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by Pedro Vélez
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Believe it or not, art fairs are living organisms, born in rented wombs and raised under the thumb of dubious art-market morals. Once they reach adulthood, artists thirsty for recognition stick to them like remoras. Only a handful grow to be successful while most are fairly plain and predictable.

So it was perfectly fitting that hours before the opening of Art Los Angeles Contemporary , Jan. 27-30, 2011, at Barker Hangar at Santa Monica Airport, the Los Angeles Times published "Art Fair, Please Step Up," an alarmist story by reporter Jori Finkel that suggested that a weakling ALAC was beset by bullies. The evil-doers were none other than Merchandise Mart Properties, the ambitious art-fair machine that runs the Armory Show, Volta and Art Chicago, and Steven Cohen, the local photography dealer and daddy of 20-year-old Photo L.A. as well as its absent sibling Art L.A. Ironically, the latter fair had been operated by ALAC’s current director and owner, Tim Fleming.

Finkel’s mischievousness aside, it was not hard to picture Alicia Silverstone’s pretty putty mouth reciting her famously rude exclamation, "As if!" MMPI may be a worthy contender (via acquisitions), but it has yet to revive the once majestic Art Chicago brand. And as for the hardworking Cohen, it is a matter of faith that he brought in Fleming specifically to give his fairs the je ne sais quoi they had always lacked. 

But the eternal question remains: Can Angelenos host multiple fairs without hacking each other to pieces? The answer is a resounding yes. At least according to dealers I talked to during ALAC’s kick-off party, hosted by dealer Christine Nichols at her home in Venice Beach. Designed by Maya Lin, the compact structure features one large brown wall, covered with pinholes and bisecting the house floor to ceiling. Nichols explained that Lin’s wall, titled Constellation, is loosely based in the arrangement of stars seen in the sky on Aug. 26, 1920, which is the day that the 19th Amendment was passed, awarding women the right to vote.

Overall, the mood at the party was optimistic, and it stayed that way throughout the weekend.

The fair, ultra-cool & spacious
The ambiance was ultra-cool, with tremendously spacious booths and hallways that looked dramatic against the pitch-black domed ceiling of the hangar. Small airplanes lining the airport’s runway were visible from the fair’s makeshift amphitheater, assembled from shipping crates and designed by artist Liz Glynn. This year, the fair included close to 70 galleries and alternative spaces, mostly from the West Coast but also from Boston, Germany, Korea, Ireland, London, New York and Toronto.

Among the "trends" I noticed were the frequent use of mirrors as support surfaces, an abundance of hanging sculptures, irregularly shaped paintings and, lastly, asses. Yes -- works referencing the asshole. L.A.’s own David Kordansky Gallery had many. One was a shiny kinetic sculpture by Richard Jackson of a rotating bear, standing upside down, with an oil funnel up his -- you guessed right! -- ass. Valued at $120,000, it was probably the most expensive thing on view.

What’s an art fair without a red carpet? During the Thursday night preview, the fair was rushed by beautiful actors, hip dressers and super collectors, among them Neil Patrick Harris, legendary record producer Rick Rubin, Rachel Griffiths, and Jane Seymour, still hot at 59. Other art-world staples included NADA director Heather Hubbs, art writer Andrew Berardini, Jumex Collection founder Eugenio López, supercollectors Susan and Michael Hort, and the director of Verge Fair Brooklyn, Michael Workman. And just for the record, I did get to play paparazzi with Adrien Brody on Saturday, but managed to miss the arrival of Serena Williams.

All told, though, the real star of the night was L.A. photo-surrealist Gerald Davis. His large painting Heartache Vase, priced at $20,000, sold as soon as the gates opened. Word on the street is that fashion photographer Mario Testino bought it. From a distance the painting looks like a flower vase made of swirls in bright red and pink, but closer inspection reveals a drippy orgy of kissing phalluses and vulvas.

Strangely enough, the work reeks of Eugène Delacroix and Balthus, stylistically speaking. One woman next to me kept repeating to herself, "Amazing, amazing, and amazing." I couldn’t agree more. Davis is represented by Parker Jones Gallery in L.A. and his paintings can be found in the Saatchi Collection and the Whitney Museum. Did I mention that he was my roommate ages ago? I’m so happy for the dude. And as an understandably excited Parker Jones declared, "Everybody is rooting for it."

