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LONDON CALLING
by Joe La Placa
 
Despite the recent jitters in the press over fears that the booming art market was headed for a correction thanks to the ripple effect from the credit crunch in the U.S. sub-prime mortgage market, over £200 million (about $400 million) worth of post-war and contemporary art was sold in London during Frieze Week, Oct. 11-15, 2007. Once again, for the fifth consecutive year, the Frieze Art Fair has demonstrated its Midas touch.

"The Frieze Fair brings a lot to London apart from just the buying and selling of art in the fair," said Frieze co-director Matthew Slotover. "As you know, many satellite events happen all around the city during Frieze Week. Major auctions are now held during the fair. Frieze has knock-on benefits to the economy here. Weíd like to be recognized for that!"

Speaking of the auctions, Sothebyís London reported a total of £66,250,000 ($134,811,916) in three sales of contemporary and 20th-century Italian art during Frieze Week. Christieís Londonís three sales, two of post-war and contemporary and third of 20th-century Italian art, totaled £66,600,000 ($135,000,000). And Phillips, de Pury & Co. reported a total of £35,000,000 in four sales.

"At Sothebyís we were very nervous going into our Friday contemporary sale on Oct. 15. We were the first auction house to jump the hurdle. But our results, more than three times higher than last year, speak for themselves," said a smiling Oliver Barker, the firmís contemporary art specialist in London.

While the Frieze fair and the auction houses may have taken the lionís share of this yearís turnover, the most exciting venue for emerging artists was to be found elsewhere, at the fourth annual Zoo Art Fair.

Co-founded in 2004 by its current director Soraya Rodriguez and gallery owner David Risley, the first Zoo Fair invited 26 London-based galleries, all in business for three years or less, to exhibit at the Albert Pavilion at the London Zoo. Back then, many of todayís hot artists like Paul Fryer were introduced at galleries like T1+2. Total sales for the entire fair were estimated at a mere £500,000, a sum equivalent today to the cost of several major pieces by Fryer.

In contrast, Zoo 2007 featured 61 international galleries under six years old. Although the roster is still heavily U.K.-based, galleries from Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Denmark and America were among the exhibitors. Attendance hit an impressive 12,500 visitors. Turnover was estimated at £2,800,000, an impressive achievement, considering the majority of works were priced under £5,000.

Zoo 2007ís success can be attributed to two important changes. Formerly an invitation-only fair, Zoo set up a new application procedure in which a select panel vetted the best galleries from over 300 applicants. Secondly, relocating Zoo 2007 to the venerable Royal Academy of Arts at Burlington Gardens, the epicenter of Londonís posh Mayfair district where top galleries, institutions and auction houses abound, helped put Zoo on the "must see" circuit. Discriminating collectors such as Vanessa Branson, Robert Devereux, Lawrence Graff, David Roberts, Charles Saatchi and Amir Shariat were among the many buyers flocking to Zoo in search of new discoveries.

Just inside the entrance to the fair, a chubby Charles Saatchi stood motionless, in the booth of the Trolley gallery, like a beckoning muse, holding a placard which read "Him for Sale." Had the mega-collector put himself on offer for the hefty sum of £99,999.99? "Itís the biggest action figure Iíll ever own," said artist Robert Gordon McHarg III of his hyper-real Duane Hanson-like waxwork. "Itís all about the artist collecting the collector, a David and Goliath battle over power and punch lines."

The much trimmer, real-life version of Charles Saatchi snapped up Graham Hudsonís installation All My Exes Live in Tescoís (2007) at the Rokeby gallery stand during the sponsors preview. A ramshackle, cantilevered construction of cardboard boxes and paint-covered trashbags piled towards the ceiling on a wooden stepladder that doubles as a base, the installation was built on site. "Given its ambitious scale," said Rokeby director Beth Greenacre, "it was completed at the 11th hour just before the fair opened."

Collector Anita Zabludowicz presented a noncommercial display of works from her new London-based project space 176. Supporting new talents for over a decade, Zabludowicz has amassed over 1,000 works in the process. "Most of the art in the collection is by emerging artists," said Zabludowicz, "but because Iíve been collecting for over 14 years, many of them have emerged by now! But I still feel the greatest part of collecting is finding new, young artists. The younger the artists are, the more exciting the art is."

Not all emerging artists need be under 25, however. At the David Risley Gallery stand, portraits by the 30-something Boo Ritson were among the "must have" works at the fair. She literally coats her models with paint and then photographs them. "I started the portraits on Christmas Eve a couple of years ago," she told me. "I stood in the shower and painted my body. My husband took a photo. We saw the print and realized it could work."

And work it did! Ritsenís Becky and Kay (edition of three) each sold for £7,000. With over 30 commissioned portraits lined up, Ritsen has seen her prices soar to £20,000 for a new series of unique prints.

