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Zona Maco 2011

by Linda Yablonsky
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Art fairs are the worst places to look at art. With their awful lighting and grab-bag atmosphere, the environment is more conducive to chit-chat than any meaningful consideration of art. Yet we keep going, looking for weathervanes but settling for hot air, happy when the fairs put down stakes in places where art people like to be.

Mexico City is one of those places. The city has a vibrant museum culture, a fantastic architectural landscape, great food, good hotels, a close-knit community of galleries promoting local and international talents, the biggest collection of contemporary art in Latin America (Fondaccion Jumex), and the richest man in the world. It also has Zona MACO (México Arte Contemporaneo), a modest international showcase for 100 galleries that cater to a coterie of homegrown collectors with deep pockets, unpredictable tastes and an inclination to set their own price points.

But collector hubris was not all that gringo dealers participating in the fair’s eighth edition, Apr. 6-10, 2011, had to grin and bear. They also had to dig in for a five-day slog through "Mexico time," a euphemism for hurry up and wait. Ahora, the word for "now" in Spanish, really means anytime from now to whenever, and though the fair clocked 35,000 visitors by the end of the week, most came through the doors of the Centro Banamex only in its last two days -- bridge-and-tunnel period in New York.

During its opening hours, attendance at Zona Maco was sparse and sales were "dismal," as one impatient observer put it, though Miami collector Ella Cisneros wasted no time putting dibs on Spencer Finch’s €50,000, 2 hours, 2 minutes, 2 seconds (Wind at Walden Pond), a 2007 installation of 44 fans at the Lisson Gallery stand. I stopped by several times; whenever the air in the convention center grew stale, those fans brought a welcome breeze.

Lisson shared pride of place at the fair’s center with other blue-chippers like David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Eigen & Art and Kurimanzutto, all of which brought big-ticket secondary-market items of some visual heft but no great surprise, though Marcel Dzama livened up the Zwirner stand with a personal appearance.

I liked Hauser & Wirth’s booth-wrapping suite of 79 monochrome marker drawings by Martin Creed -- at $280,000, one of the priciest works at the fair. Zwirner had Set Theory (1997-2000), a three-part installation (sculpture, drawing, painting) by MoMA star-to-be Francis Alÿs; and Kurimanzutto raised the flag for a "fragmented painting" that Abraham Cruzvillegas made by cutting and painting invitation cards, menus, newspaper ads, tickets and the like in red, yellow and very dark blue ($45,000). Who’s afraid of the decorative? In Mexico City, no one.

Front and Center at London’s Max Wigram were paintings by Slater Bradley, as well as Bradley himself, who joined Victor Zamudio-Taylor (advisor-in-chief to Jumex collector Eugenio Lopez Alonso) for a conversation in the fair’s makeshift auditorium, a back room padded by a bouncy raised floor and bleachers made of bound cardboard and pieces of brown wrapping paper. Very artsy.

Eigen + Art, still married to the Leipzig school, had a 2003 Neo Rauch painting for sale at $953,000, but it was a collection of small pigment-print Madonnas over-painted by Annelies Strba that caught my attention. Hung together in a grid pattern, it seemed a shame to break them up, even at $400 a pop.

Barbara Thumm, who shared a booth with Alexander and Bonin, was showing Pudding and Soup, an installation of cut-paper drawings and objects by the late Anna Oppemann last exhibited in 1985 (and now $150,000), and small oils of bathtub scenes by Valérie Favre ($5,000).

Come to think of it, most of the artists who held the day at Zona Maco were women. Standing out among the Anish Kapoors and Ryan Ganders at Lisson, for example, were three gorgeous geometric paintings by Carmen Herrera, the 95-year-old, Cuban-born New Yorker whose formalist art entered the public arena when she was 89, the year she sold her first painting. (Prices now range from $60,000 to $100,000.) You thought Louise Bourgeois had a long wait for recognition? Herrera is a great discovery.

