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by Ben Davis
At the lively collector’s preview of Scope Hamptons last Thursday night, the airy East Hamptons Studios were as hot as an oven. According to rumor, lightning had struck the air conditioner the previous night. Such is the improbable tale of Scope Hamptons.

Having reported on every edition of the fair in the Long Island resort community since its inception, I am quite possibly the world authority on Scope Hamptons. Scope’s frenetic vibe and focus on hungry up-and-comers has always sat uneasily with the languid vibe of the vacation set. Director Alexis Hubshman, who founded his Scope fairs as satellites to other big art-fests, made the decision to have a stand-alone fair in the Hamptons in 2005, in the giddy moments when art fairs were multiplying like mushrooms after a rainstorm. These days, with the fair glut and general market jitters, such events seem more like Shen Shaomin’s elaborate bonsai trees at Eli Klein Fine Art -- in need of lots of attention, carefully trimmed and groomed.

Thus, the fourth edition of Scope Hamptons, July 24-27, 2008, was more pared down than previous installations. Among other things, it lacked the usual smorgasbord of side shows, special projects, film screenings and commissions. There were 37 booths this time, down from 50 in previous years. Returning from 2007 were just 12 dealers: 33 Bond, ADA, Andreas Binder, Brigitte Schenk, Dean Project, Fredric Snitzer, Jack the Pelican Presents, McNeill Art Group, Michael Steinberg Fine Arts, Rare, RHYS and the Hamptons’ own Salomon Contemporary, whose personable director James Salomon was very much working side-by-side with Hubshman to sell the event. The other booths were filled out mainly by smaller dealers, lured for their first time.

All this may sound dubious. But for the visitor at least, the result in 2008 was actually a pretty good fair, light on its feet, easy to navigate and with room to discover new things.

The blue ribbon booth in this respect was probably New Orleans’ Red Truck Gallery. It featured a dense, installation-like grove of artworks, with prices in the $600-$15,000 range. "We crammed it the fuck in," owner Noah Antieau said. "We’re paying by the inch!" Charmingly gruff, Antieau was playing his round-peg-in-a-square-fair image to maximum effect, engaging in a game of poker for cigarettes and emphasizing to everyone who asked that the artists in his booth were all either friends or blood relations of his. Someone asked him delicately how he had come to specialize in "outsider" art. "They all went to college," he replied. "They’re not stupid."

Personalities aside, Red Truck’s booth looked great, in particular the deft appliqué works of Chris Roberts-Antieau (mother of Noah) -- colorful tributes to famous bluesmen and a fabric book with maxims from Mahatma Ghandi, for instance -- and the long-exposure photographs of Frank Relle, focusing on housing in post-Katrina New Orleans. Taken in the early morning light, the trashed structures are transformed into glimmering theatrical environments, eerie and sad and elegant all at once, a beautiful reminder of how cruel the world can be.

Also set off to good effect here was Y Gallery, a relatively new space located in Jackson Heights, Queens. In addition to a set of hand towels stitched with glyphs and sexual innuendos by Norma Markley -- $575 apiece -- the space was offering photos by Dulce Pinzon. Featured at the last "(S) Files" show at El Museo del Barrio and more recently at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Pinzon’s photos offer images of Latino immigrants performing typical tasks, incongruously clad in Halloween superhero costumes. Thus, you have a nanny dressed as Catwoman, a construction worker as the Thing, and so on, playfully riffing on immigration using the all-American mythology.

"I think they’re good here," said Y director Cecilia Jurado. "It’s like the other side of people who are from the Hamptons." The works are $1,200-$2,000.

Another newer space from New York was Hous Projects, which opened at 31 Howard Street in 2007. At the Hous stand, Australian artist Marian Drew’s painterly photographic compositions stood out. Drew’s spare arrangements of items knowingly mime Dutch paintings -- though the part of game animals, usually laid out as symbols of plenty, are played here by salvaged road kill. The work seemed especially to resolve the two sides of Scope Hamptons: a tip of the hat to a certain embedded affluence, on the one hand, and the rebel spirit of Scope, on the other. Wombat with Watermelon (2005) was $4,400.

