Art 2003, London's Art Fair, opened its doors in Islington's multi-tiered Business Design Center on Upper Street. Jan. 14-19, with over 100 British galleries on hand. The fair provided a thorough survey of the key post-war art movements, from Abstract Expressionism and Pop to Op Art and the so-called London School of figurative art. Largely absent, however, were many of the British conceptual art stars of the 1990s -- no Turner Prize winners or even nominees, nor members of the internationally acclaimed (and I hesitate to say this) "Saatchi Generation."
So while Art 2003 serves the invaluable function of bringing art to a wider public, the fair did feel a bit dispiriting at times, like stepping back into, say, 1989. Perhaps the event reflects, and indeed targets, the rather conservative nature of typical British collectors, whether they are buying for corporate collections or for themselves.
Like many art fairs, Art 2003 endeavored to increase the quotient of cutting-edge art by including a section devoted to emerging artists. The "Start" section featured ten galleries, most from London but including a pair from Dublin and one from the current art hotspot -- northeast England. Workplace is an artists' collective from Newcastle, a city that is currently enjoying a renaissance due to the recent, long-awaited opening of the nearby Baltic contemporary art space. Workplace brought a number of young artists, many just out of art school.
One standout is Laura Lancaster, whose small oil paintings on board are intimate and just awkward enough. The subject matter is rather banal, such as a plane waiting on a runway or a suburban house, so that the works almost look like accidentally taken photographs. But Lancaster's images have a pleasing sense of melancholy, suggesting that they may be linked to potent and personal memories. I was not surprised to see that she was awarded the Unilever Fresh Graduate Prize following her graduation from the University of Northumberland in 2001. It was also not surprising to see the fast appearance of red dots alongside her work, which is priced in the £200-£500 range.
The London gallery Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Art represents British artist Sarah Woodfine, who has generated a lot of interest with her eloquent large-scale pencil drawings of rather sinister looking children's toys. Her new works suggest an imaginary solitary place -- it could be a wood cabin but is deliberately ambiguous -- exquisitely rendered from above with all sides showing like a flattened map.
Woodfine began as a sculptor who got fascinated and diverted by the possibilities of graphite on paper in her final year at university. The new drawings reflect a renewed interest in the possibilities of defining private space, now comfortably combined with her interest in drawing. The works at the fair were priced at £750.
On the fair's top tier was the booth of Enitharmon Press, a London publisher that also has an eclectic array of artists' editions for sale. Among these were eight books with hand-painted covers by the Scottish Minimalist Callum Innes, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1996. Done in an edition of 50, the books are in fact Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece bound with fragments of Innes' paintings. At the time of my visit, all but two were sold for £500 each.
Enitharmon Press also has available some ink wash drawings by Gilbert and George. These highly uncharacteristic works have a surprisingly primitive quality, especially in comparison to the artists' elegant large photomontages and mannered performance pieces. The drawings are in fact stills from an autobiographical film. These are competitively priced at £750 each.
At Marlborough Fine Art was a small work by Frank Auerbach called Head of Julia IV (2002), priced at £45,000 plus VAT. Opposite was possibly the finest painting at the fair -- Lucian Freud's Head of a Naked Girl (1999). It's a small painting, but the size doesn't detract from it -- indeed, his work is sometimes more satisfactory on this scale. The mastery of composition and absolute refinement of the palette, which can only be properly appreciated by looking at the work in person, easily confirm his place as Britain's greatest living painter.
It is remarkable that this work was painted as Freud was approaching 80, as its palette and the vigor of its brushstrokes make it the freshest and most contemporary painting here. I involuntarily thought of the American painter John Currin, who seems likely to be his natural successor -- although I wouldn't expect either artist to agree. Both men have caused anger with their depictions of women, both are focused on the psychological life of their subjects and both have caught with accuracy the mood of their respective generations.
And what's the price? David Hockney, who has recently been the subject of a Freud portrait, said that he didn't know what his portrait would cost to buy -- but asserted that it would be worth every penny. The same must be said about this small painting, for no asking price was listed.
Flowers East showed a new diptych by John Keane that at first approach could be mistaken for work by Sean Scully, as it consists of one painting with diagonal charcoal and white stripes and one with horizontal stripes. However, it soon becomes apparent that one half of the picture includes figures and that the image is in fact based on a view of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Politics has always played a central role in Keene's art. During the Gulf War he famously bordered one painting with dollar bills, and made another that showed Mickey Mouse in the desert, a clear expression of his contempt for the commercial overtones of the conflict.
Keane's new work is perhaps a departure, in that it is more abstract than his work from the early 1990s; it is available for £16,000. In the 1980s, Keene's work drew lively media interest, along with his colleague Peter Howson, another figurative artist with a social agenda who is also showing new work at the fair. Howson, a Scottish-based artist, is known mainly for portraiture that walks a fine line between grotesque caricature and pathos, and the results tend to be uneven.
At the booth of Alan Cristea Gallery were editions by two artists -- Julian Opie and Michael Craig-Martin -- that are probably wise investments, both for their quality and in light of the artists' influence on the British contemporary scene. Opie's series of eight prints depict racing drivers and a section of racetrack, and combine the two strongest elements of Opie's work -- portraiture and landscape, two quintessentially British subjects, rendered with his trademark graphic simplicity. The works are done in an edition of 50 and priced at £1,200 each.
The racetrack is a perfect vehicle for Opie's precise, linear vision, and is also a good illustration of the conflicts inherent in the notion of "landscape" in our highly urbanized culture. One interprets from the work that this is now somehow precariously suspended between technology and naturalism, at the time of writing a frighteningly topical subject.
Craig-Martin is the spiritual father of the yBa generation (and indeed, the actual father of the contemporary British photographer Jessica Craig-Martin), and he is also known for using graphic techniques for large-scale works. His print, titled . . . and a cello, portrays eight modern chairs ...and a cello. Also published in an edition of 50, the print costs £1,500.
London dealer Paul Stolper has been a fixture on the emerging art scene for many years. One artist who he has shown consistently is Peter Liversidge, who has been known for subversive small paintings and sculptures that mock commercial branding and materialism -- primitivistically inflected paintings of the Pan Am or Gulf logos, for instance. In fact the work is more complex, frequently linked to places that he could have visited or items that are symbols of desire, and is really about loss. Stolper's work on view at the fair was much larger in scale. Its recurring motif is an aircraft taking off against a deep blue sky -- something that could comfortably be used in a commercial advertisement.
Also available was a work by Gavin Turk featuring his signature motif -- that is, his own signature. These small works consist of a blank canvas with a Perspex cover on which his signature is applied. Turk graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1991 and has been a key player in the British art scene ever since. His work usually raises issues of authenticity and questions the role of the artist as custodian of taste. It should be said that Turk's work is part of many important collections both in the UK and abroad.
Angela Wiseman is well known for her discerning eye and accessibility for young collectors interested in post-war, mainly British, work on paper. At Art 2003, her gallery, Wiseman Originals, had its usual gems, including a lovely small drawing by Bridget Riley tucked away at the entrance of the booth. It was priced at £2,200.
One must not forget the section of small stands where all the art magazines field questions from the public and try to drum up a few subscriptions. Contemporary magazine, for one, is always informative and well designed -- and cleverly tempts new subscribers through the offer of an artwork. In the past these have included work by Tracey Emin and Ceal Floyer, the current offer is a free print by Swiss conceptualist Ugo Rondinone, which is probably the most generous premium to date.
Such a list reminds us of what the fair might have been. It would have been nice to have European artists such as Rondinone alongside British artists like Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas and Mark Wallinger. The roll call of missing talent could go on, which is ultimately our loss.