoccupation with McDonald’s and other symbols of shoddy quality and nasty American capitalism?  The Big M was all over the place. Can anyone tell me that most developed nations haven’t been as materialistic, capitalistic and imperialistic at various times over their past few hundred years?  The overly-leveraged, foolishly-risky practices that led to financial meltdown is happening only in the United States? I think not. (Yes Europe, I'm looking at you.) These themes are repeated over and over and over again in fine art, most commonly I suspect from naïve and still impressionable recent art-school grads. Enough already with the cliché rage. The arguments are tired if not downright silly. Even the venerable White Cube is guilty for displaying another mundane Tracey Emin knitted flag with early seventyish anti-war slogans. Why waste twelve linear feet of outrageously expensive Frieze exhibition space to flaunt one’s political angst when two paragraphs in a free letter to your favorite local editor would seem to be more effective? Or better still, send your cheque for $2300 to the election campaign of choice. No wait, strike that last one. With all the recent massive budget cuts to arts programs worldwide, I wouldn't support ANY politician.


And the winner is?

All was not lost, in fact I thought there were many excellent and inspiring works on display at Frieze 2008. The event itself was once again first class, especially when factoring the ominous shadow of doom that hangs over the industry due to the economic meltdown (Read: hedge fund operators without money to burn on dodgy alternative investments like fine art.)  

The usual charlatans still exist, but after seeing Duchamp’s toilet prominently displayed at the Tate Modern last summer, surely by now we’re all sufficiently pre-conditioned to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in a worthwhile show.


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