A lot has already been said and written on the topic of this year’s Art Chicago/NEXT fairs: the notable absences, the drastic decrease in size, the business practices, and so on. However, I found it was still possible, amongst all the showiness and gimmickry that the fairs inevitably attract, to narrow down a few booths containing works by artists, in my opinion, deserving of recognition for managing to uphold quality amidst the circumstances.
Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago
Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery not surprisingly presents the works of Walter Hamady as straddling the line between the high art market of Chicago, and its roots in the everyday and the tradition of craftsmanship. The artist’s works become more delightful with the accompanying background narratives, however, outside of those stories, Hamady’s works so clearly stand on their own formally, conceptually and aesthetically as art objects.
The artist books and book-like assemblages employ pleasingly patina-ed found objects, sheaves of paper and expended cigar boxes, highlighting their deliberate oddness, and their material narrative.
Hespe Gallery, San Francisco
I had the pleasure of talking to painter Marianne Kolb (after my second or third trip through the booth!) about her works: curiously flat, glossy, but gestural amongst the other realist works in Hespe’s booth. Kolb explained to me that each painting must be completed in one sitting, or it’s scraped down and painted again, as her dry pigments and medium on Chinese newspaper are mixed directly onto the canvas.
In Chicago, where our own figurative tradition is so prominent, Kolb’s take on the San Francisco figurative tradition read (to me) as fresh and earnest, and far from the figurative painting I’ve come to expect. Minimal both in composition and palette, gestural, and highly stylized, but not distorted or broken, Kolb’s figure in Stationary in Unending Silence is monumental, and remarkably haunting.
The Nicole Villeneuve Gallery, Chicago
(Full disclosure: Two exhibiting artists, Chinatsu Ikeda and Elizabeth Tjepkema, are my dear friends, however I strongly believe that the work they are making and exhibited during the fair was unlike anything else on display.)
Ikeda’s vibrant, gestural paintings are in many ways what we love paintings to be: allegorical, while still formally concerned, and undeniably attentive to beauty. Ikeda’s paintings easily traverse through historical genres of still-lifes, landscapes and figures, bridging Modernist painting references with bits of an Eastern aesthetic and a self-referential vocabulary that we often identify with contemporary painting practice. Ikeda’s reoccurring themes of fish, light and shadow, and unstable structures are exuberantly described in masterful, tactile gestures.
Also in the Nicole Villeneuve booth, Tjepkema’s works are a continuation of her practice as one that merges a conceptual and material practice with one that makes an intellectual dialogue present in the domestic. Tjempkema is able to move seamlessly between the wall–bound and the sculptural, often times occupying a space in between, not quite one or the other. Her I can’t get this lamp open, and there’s a light bulb stuck inside sums up Tjepkema’s ability to appropriate a personal and domestic object, and present it formalized and at home in the stark, white-walled exhibition space.
Christopher West Presents, Indianapolis
Nick Allman’s site specific installation, Arco Lamp, is proof that it is entirely possible for a trade show booth to contain work that can be shown to exhibition-level quality, and also be at home in the space. It’s surprising that amongst all of the flashy, gimmicky instances in the fairs, that a piece can succeed at being both striking and subtle, simultaneously. This may be the only instance where a work is just as at home in the fair booth as it would be in the gallery or museum. With other works in the fair, we have to imagine what a piece would look like under different and better circumstances, but here, Allman’s installation has been constructed, installed and curated into an (arguably) ideal context.
Antena Estudio, Mexico City
Clearly a favorite, Antena Estudio’s booth at NEXT consisted of the work of Andres Basurto and Laura Ortiz Vega; though the artists use different media, they are clearly joined through their inclinations towards detail-oriented craftsmanship and re-purposed non-fine art material.
The wall-mounted sculptures by Basurto are meticulously assembled; a series of human skulls built to scale of broken and reconstructed wine and beer bottles obviously bear loaded subject matter. As the viewer must stand eye-to-eye with these objects, the intimate inspection reveals the shards of glass to be surprisingly solid, as what would seem to be a precarious patchwork of pieces is instead a careful selection of planes that brings to mind the fastness of dry-stacked stonework.
From a distance, Vega’s modestly-sized, two-dimensional works might seem to be simply realistically painted representations of graffiti in urban settings. However, the subtle sheen of the surface gives the works away for what they are: impeccably embroidered renderings of Mexico City street artist tags, painstakingly accurate, right down to the stains of the concrete sidewalks. Vega’s treatment of the clandestine, masculine subject matter through the use of an historically domestic craft takes on meaning that transcends both genres and results in an astounding end-product.