Performance art was given main stage at ALAC. Favored by many was musician and artist Brendan Fowler, who performed live each day in the booth of New York’s UNTITLED gallery (ordinarily found at 30 Orchard Street). Now, get a load of this: UNTITLED’s booth at ALAC was supposedly a recreation of UNTITLED’s virtual booth in the VIP Art Fair -- or so they said. All I saw were big, grainy printouts of a computer desktop covering the booth’s walls. But it gets better. In something of a conceptual "whodunit," visitors lucky enough to successfully log onto VIP’s site could apparently see Fowler play live from ALAC. Again, I wouldn’t know if this plan actually came to fruition because I can only be at one place at one time time. . . and I don’t own an iPhone.

Another hit with the crowd was a hectic performance by the troupe A. Bandit (featuring Glenn Kaino and Derek DelGaudio), that was presented by LA><ART and Artbook | D.A.P. For this one, a film crew recorded the artists as they grabbed up artworks off the walls and placed them inside a crate. During the performance one of the dudes screamed into a megaphone something like, "My house is a house of art but you are turning it into a den of thieves." The act ends when the crate is violently raised by pulleys towards the ceiling, revealing its empty insides.

Patrick Painter had a popular booth, with its life-sized, glazed ceramic sofa adorned with flowers by Liz Craft (valued at $62,500). Another work by Craft really got visitors snapping pictures: On the wall, on a small shelf, was the bubbly face of a clown (also made in glazed ceramic) whose inner thoughts were brought to life through a text bubble drawn on the wall, reading, "Everyone hates me because I’m an asshole."

Another busy booth was that of Luis de Jesus Gallery, whose frantic multimedia installation about crime and violent video games, by Federico Solmi, is appropriately titled Douche Bag City. The work was originally exhibited at the Site Santa Fe Biennial in 2010, and it consists of 15 individual animations on LCD panels that run in an endless loop. Luis de Jesus, who graduated from Parsons not long ago, told me that he was closing on a sale and that he anticipated bringing in a high $20k.

"I represent practices, not objects," explained Shirley Morales of ltd | Los Angeles, who was showing sculptures and assemblages by artist Rachel Foullon. Foullon’s work consists of semi-abstract slanted wall sculptures, made in diverse materials like dyed canvas, cedar and ordinary hardware evocative of camping trips, the countryside and rugged hiking gear. The works were reasonably priced in the vicinity of $5,000-$7,000.

Alexa Gerrity, a multimedia artist who spent time in Chile, presented part of her series "Venus Effect" at The Company, a two-year-old Chinatown gallery. The work that grabbed me was an installation of a mirror with white text painted over it that reads, "I am a magnet to men." But, of course! Gerrity calls her plays on words "mantras," and one is being produced on site in the bathroom of a collector in Zürich. Her works were crazy cheap, priced at $4,000.

On Saturday, business was booming at Annie Wharton Los Angeles, who had sold at least six altered movie posters by renegade artist Bobbi Woods, in the price range of $1,200-$2,000. Another busy booth was that of Chelsea’s Josée Bienvenu Gallery, which was offering a wide selection of watercolors by the Brooklyn artist Ken Solomon. His thing is recreating, to the smallest detail, via watercolor and gouache, Google searches (for subjects including Lichtenstein, Fright Wig Warhol, etc.). Definitely a gimmick, but with prices starting at $5,000, who can complain. According to Bienvenu, she sold one to Eugenio Lopez of the Jumex Collection. Another happy dealership was Regina Gallery from London and Moscow, who reported respectable business selling editioned photos (at $5,000 each) of sexy nudies and urban decadence by Sergey Bratkov.

Things went well too for LM Projects, another new Los Angeles gallery. "I’m very surprised, the space is better than last year’s and we have received a good response from collector Dean Valentine and curators from the Santa Monica Museum," said a happy Lorraine Molina. Her good mood seemed related to the fact that text-based drawings from the series "Everything Has Always Already Begun," by recent Cal Arts grad Cody Trepte, were selling like hotcakes at $1,400 a piece. 

But sometimes, life is just not fair. One of my favorite works at ALAC was priced moderately at only $800 and still hadn’t sold by Saturday. It was a goofy sad, bent and almost invisible yellow sculpture resting against the wall by Milwaukee’s Paul Stoelting at Pepin Moore Gallery.

