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Arte Fiera 2012


by Mark Kostabi
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What a difference two years can make! Back in 2010 I concluded my Artnet report on the Bologna art fair, officially called “Art First” but referred to by everyone in Italy as “Arte Fiera,” with optimism. “Arte Fiera di Bologna is doing well,” I wrote. “Clearly, it will continue to dominate in Italy. It wants to be more international.”

Now, with the European economy in a protracted slump, any plans to compete with Art Basel and Frieze are forgotten. The recent Arte Fiera, Jan. 27-30, 2012, looks like it’s just trying to survive. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I sensed a very depressed atmosphere at the fair. Only one dealer told me he was doing well, but he had very dilated pupils, perhaps from a chemical. The rest complained.

The fair was one-third smaller than previously, shrinking from around 240 galleries down to 180. Many dealers chose to not come, of course, while others were allegedly “eliminated” for quality reasons, and because of the smaller pavilion configuration. At first impression it looked like the fair from 10 years ago, but less fun.

No U.S. galleries of any substance were in attendance. Previous regular James Cohan had already dropped out last year to create his own online VIP Art Fair (which itself just completed, efficiently but without much buzz, according to a few press reports). Worse, Arte Fiera has lost many of the most prestigious Italian galleries. The gossip was that the fair declined to give them the usual large special discounts for their large glamorous booths.

Sales ranged from bad to abysmal. Attendance was high on Saturday, when dealers were able to give out endless free tickets to their friends and clients, but very low on Sunday when everyone had to pay to get in. People in Italy are watching every penny these days. Especially the government. And that’s the primary reason business is so bad, according to most dealers. They say people are afraid to spend money, because of new laws forcing everyone to report even relatively small transactions.

Apart from the sad sales report, the fair did offer its pleasures, i.e. some good art to see. At the entryway was a dramatic sculpture, a large and luxurious red Murano chandelier shattered on the floor, with eight black taxidermy birds poised as if eating the shards. Titled Carrona, the work was made by artist Javier Pèrez and brought to the fair by LipanjePuntin from Trieste, and is an apt metaphor for the current state of the Italian art market. The birds need not worry about the tax man if they only nibble on negligible crumbs.

Nearby at Studio d’Arte Raffaelli from Trento, Donald Baechler raised the flag for money, ice cream and death, via three works featuring his signature graphic icons placed in the center of Rauschenbergian collaged backgrounds.

Down the aisle a bit, I liked Marcello Cinque’s spidery octopuses scaling the walls of the booth of Piece Unique from Paris. Also at Piece Unique were Cyrille André’s blocky black sculptures of three defiant youths, no doubt guarding the invisible cake on the invisible table behind them.

Also from Paris, Galerie di Meo showed an eye-catching painter’s revisitation of Henri Matisse’s Red Studio by Piero Pizzi Cannella, an unexpected departure for this Rome-based artist who is typically known for monochromatic canvases, which hitherto had not quoted other artists.

At the gallery Arte Boccanera from Milan, directed by Giorgia Lucchi, who has a great eye for emerging talent, the Serbian artist Nebojša Despotović won first prize in Gruppo Euromobil’s “Under 30” contest hosted by the fair. His winning piece, Topologia discrete, is a large work on paper that evokes, all at once, Peter Doig, Anselm Kiefer, Ross Bleckner and even Joseph Beuys a little. It’s actually based on a photo he took of Christmas lights on trees reflecting on a rain-washed street. But the image is augmented with surprising, eccentric and mysterious chalk lines that elevate it beyond mere dazzling visual delight.

In front of the award winning Despotović work was an equally enigmatic, life-sized sculpture by Willy Verginer of a woman seemingly submerged in a blue-gray liquid while four bright blue flowers sprout from her fingertips.

For an ‘80s New Yorker like me, it was a pleasant surprise to see a large 2011 painting by Futura 2000 called Learning Curve, on view at Galerie Jerome de Noirmont. We’re 12 years past 2000 but Futura still looks freshly into the future with his masterful command of mark-making in all its variety. I asked Jerome how Futura is doing? “Very well!” Success couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Staying with East Village artists, the Florentine gallery Tornabuoni featured a large 1984 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting called Skull. It was hung across from a late Picasso and I have to say that everyone was photographing the Basquiat with their iPhones rather than the Picasso. As a painter, Basquiat figured something out.

Speaking of explosive art, I loved Lepri Stanislao’s 1968 surrealist painting The Volcano, which was at Galerie 1900-2000. (Another name with 2000 in it. The gallery should show Futura.)

And speaking of work that was heavily photographed by iPhones, I was surprised and pleased to see how popular Emilio Scanavino’s work was at Dep Art Milano, which had a solo show of the artist in its booth. While very popular in Italy, Scanavino (1922-1986) is virtually unknown in the U.S. If a gallery like Gladstone or Gagosian did a historical Scanavino show, the hip art press would be all over it.

Huma Bhabha continued to hold court (as she did two years ago) with a commanding mixed-media sculpture at the booth of Paolo Curti / Annamaria Gambuzzi & Co. from Milan, which looked good in conjunction with the fantastic 1980s Francesco Clemente painting on the wall behind it.

Wonderfully decadent is the phrase for He Sen’s large 2010 painting called Little Dizzy, featuring a sexy, grisaille girl nestled in a red armchair with cigarette in one hand and wine glass about-to-spill in the other. This painting, presented by Primo Marella from Milan, had all the right ingredients to sell, even in a bad economy. In fact it did have a red dot on its wall label. One of the few in the fair though, truth be told.

Speaking of decadence, in better days, during Arte Fiera, it was very difficult to get a table at the restaurant Diana, long considered one of Bologna’s best, and home to rich collectors, top dealers and famous artists who would party late into the night. Artists would draw on the napkins, which the restaurant owner and collectors would fight over, and all would toast, “To art! To Life! To us!”

This year Diana was half empty and very quiet. But the restaurant’s famous vanilla gelato with hot chocolate still tasted great. Maybe Diana was half full rather than half empty. I’ll still make my reservations early next year. We have the power to improve things and 2012 just might end up being a good year.

MARK KOSTABI is an artist whose The Kostabi Show can be viewed here, and whose advice column, Ask Mark Kostabi, can be read here.