Yesterday, Frieze Week really showed what it was capable of, and I don’t mean in terms of parties and air kisses (though there were plenty of both). I finally saw some art which made me think, which made me pause, which was the genuine New – which had been missing all week.
The new New
As mentioned yesterday, I do have to declare a minor interest in the Sluice art fair, being held in the Bargehouse behind Oxo Tower on the South Bank – I’ve co-curated a small show outside of the main galleries.
But even so, Sluice has been far and away the most impressive, most dynamic art fair I’ve seen all week, and I hope I’d think this had I just walked in off the street rather than spent a morning hanging tote bags from the wall.
The galleries – global commercial spaces from all around the UK, with a new international comers and some non-profit spaces – are none you’re likely to have heard of because they don’t represent brand-name artists churning out recognisable product for a slavish, unimaginative market, rather the next generation struggling to establish careers and identities.
There was a lot to thrill. SEASON from Seattle had outsider artist Andy Heck Boyd’s brutalised, adulterated comic-book pages, with dialogue tippexed out and replaced with Godot-like exclamations, or faces scrawled out. Rae Hicks at Slate Projects paints seemingly simple scenarios with terrific acuity and conceptual verve, like the window below, whereby he can explore how we understand the space we live in and the banal shapes that occupy it too.
Victoria Lucas at BLOC layered photos she’d taken in the Alabama Hills of California, subtly tinting them to incorporate the fiery colours of an LA sunset (pictured top). Her landscapes exist between reality and fiction, a charge often levelled at LA itself.
There were more performative pieces too. Royal Standard, a non-profit space with artists’ studios in Liverpool, had brought along bottles of iced coffee with labels designed by some of their artists. You paid a fiver, spun a wheel and whichever face it landed on, that artist’s bottle you got. Before you spun, however, you had to sign an agreement saying you weren’t in fact buying coffee and wouldn’t drink it but, to get around various restrictions, it was an art-object. It gave the whole process an amusingly sneaky feel.
Upstairs the Danish collective QWERTY took you on a journey to your afterlife. You walked into various rooms they had demarcated on the cold concrete floor and decided on different aspects of your dispatch: burial or cremation? an unusually shaped urn? how about a coffin fitted to your sleeping posture (in my case, splayed)? I even had one lady sing a Danish funeral melody to me. (I joined in – it seemed like good form.)
This might sound not much like art but I’d disagree: think of all the vases of fading flowers in Dutch painting, the tomb in Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego, all the funerary monuments of the world. Death is one of art’s proper subjects, and anything creative that makes us think about death – even something as simultaneously unsettling and amusing as QWERTY – is fit.
Lee Ufan is one of my favourite artists. In the late Seventies and Eighties, he developed modes of painting which involved loading a brush with paint and drawing strokes until the paint had run out, then starting again – always starting again. In his work fatalism and optimism meet and mingle, a combination I find inspiring, thrilling even. He uses his canvases to explore the infinite.
It was, then, a big thrill to meet him, albeit briefly, as he signed my catalogue at Pace in Burlington Gardens last night. (Life at Pace after death at Sluice?) The Pace show is tight – sixteen paintings from just over a decade – and highlights four of his important series. It’s the perfect summary of a remarkably thoughtful and creative figure.
Art time art
I must declare another interest. (All of a sudden I’m very interesting – or at least interested.) When I hang up my Spear’s hat at night, I put on my Tatler hat – I’m their art critic – and last night was the opening of Multiplied, the fair of prints and editions at Christie’s South Kensington which Tatler are sponsoring.
Again, Multiplied is another fair I’ve liked for years and would endorse even were I not parti pris. Its strength is that in a world where original, unique works of art are becoming unaffordable to most (even graduate shows start at thousands), prints and editions are a way for everyone else to enjoy genuine artistic creativity at a reasonable price. Prints and editions aren’t simply photographs of great work – they’re a medium in their own right.
Serious institutions were showing; prints are a good source of income for them. The Royal Academy had prints by Eileen Cooper and Grayson Perry, the joint Nottingham Contemporary/Liverpool Biennial stand prints by Carlos Cruz Diez and Glenn Ligon. For £500 or so, you can own works by important artists.
I enjoyed Emma Stibbon’s Nunatak (Rabley Contemporary), which showed a mountain rising out of a cloud, but instead of fluffy nonsense, the cloud was an undecorated streak of the page, a compelling blank. Jessie Brennan’s collapsing building (above) and Benjamin Bridges’ photorealist absurd still life (below) at dalla Rosa were also compelling.
And there were trays of rainbow marshmallows being ferried about! Who could ask for more from an art fair?
This is my last Frieze Week diary because if I go out one more night, peruse one more art fair or even darken the threshold of one more gallery, I may suffer some perversion of Stendhal syndrome and be unable to ever look at a painting again.
Do I have any conclusions from this frantic week? Some, perhaps.
1) Fairs are becoming less thrilling than ever. This is largely because safe art sells (I’d estimate 80 per cent of work this week was paintings, most of the rest sculptures, with very little performance or video or even photography) and it’s expensive to exhibit at fairs.
2) There is no abatement in appetite for art and art-events: from the crush at Dominique Lévy’s Richter show to the private view of Frieze where they had to shut people out, tickets are as golden as ever.
3) If the pillars of Frieze Week – fairs, auctions and otherwise – don’t start to offer what is genuinely New, they risk cultural irrelevance, indeed are in danger of becoming kitsch. And given how revolutionary Frieze was in its first few outings, that would be a real pity.
4) I was in bed by ten three nights out of four, which shows you can do Frieze Week and still get your beauty sleep.