Another one, at least for me, was 77-year-old Portuguese artist Helena Almeida, who has never had a show outside Europe. Wake up, Americans! In each of her three black-and-white, self-portrait photographs at Lisbon’s Galeria Filomena Soares, Almeida’s face was hidden from view, which made her all the more mysterious. The poignant grabber was a unique, $45,000 print from 2001, The Experience of the Place. It showed her lying prone between two chairs on the tile floor of an empty café -- a bit Pina Bausch, but substituting irony for melodrama.

The potential for making such finds is the draw of any art fair, and for those of us just getting acquainted with Latin American artists whose work seldom appears north of the border, even sleepy Zona Maco had plums. Most were on the sidelines in "Zona Maco Sur," a 20-gallery section of solo projects by artists from the southern hemisphere – all of them women chosen by Brazilian-born Adriano Pedrosa, co-curator this year (with Jens Hoffman) of the upcoming Istanbul Biennial.

São Paulo’s Galleria Millan had a winner with Mira Schendel monotypes from the 1960’s and 70’s. At the other end of the generational spectrum, Bogota’s Galeria Casas Riegner brought a group of $2,000 works on paper by Maria Fernanda Plata, a young conceptualist who starts with a measurement – say, 500 grams or one kilometer – and keeps sewing or painting or cutting approximations of urban architecture until she reaches her limit.

Sandra Cinto, who has a waiting list in São Paulo, continued her Ukiyo-e-style "irritations of water" series at Casa Triangulo with a labor-intensive, $120,000 ballpoint-ink painting-and-bench installation. It looked gimmicky to me. So did Pia Camil’s shaped monochromes at Bogota’s La Central Colombia booth, but her saturated colors drew me in. Based on ten tinted Polaroids of structures around Mexico City, they had no trouble attracting buyers who paid a wallet-friendly $4,000 for each.

For Lima’s Revolver Gallery, Gilda Mantilla brought white-on-black portrait drawings of open-mouthed people found in horror movie stills, a series inspired by a quote from Jean-Luc Godard: "We must confront vague ideas with clear images." Amen.

Performance poked its head into the Proyectos Monclova stand, as over the course of the fair, retired dancers commissioned by Nina Beier silently went through every move of every dance they had ever made, in chronological order yet. And the D.F.’s Labor Gallery showed bullet-riddled metal doors that Teresa Margolles cut from a wall in a Mexican border town -- testaments to a place where scores that are settled by the gun are so commonplace they no longer attract notice -- except from artists, apparently.

At the far side of the fair, I spotted Art Basel co-director Marc Spiegler exploring "New Proposals," Zona Maco’s version of the Swiss fair’s "Art Nova," where small booths are reserved for galleries under five years old. Sue Scott Gallery from New York was present with garden-fence paintings by Tom McGrath that looked like border-patrol surveillance images in this context, and the itinerant The Pool NYC showed up with tiny cardboard wall works that the obsessive Jonathan Rider had made with tweezers, paint and glue (all under $1,500).

I was surprised to see former New Yorker Massimo Audiello here, manning the booth for his new gallery in Oaxaca. Among his wares were three works by Luis Carrera-Maul consisting of art magazines compressed into squares that looked like paintings ($3,000). From Guadalajara came Promotora Arte, where director Ignacio Orozco put together a show that included a clothespin with a fetching loop of magnetic tape on its head ($700) by Daniel Monray, who also contributed a zippy video of a man running a spiral jetty of a track through a desert that swallowed up his steps as he went, and then magically reappeared on the return trip. Kinda fun.

In the end, dealers seemed prepared to meet low expectations. If Zona Maco encouraged greater ambition among them, the fair might serve up more thunderclaps than toe holds. If it is small potatoes in the global market, it is still making that market’s Balkanized borders more porous.

“Zona México Arte Contemporaneo,” Apr. 6-10, 2011, Centro Banamex, Hall D, Concrito 311
Miguel Hidalgo, 11510 Mexico City.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.