Also at Risley, Jonathan Wateridgeís masterfully painted Blue Iceberg (2007), like an updated version of 19th-century Luminist Fredrick Edwin Churchís Icebergs (1861), sold for a cool £22,000. Equally moving was Masakatsu Kondoís looming The Awakening (Mountain) 2007, which sold for £7,000. His concurrent solo show at Risleyís East End gallery sold out on opening night to collector Johnny Walker. †

Three other booths featured other highly innovative approaches to landscape painting. At the Fred stand, Dolly Thompsetís Untitled battle scene, richly layered with oil paint and resin, sold for £4,500.

At the booth of the London gallery Union, South Korean painter Sea Huyn Leeís politically charged In Between Red 32 (2007), an amalgamation of photos of North and South Korean landscapes, sold for £15,000. "When Lee did his military training, he was stationed next to the North Korean border," said Union director Jari Lager. "He scanned the night landscape in with infra-red goggles, seeing the landscape in a red color. Also, during the student unrest in South Korea ten years ago, it was forbidden for artists to use more than 80 percent red in their paintings. These rules have now been rescinded, but Koreans from his generation still recognize the reference to a time when communist slogans and colors were forbidden."

Guy Allottís snowy Landscape Spaceship 5, a final work in a series reminiscent of 1950s Sci-Fi imagery with a surrealist influence, sold for £2,500 at FA Projects. This wonderful work is bound for the MAC/VAL Paris Museum in 2008.

More eye-catching retro sci-fi imagery was seen at Alexandre Pollazzon Ltd. The 26-year-old Zurich-based Fabian Marti's series of photographs made by scanning objects and book covers, La Maison du Coyote (kaleidoscope) (2007, in an edition of three with one artistís proof), sold for £1,300.

Damien Hirst continues to show his supreme talent and marketing genius by recycling his enormous wealth and producing relatively low-cost versions of his and other artistsí work -- and selling it all direct. Primarily a web-based company, Other Criteria, co-founded by Hirst with Hugh Allen, made its public debut at Zoo 2007. Originally set up to handle Hirstís prints and books, the company has begun to work with other artists like Ashley Bickerton, Mat Collishaw, Rachel Howard and Keith Tyson.

All 20 of Hirstís Happy Heads, human skulls with a spin-painted veneer, sold for £25,000 each, as well as many sets of Superstition Plates (edition of 250), a set of 12 bone china plates in presentation box, which also goes for £25,000. "Damienís a very generous individual," said Allen. "He encourages many of his staff who are artists. If there is an interesting project that catches his eye, he will often invest in a very philanthropic kind of way. Itís not a materialistic return -- itís for the love of it!"

The indefatigable artist and art dealer Wolfe Lenkiewicz, who operates the gallery T1+2, also traverses the boundary between art and commerce. "I donít think itís an uncompromising position to own a gallery and be an artist. My gallery evolved out of an artist-run space. Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons -- even Rembrandt -- have simultaneously sold and created great works of art!" A major solo show of over 30 of Lenkiewiczís drawings at Dickinsonís London branch, one of the worldís most exclusive purveyors of fine art, sold out to top collectors the night before Zoo opened.

At the fair, the T1+2 gallery featured top new talents like Oliver Clegg, Liane Lang, Fiamma Colonna Montagu, Polly Morgan, Jason Schulman and Petroc Sesti. Most of the works sold on opening day. The delightful Vanessa Branson bought Jose Maria Canoís Renault Scenic, a encaustic painting of the iconic news photo of the parents of kidnap victim Madeline McCann driving the eponymous vehicle, for £22,000. The purchase was a meaningful one, considering Bransonís brother, Virgin CEO Richard Branson, generously donated £100,000 to help the McCanns search for their missing daughter.

Collectors-turned-gallery-owners Tot Taylor and Virginia Damtsa, co-directors of the Riflemaker Gallery, have quickly risen to become two of the most important people on the London contemporary scene. "When we opened, the idea of it was to have young collectors, because Virginia and I were coming from the other side," said Taylor.

"We bought art because we liked it and wanted to serve people like ourselves. We didnít really have too many thoughts about the big American collector, the museum patron. But after about 18 months, they all started to come in because of the huge amount of press coverage we had about our exhibitions. So, our original base of collectors was young people, roughly the same age of the artists, who loved what we did."

So did collectors at Zoo. The young artist Francesca Loweís Tree of Life (2007), an amazing 3D painting that takes the viewer on a moral journey through life, sold for £45,000. From her new series of "diadem" paintings (named after the most sparkling jewel on top of the Queens scepter), Diadem 1 (2007) by Barcelona-based Marta Marcť was sold for £14,000.

Formally basing most of her abstract paintings on the shapes and colors of board games, her new works are made by creating plans of sparkling jewels on the floor, cutting them out, rearranging and painting the result. Marcťís diadem paintings are featured at the inaugural opening of Riflemakerís new 3,500-square-foot gallery at 1 Soho Square in December 2007, yet another "must see" event.

Lovers of contemporary art are grateful for the dedication and enormous effort exerted by director Soraya Rodriguez to make the Zoo Art Fair what it is today, one of the most exciting art events this seasoned fair-goer has seen in many years.

JOE LA PLACA is Artnetís London representative.