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Volta NY 2012


by Walter Robinson
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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Art fairs are fun. A new artwork here, a charming person there, it’s a flaneur’s delight, at least at the beginning, before everyone gets tired. That cranky skepticism that characterizes the official “critical” attitude of so many critics and reporters, that’s not for me. At least at the beginning, before I get tired.

Take yesterday’s VIP preview of Volta NY, Mar. 8-11, 2012, with 50 dealers all ready in their booths, arranged in what has fondly been called “the circles of hell.” One booth, one artist, one dealer, one city somewhere on the globe -- what could be simpler, what could be more all-encompassing? This brilliant equation makes art-fair cacophony fade into an easily grokked minimalist 1 + 1 + 1 + 1. 

The art-fair visitor is yin, while the art dealers are yang. The visitor is in a hurry, rushing from booth to booth, or from fair to fair. The dealers are static and waiting, since they are stuck in their booths for hour after hour, day after day.

My visit to Volta NY this year was perfectly short, a mere 90 minutes. But I wasn’t so much working as doing “social media,” specifically, taking pictures and immediately posting them to Instagram, the popular new photo-sharing app for smartphones -- you can’t see the pix online, only on the phone. The feed is linked to the “Artnet Newswire” twitter account, where the pictures and their captions also appeared. I managed to post seven jpgs in an hour and a half. Busy.

Instagram is a cool connection, but it’s a strange way to look at art. Half the time you stand there, frozen in traffic, zoned in on the digital device -- it’s an increasingly common sight -- while the real world swirls around you. You may be conducting a distracted conversation, probably with the subject of your Instagram, possibly on the topic of Instagram itself. It’s the essence of multitasking, awkward pauses filled with waiting for the phone to do its thing.

This behavior is pretty much acceptable, at least so far. I had a long conversation with the Düsseldorf gallery owner Christa Schuebbe, who founded her gallery in 1975 -- “37 years ago” -- and seemed almost joyful about working with young artists. Next up for her is Art Hong Kong, May 17-20, 2012, her fifth time, where last year she sold out her entire booth.

She lives on a farm in the country with her husband, who is not in the arts, and I was invited to visit, even though we’d met only moments before. In her booth was a group of five life-sized sculptures of golfers made entirely from Chinese fireworks by Carl Emanuel Wolff, along with an axle complete with two wheels, which gave the ensemble its name, Axis of Evil, a quotation from George W. Bush. The price for one figure is €36,000.

The whole time all this was being conveyed to me I was poking at my iPhone’s typewriter interface with my finger, in order to post the two jpgs that accompany this text. Similar feats of digital dexterity -- and I do believe that is a pun -- were accomplished in other booths.

There was Circa art fair founder Roberto Nieves’ Rica gallery from San Juan (“Rica” means “fun,” he said), which is showing some sculptures of twisted girders made from papier-mâché by artist Jorge Diaz-Torres. He also had crafted a full-scale model of a dispenser for bags of ice, protected by black metal bars that are a commonplace in Puerto Rico. With “hielo” kept under lock and key, the sculpture is a good metaphor for the art market. It’s a bargain at $10,000.

And then there was the crew from Melbourne, including Sutton Gallery director Elizabeth McDowell -- “Let me know if you have any questions!” -- and artist Stephen Bush, whose paintings of racehorses, done with oil and sign-painter’s enamel at a Greene Street studio in SoHo kept by the Australian government for artist residencies, are a good subject for art, considering all the predecessors.

But Instagram is about sharing, and it provides some gratification to see 40 or 60 “likes” for each picture -- Artnet’s Instagram has 6,000 followers so far -- providing a kind of feedback for art critics. It also provides a handy gauge of what is popular. My best effort had little to do with any art-critical function, I’m moderately sad to say. My most liked image was a close-up of four heavy silver skull rings on the hand of Jimi Dams, proprietor of Envoy Enterprises on Chrystie Street.

One image I failed to Instagram -- maybe I can upload it a little later -- was a painting in his booth by Erika Keck, who had made a small portrait with some utterly horrific jagged abstraction where the face should be. An eye-catching, unique work by a hot artist at a hip gallery, it was priced at a reasonable $3,500. Naturally, it had already been sold.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.