Hard decision, watch the Oscars or write about the art fairs I went to over the weekend. Hey, I’ll do both. Ellen Degeneres has the thankless job of turning the annual coronation of Hollywood royalty into an episode of a daytime talk show. What a gig. But she’s got guts, more than I saw elsewhere this weekend.
The Armory Show of today bears little resemblance to its earliest incarnation, nine years ago, when it was located in a downtown hotel famous for providing late-night hospitality to rock ‘n’ roll bands. Known as the Gramercy International Art Fair, that thing was "Artists Gone Wild," barely held together by the young dealers who babysat it.
The anarchic esthetic was established by the East Village veterans Colin De Land and Pat Hearn (both now sadly deceased) along with other venturesome galleries like Postmasters, the now-forgotten AC Project Room and Lisa Spellman’s 303 gallery, as well as future moguls like Matthew Marks and Jay Jopling of White Cube, who one year brought along a charming young artist named Tracey Emin to lounge about on the hotel bed.
What was Nicole Kidman thinking with that unbelievably bright red outfit? And that huge bow on her shoulder like a second head? Who did that to her? That was way more weird than most of the work in the Armory Show.
In 2007, the Armory Show is something else again, a $20 ticket to art-market cool. The new pier is bright and airy, gridded with a silvery carpet that stretches out before you in all directions like a dream. Sure, the mercantile focus of the fair can be cold. You could even call it Wal-Art, but you’d have to do something with the "everyday low prices" slogan. How about, "A bargain at any price"? In fact, for art collectors, the Armory Show is the place to make an investment. In this kind of market, forget about the penny stocks. Come to the Armory. Buy into strength.
But you could see some high fashion at the art fair, too. In fact, the idle stroll through art-fair aisles, eye-balling the fresh new stuff on the walls and in the crowds, is as close to delirium as a person can get in public these days. Art fairs foster a kind of esthetic flirtation. "You can have me," the artworks say, beckoning from their booths. "You can have me." It’s part of the erotics of the art fair. It reminded me of why I got into art in the first place. It’s sexy. It’s about what’s hot.
Did I see much sexy art? Well, the true heavyweight of the fair, setting the tone for much of the art that caught my eye, was Merle Laderman Ukeles’ mirrored garbage truck, on view at the booth of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. A fierce take on the objet d’art, the massive work measures human vanity via the garbage people leave behind. It’s not for sale. Other exhibitors could only look on with envy, as did the fair visitors who sat in the adjoining café, which was positioned as if it were Feldman’s patio, and drank Illycaffé, the official coffee of the Armory Show, compliments of Artforum magazine.
Boy, was Jerry Seinfeld pissy with the documentary film nominees or what? First he whined that Comedian, the recent documentary about him, had not been nominated, and then complained that the actual nominated films were depressing. That was good. I love it when a star actually emotes bitterness.
The Armory Show did have its share of artists who seemed a little off their feed, as well. Thomas Hirschhorn, the Swiss master of packing-tape dystopias, contributed an unbelievable shiny brown sculpture, labelled "The Sound and the Fury," that put the "bio-mass" back into "biomorphic." And Leo Koenig, Inc., was there to provide a timely reminder of how close we are to the beasts, thanks to Tony Matelli’s lifelike rendition of a chimpanzee.
It seemed like it was animals all over, as Kelly Taxter, the 30-year-old co-director of Taxter & Spengemann, described the fair as a hamster maze. But she was quite satisfied. Her hamsters had cash, check or black credit cards, and her art was all sold, including a nice marble sculpture by Lars Fisk of a plastic bag of some Oldenburg-style soft trash.
For an old beachcomber like me, I found my real art-fair inspiration a few blocks away at something called Fountain. A little self-propelled garageband of an art fair located at 49th Street off 12th Avenue, it was a mosh-pit of art installed salon-style, providing a bit of a reference to the original 1913 Armory Show. This bunch of Brooklyn galleries and DIY artists showed true grit and a laconic ability to think outside the taco, not only drawing its name and graphic logo from R. Mutt’s famous urinal sculpture but even proudly installing its Porta-Potties on the sidewalk by the front doors.
Though it was a tad nippy at 28 degrees, the outdoor amenities were more amenable than the Armory restrooms, which had a line snaking down the corridor (I literally heard a woman screech, "Is this the line?!"). Fountain presents nine different installations by galleries and artists -- Capla Kesting, Ch'i Contemporary Fine Art, Front Room, Steven Gagnon, Glowlab, McCaig-Welles, New Improved Art, Outrageous Look and Yum Yum Factory.
Hey, look at old Ellen, pretending to vacuum the front row of seats at the Oscars and finding a pack of rolling papers. Maybe she’s pulling this thing off after all.
I know where she’s coming from. At Fountain, I liked Steven Gagnon’s projection of a film of a taxi ride on the inside of a real Yellow Cab, and I liked the kids at Glowlab, who had their booth painted by the street artist Swoon. I liked the grid of tiny landscapes on fire by Pat Arnao at Outrageous Look, and R. Nicholas Kuszyk’s graffiti-style robot paintings on plywood. I liked Amy Hill’s finely painted, small-scale formal portraits of Star Wars-type beings, and I also admired Uri Dowbenko, an artist who lives in Montana, for his likable chutzpah.
Likeability and chutzpah used to be what art was about. That, and a little guerrilla mentality, which you had at Fountain in spades. This is the place where you reminisce about the good old days, when you did it yourself, when inspiration and magic struck like a bolt from the blue. Here at Fountain, the artists and dealers are hungry and they welcome all visitors warmly. They are having fun and that’s the vibe. I felt like sitting down, having a beer, and hanging.
In my opinion, the corporate format smothers what scant spirit remains in a field that has gotten too smart for the talent it handles, and too smoothly sells art as an unregulated commodity. I keep my distance now from the art scene here. I still love art and the artists who make it, but today it seems that the market establishes what is good and what is not. If your art sells, it’s good. If it sells for seven figures, you’re great. To borrow a phrase from the Merry Pranksters, you’re either on the bus or not on the bus. This bus, I’m not on.
PAUL HASEGAWA-OVERACKER (H-O) is presently in post-production on the feature documentary, Guest of Cindy Sherman, written and directed by H-O and Tom Donahue, in association with the Sundance Channel and represented by The Film Sales Co.