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|letter from room 28
by Shana Nys Dambrot
New York's Gramercy Art Fair set up shop in the glamorous Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles on Dec. 4-6, 1998, bringing with it a slew of contemporary galleries from Europe and elsewhere in the U.S. Even in L.A., the fair has a certain mystique.
In the past, as many as 60 galleries had participated. The attendance was down to 32 this year, and at least one committed L.A. gallery didn't show, namely Billy Griffin. And to the dismay of fair organizer Tom Delavan, the public attendance was lower than expected. Gallerists showing in the fair felt lonely, too. Where were the collectors? Where were the curators? The writers? Where were the movie stars? At least the opening night party this year, emceed by Christine Nichols of Works on Paper, was the social event of the season for the young and conspicuously hip.
The fair did enjoy a constant stream of local arts professionals and a few minor star sightings. Art advisors Patricia Shea and Michelle Isenberg came to take a look, as did several nonparticipating dealers, including Marc Foxx, Patty Correia, Richard Heller, Jeff Poe and Robert Shimshak, and even a few legitimate celebrities -- Leonard Nimoy, Fred Savage and Francis Ford Coppola.
I should confess straight away that I spent the majority of the weekend in room 28 with the Stefan Stux Gallery where I was helping out. It turned out to be a good choice for Ground Zero, since (besides the interest in the Stux artists) the room was directly across the hall from the Camel cigarettes smoking lounge and cocktail bar, where they were giving away tee-shirts and screen savers. As a result, ours was among the most well-attended of the rooms, so I heard a great variety of reactions from all sorts of fabulous art types, and was eventually able to back up my deductions upon inspection.
The veteran art critic Peter Frank spent some time with us. He told the best story of the fair, about Piet Mondrian captivated by an irritating little painting with no sense of logic or order to it, which turned out to be by a young Jackson Pollock. Ba-dum-pum.
Art dealer Ruth Bloom came through, looking beautiful and fully ten years younger than last year. She attributes the effect to her decision to close the gallery. Joni Gordon of Newspace Gallery came in, expressing what was to become the theme of the fair, though we did not yet suspect. "Finally, here is some painting! The rest is so corny!" This was the first hint I got that the Gramercy might be a little heavy on photography.
Mat Gleason, publisher of Coagula Art Journal visited, and was definitely a highlight of the weekend. For some reason, his charming mag had been excluded from the press list, and was retaliating by ignoring the fair in its pages. Mat did, however, provide me with a list of galleries he felt I should not miss. The biggest shock of my conversation with him was his actual use of the phrase "looky-loo" to describe the fair-goers.
So I went to explore. At Rocket gallery from London was a teddy bear with stuffing pouring out of its head by sculptor Terry Smith. Sold for $400, this piece was completely anti-object and totally irreverent. Splendid.
Everyone was talking about one of the artists at Damasquine, the gallery from Brussels. Koen Wastijn makes what looks like cat pelts died bright fuschia and electric blue. They are so decadent that their legend preceded them. They were reasonably priced too, at $800 for the large cats and $400 for the kittens.
Also at Damasquine were entertaining but creepy photographs by Robert Grigolov and Daniele Buetti. Both artists digitally manipulate their photos. In Grigolov's Dog, for instance, a man and a canine are deeply engrossed in a French kiss -- or maybe it's mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The color is extreme.
Buetti draws with ballpoint pen on fashion photos, creating the illusion of subcutaneous alien implants a la X-Files. In a typically shadowy black-and-white picture of Kate Moss, for example, a series of curlicue scribbles rise from the skin on her hand like a scar. Another image shows a model, posed on the runway, seemingly oblivious to the grotesquerie emerging from her creamy shoulder. Both works are in the $1,000 range.
Another popular artist was at Galerie Gebauer from Berlin -- Hans Hemmert, who everyone referred to as "the yellow balloon guy." The artist climbs into a man-sized industrial yellow balloon and has himself photographed doing all sorts of everyday activities -- carrying a case of beer, holding a baby, riding a bike, hugging a friend. The work is funny and absolutely au courant.
Colin de Land (who I first mistook for rocker Nick Cave) brought the old Gary Gross photographs of a nude, 10-year old Brooke Shields that he had showed at American Fine Arts in New York last fall. I think he felt it was his duty to make sure Hollywood had a chance to see them!
Parkett Editions had a great Ray Pettibon portfolio for a mere $660, a prize considering his coming museum retrospective.
Ibel Simeonov of Rebecca Ibel Gallery from Columbus, Oh., had precious, tiny embroidery pieces by Ron Wynne. With one word or a provocative, incomplete phrase, such as "silence," or "The telephone rings...," stitched onto a patterned background within a gilt frame, the pieces were simple talismans to the Zen element of needlepoint, and subversive manifestations of craft in contemporary art.
Revolution of Ferndale, Michigan had a sleeper hit with Kim Yasuda's carpet mountains. Piles of carefully layered, sculpted polyester carpet rose in little mesas off the floor, which was similarly carpeted. Beautiful, cheeky and innovatively humorous.
Stefan Stux of New York was the fair's statesman. By the end of the third day, I had personally spoken to over three dozen individuals who all volunteered their firm opinion that Yellow Irises ($8,000) by Dutch artist Marc Mulders was unequivocally the best piece in the entire fair. Almost abstract, Mulders uses organic forms like flowers and fish as premises for abstraction. He attacks the canvas, creating texture and optical movement. The painting's power was subtle and serious, unlike anything else in the fair, and indeed unlike most of what is generally shown in Los Angeles. Which was, after all, supposed to be the point of the exercise.
SHANA NYS DAMBROT is an art journalist and curator living in Los Angeles. Photography and additional reporting by SABINE GEBSER.