My favorite painting at ALAC was Hungarian artist Zsolt Bodoni’s evocative Chair of God ($16,000). The painter works vast compositions in wide and thinned brushwork, picturing what seems to be monuments and relics wrapped in heavy atmospheres. Chair of God looks like an anvil table or old press discarded in a cold mountain. Another painting, Holy Right Relic, priced at $10,000, had sold by Friday. Bodoni is represented by the affable and cool pair of Mihai Nicodim and Luana Hildebrandt, who told me they weren’t expecting to sell much but that "we have to do this fair. . . we need to contribute."

Other standouts at ALAC: Camilo OntiverosTurquoise Maytag Dryer ($9,500) painted in automotive paint at Steve Turner Contemporary, Gavin Perry’s free standing sculptures in candy colors at Miami’s Fredric Snitzer Gallery; and strange abstract cutouts resembling tree trunks by Philip Loersch at Galerie Jette Rudolph (Berlin). In addition, New York’s The Hole reported good sales with works by the popular comic-book artist Taylor McKimens, and it’s also worth noting is the fact that West of Rome, a nonprofit dealing with public art, showed Jennifer Bolande’s plywood curtains -- these were originally installed inside vacant store windows all over town.

On my way out I found Jeffrey Deitch himself proceeding down the aisle at a quick and steady pace. I asked to take his photo and he agreed. We walked for a bit a then he told me, "Here, I like this one." The booth belonged to Standard from Oslo and the work was by the Norweigan artist Fredrik Værslev, whose paintings have laborious yet delicate surfaces made to look oxidized. Priced at €6,500, most were already marked sold. But I was more impressed by Deitch’s demeanor. He might be a museum director now, but the man remains an art dealer at heart.

Some L.A. galleries
Never mind that expensive painting show by Nigel Cooke at Blum and Poe in Culver City, I saw something better. It was Cal Arts comedian Eric Yahnker’s "Cracks of Dawn" at rental space Kunsthalle L.A. The gigantic installation was produced by the Seattle gallery Ambach & Rice. Yahnker is a smart ass in the vein of Martin Creed. His large charcoal drawings bring together disparate elements lifted from pop culture and food to form one hilarious punch line where nothing is sacred. Like in The Big Con-onization (Mutha from Calcutta), a hyper realistic rendering of Mother Teresa of Calcutta smoking a thick cigar in typical rapper pose. In another, a frozen slice of pizza sits stale on top of a paper plate that seems to be floating over a backdrop made of flowers. Yahnker also makes the absurd seem scary by replicating famous portraits of icons, replacing their heads with grotesque sock puppets. His face is a violent mask and her rendition of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, in which her bosom is visible, is simply heart-wrenching.

A short drive from Chinatown in Echo Park is Statler Waldorf Gallery, named after the pair of old-coot hecklers in the Muppets. This alternative space is L.A.’s version of an apartment gallery and is run by New York expatriate Molly Larkey, who confirmed the widely held notion that L.A.’s vibrant scene is a direct product of its many art schools. There I saw a sweet, freestanding fragile sculpture made out of glue, charcoal and a pipe clamp by Kelly Cline.

Tuck & Richards Collection
"Collecting is like cruising, they’re both about the gaze." said Geoff Tuck and David Richards almost in unison. Tuck is the well-read blogger who authors Notes on Looking, and Richards is an architect. Tuck never studied art yet he remembers fiddling with curiosity at the Pasadena Museum when he was young. Their collection consists largely of works by young L.A. artists. Tuck can tell you where and when he bought everything. He also explained that his works are invaluable because they accompanied him through a painful kidney and pancreas transplant in 2008.

One gem is Little Flamer, a photo of a peeling candle resembling paint skins, by David Gilbert, a grad of the University of California in Riverside. In a process similar to that of Thomas Demand, Gilbert makes small sculptures out of fabric, cardboard, paper, wood, plaster and paint, and then photographs the result.

Another highlight of the collectionwas Skylar Haskard’s makeshift pedestal Sandwich Man from a reenactment of Allan Kaprow’s Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts, organized by Steve Roden for MOCA at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in 2008. And a wall sculpture made of striped flags by Florian Morlat.

Both works were tucked in a corner, hardly fitting in the apartment. In all, this is not easy art to live with, but the fact that Tuck and Richards have manage to embrace it as part of their environment makes the work even better.

PEDRO VÈLEZ is an artist and critic living in Chicago