In a similar vein, though from another continent all-together, was The Landscape of Moon Jar (2008) by Lee-Nam Lee, at Korea’s Leehyun Seoul Gallery, another space making its first sojourn into the fair world in the Hamptons. Lee’s video of what resembles a traditional Korean painting of a sapling in a jar, complete with a stamped signature planted in the bottom right corner, appears to be a still image at first, but evolves subtly over the course of its four-minute running time through all four seasons, tiny blossoms emerging in the spring, delicate snowflakes gathering on it in the winter. Number three in an edition of six, the piece was $22,000.

Plenty of other cool things were on view: ultra-hip Argentine sculptor Fabian Marcaccio’s $ Paintant III at Miami’s Kevin Bruk Gallery, a work that resembles a block of money dipped in Vaseline, a combination that seemed to attract a lot of attention (price: $58,000); Chinese artist Liao Yibai’s cartoony sculpture in polished stainless steel, with the cartoony title Manman’s Duel -- The Unbeatable (2008), at New York’s China Square Gallery (priced at $20,000); and the photos of German photographer Dieter Rehm at Galerie Andreas Binder, capturing gilded, plunging vistas of ballrooms, suffused with a subtle digital delirium ($14,200 a pop).

At the space of the indie Brooklyn art gallery Glowlab -- which seemed to have rented a corridor between two other booths for the event -- David Kesting was offering a wall full of scribbly cartoons penned on advertising cards from the now-defunct Manhattan eatery Florent (and depicting celebrity patrons from said restaurant). These ranged in price from $250 to $1,100. But if you wanted to dial the street-art esthetic up a bit, Southhampton’s own Keszler Gallery was offering comfortingly familiar images of rebellion from Banksy. These ranged from $40,000 for Bomb Hugger and Laugh Now to $225,000 for his image of Kate Moss made up as Warhol’s Marilyn.

"He has to be laughing," a woman standing next to me opined aggressively as she looked over my shoulder at the Banksy price list. She nudged me and repeated it. "He has to be laughing, right? Laughing and laughing?"

Well, you could say that about it all, really -- the contemporary art market is pretty improbable. But the thing about art fairs is that, in the end, they defeat esthetic criticism, or at least make it a footnote. If things sell and the dealers are happy, nothing else matters. If they don’t and they aren’t. . . nothing else matters. So, were people laughing at the end of Scope Hamptons ‘08?

Most of the spaces that caught my eye -- generally first-time galleries and newer venues -- seemed content. Elizabeth Houston from Hous Projects said that things were slow, but consistent, with "a lot of little sales." "Everyone I knew just had small sales," she wrote -- but added that it was overall a notably pleasant experience. Yoon Ji Kim from Leehyun Seoul Gallery wrote in an email that The Landscape of Moon Jar had sold, with lots of inquiries after the rest of the edition, though this had not translated into sales of other work in the booth. Cecilia from Y Gallery said that they sold a "few pieces to people that were really into the artists’ ideas and esthetics." Three of the Dulce Pinzon works that I liked were on reserve.

David at Glowlab sold 30 of his small works, including the large paper mural he had made for the occasion. Noah from Red Truck said he did quite well, though most of his business in the last 20 minutes of the fair, when a stampede of business came in (true to the form of previous Scopes). Carrie Clyne from China Square said that Scope Hamptons did, indeed, have a laid-back pace, noting that lately art-buyers were taking more time to think about purchases in general (something that seems more to do with general market conditions than with Scope). But she was happy with sales, as well as the collectors and museum reps she had met. Most of these dealers said that they would recommend the fair or go back.

So, there’s one take. Scope Hamptons has undoubtedly gone through some trimming. But it possibly has arrived at a kind of equilibrium, with the dealers who took part this year more or less having expectations that match what this quirky fair delivers. Rather than trying to be its own kind of blockbuster, Hubshman’s fair seems to have settled on being what it is -- a pleasant, well-engineered piece of summer entertainment, a refreshing snack in a generally overcrowded calendar of fairs. There were good things to find there this year. One hopes it gets the love it deserves from the Hamptons.

BEN DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine. He can be reached at Send Email