Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button

Close Encounters


by Linda Yablonsky
Share |

Most art fairs are the handiwork of dealers or trade associations. The Dallas Art Fair, Apr. 12-15, 2012, is different. An artist is behind it -- the graphic novelist Chris Byrne, who partnered with Dallas real estate developer John Sughrue four years ago to get the fair up and running.

Byrne selected the 78 galleries in the fair’s 2012 edition with New York dealers Chris D’Amelio and Zach Feuer. Sughrue supplied the venue -- the two-story Fashion Industry Gallery (F.I.G.) in the downtown arts district -- and rounded up sponsors like Ruinart Champagne, Cadillac and Neiman Marcus. The VIP preview on April 11 attracted 1,800 patrons in cocktail dress and 5,500 more visitors during the fair proper, a 30 percent increase over admissions the previous year.

That’s not bad for a so-called regional fair, though I counted only nine galleries from the Dallas/Fort Worth area and two from Houston. The herd of life-size, paper-and-steel sheep grazing the lawn outside the entrance -- the work of artist Kyu Seok Oh -- was charming, but it made one wonder if someone was trying to tell us something about the temper of the fair inside.

The tone quickly grew aggressive with Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld’s stand at the top of a long aisle on the ground floor. The itinerant young dealer -- he stages exhibitions in rented spaces -- brought semi-abstract paintings by Neo-Expressionist Ouattara Watts, confrontational (and somewhat gross) resin sculptures by Richard Dupont, and paintings by Nicolas Pol that included a found door covered in actual birdshit, not the Dan Colen painted kind. Prices were set in the $30,000 to $50,000 range -- a little high, I thought, for the introduction of such punky and largely derivative work to an unacquainted audience.

But much of the action at the fair involved establishing relationships with local collectors -- and if fairgoers here were any one thing, it was local. Dallas is not yet the kind of art destination that draws the curious from far and wide, but maybe it should be. This easy-going, socially conservative community of prosperous entrepreneurs has spawned some of the most sophisticated collectors anywhere, and their number is increasing.

In fact, the Dallas art scene is striking for its civic commitment to contemporary art. Take the big three collectors, the Rachofskys, the Roses and the Hoffmans. In 2005, they promised a combined 800 works -- and the Rachofsky’s Richard Meier-designed house -- to the Dallas Museum of Art, and they continue to deepen their holdings. Collectors of two generations bonded a couple of years ago to create the Dallas Contemporary, an enormous exhibition space in a converted industrial building. Young collectors Alden and Janelle Pinnell operate a sleek nonprofit called the Power Station, to which they invite emerging artists to “intervene” with the architecture. Collector Kenny Goss opened the Goss-Michael Foundation (with singer George Michael) some time ago. Even the Cowboys Stadium is chock-a-block with artworks by Franz Ackermann, Mel Bochner, Jacqueline Humphries, Dave Muller, Matthew Ritchie, Gary Simmons and more.

Given such patronage, the fair’s VIP program seemed like candy coating on a cake that was already thickly frosted. I had the idea that people would show up for the private collection visits, the one-time-only Dallas Biennale hosted by Dallas Contemporary, and openings for solo outings by Jacob Kassay, Adam McEwen and Erick Swenson at the various nonprofits whether a fair was attached or not. But it was the fair that gathered the community, and the deluge of events brought it an art-attuned crowd of consumers ready to shop for both themselves and the institutions they support.

In the future, more dealers from out of town would be wise to cultivate such an educated, deep-pocketed audience. Among those already in the loop, Milwaukee’s Green Gallery made what for me was the best presentation of new paintings and sculpture (by Nicholas Frank, Michelle Grabner, Jose Lerma, Tony Matelli and the Reeder brothers, Scott and Tyson) at prices running from $3,000 to $40,000. Callicoon, Canada, D’Amelio, Feuer, Untitled, Perry Rubenstein and Thomas Solomon ran close behind, but they all did respectable business, and made connections likely to bear future fruit.

London’s Jonathan Viner sold out a stand full of $10,000 paintings made with a decorator’s comb by Dan Rees at the jump, and Solomon could hardly keep up with the demand for Analia Saban’s $8,000 cast-plastic shopping bags with unprimed canvas contents. Just as witty was Ry Rocklin’s Crewel Collaboration, a silvered painting with found embroidery on its surface, sold for a cash-and-carry $5,600.

Between small paintings by Joanne Greenbaum, photos by Sam Samore and inked, photo-based prints by Tamar Halpern, D’Amelio installed a group of Lucite boxes embedded with bullets, grenades, chains and Coke cans that the phantom-like Cady Noland made in 1986 but never exhibited in this country. The asking price was over $500,000, no stretch for the collector who bought it, hopefully as a gift for a museum, where the work belongs.

Like D’Amelio, Josee Bienvenu, Canada and Michael Kohn galleries mixed the freshly minted with secondary-market works likely to appeal to the tastes of Dallas collectors. An impressive new, $16,000 painting by Katherine Bernhardt at Canada, for example, was hanging by a dotted canvas from 1969 by conceptualist Gerald Ferguson ($35,000). At the preview, so many people were in the booth that I had to stand in line to get in. Kohn had a 1961 assemblage by Bruce Conner and a Joe Goode cloud painting that had gone unsold at the ADAA show back in March, but was attracting greater interest here.

Feuer’s spacious stand accommodated its visitors with an intriguing set of reflective paintings on paper by 32-year-old New Yorker Kianja Strobert ($4,000 each). Also on the walls were lace paintings by Mark Flood and a new horizontal scroll by emerging gallery star Dasha Shishkin ($23,000). It looks at first like an innocent pink cartoon but on closer inspection reveals an epic orgy of half-human/half-animal nudes. Strike up a win for bestiality!

L.A.’s Rubenstein brought a single-artist focus to his busy booth, hung with photographs by Zoe Crosher, who was also soloing in the biennial (on view through August). Crosher has obsessively re-photographed and newly framed an archive of self-portraits by an obscure L.A. call girl named Michelle DuBois and is definitely a comer. Rubenstein sold half his stock in Dallas, priced from $15,000 to $75,000, while curator Eva Respini picked out a few images for inclusion for her next “New Photography” show at the Museum of Modern Art, opening in October.

Andrew Edlin and Lennon Weinberg galleries hung solo shows of paintings by outsider Thornton Dial and works on paper by the late H.C. Westermann, respectively. And though stuck in a corner at the back of the fair, Callicoon’s Photios Giovannis made hay with small, formal paintings by Sadie Benning ($10,000), Etel Adnan’s O’Keeffe-like abstractions ($9,000) and stripy, made-to-order ribbon-and-paper-tape works by Thomas Kovachevich ($15,000).

Laid out in an irregular maze, the fair offered other pockets of interest that took some doing to seek out. In its depths I found the Stewart Gallery of Boise, Idaho, and was introduced to collaged paintings by Henry Jackson and surreal still-lifes by Matt Duffin, both promising.

John Alexander performed live throughout the weekend, making monoprints of bird paintings on site for the benefit of students.

So does having an artist at the helm make a difference? Not really. Though this fair felt more personal than most, it was the class of collectors that made the difference. They made choices slowly, after much deliberation. Dealers had to be patient. Untitled’s Joel Mesler and Green Gallery’s co-owner, Jake Palmert, both said they would return, especially if Byrne made an effort to raise the standard of exhibitors. “We were hosted by some wonderful collectors and we were impressed by the concerted effort on behalf of the Dallas community to make the fair a success,” said Palmert. I asked Mesler if he would do anything differently. “Get better seats for a Rangers game,” he replied.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.