Fanzine Does New York Art Week 2011 (3)

Bradford Nordeen


This year’s Volta NY may just as well have called itself the gun show. Politics was the obvious agenda for most galleries this year and while that can be a great move for critical programming, it can also lead to a lot of loaded, same-y work, as was the case here. In all honesty, the selection committee made some very bad decisions and the majority of the work on view was of remarkably poor quality. Which is not to say that their set-up isn’t interesting; each exhibiting gallery must select an individual artist (and a couple paired) for exhibition. And bless the Armory for making their 83 international booths feel like a walk in the park.

Stepping off the elevator of a corporate building that faces the Empire State, you’re slammed with bold colored paintings by Peter Oppenheim and Summer Wheat at Samsøn, whose Boston gallery I remember from last year’s fair. It’s a strange move to top load the show with such poppy, painterly works, as most other pieces on display either employ a more minimal palette or cull from sculpture, collage and drawing to fashion more conceptually oriented work. Elisabeth Subrin’s wonderful Shulie film and film stills better exemplifies the show, which primarily engages portraiture as a platform for political critique. The 1997 film recreates a 1967 documentary surrounding a feminist artist from the “Now Generation,” Shulamith Firestone. The strained film portrait that emerges is charged, nostalgic and rather intangible to behold since it teeters between mimesis and post-modern distanciation. Mary Temple’s work at Mixed Greens gallery further raises the bar for this kind of political portraiture, as her quotidian drawings of world leaders from the front page of papers convey a sense of individual engagement and regimented routine.

A lack of subtlety characterized most other political gestures. Wilem Andersson’s paintings aim to create a theatrical “dreamlike fogginess” of memory and cultural associations, but instead, his paintings of abundantly decorated generals with their heads wrapped like mummies come off tacky and obtuse. Yevgeniy Fiks’ “American Cold War Veterans Association” portraits banally depict the veterans of a war that never took place. This work follows an overall trend at this year’s fair, where International galleries exhibit work that critiques US politics. While this is a valid form of engagement, its sheer abundance is startling and rather bratty. Gallery after gallery, I began to fantasize a scenario in which one gallerist thought up the idea, to be reactionary to their environs, only to show up and discover that they had engaged in collective thinking, that dozens of others arrived at the same tactic. In terms of attention grabbing, it’s about as original as neon. Which, of course, there is – “forget it – we can’t afford this” reads Kayan Stoyanov’s neon script at INDA, a Budapest gallery. “The Best Politics from Now on – Less Politics” reads an adjacent painting.

Then there’s the guns and other objects of mass destruction. Spanish artist Alberto Borea printed a gun ad on shiny metal. Deborah Grant made her gun out of paper. Korean artist Kwon Kyunghwan put his behind glass. Fabio Viale crafted a missile out of Styrofoam… oh wait, it’s marble. The best in gun show goes to German artist, Robert Kunec, whose sophomoric installation counted not only guns but photographs of plastic explosives named after the twelve apostles, a presidential podium fashioned like a cartoon confessional and an ironing board, upon which a camo iron smoothes the American flag.

This year, the breaths of fresh air blow in hard. Cape Town gallery WHATIFTHEWORLD’s  inclusion of Athi-Pathra Ruga is a welcomed jolt. Ruga’s vivacious woven wall works are made up of vibrant colors depicting harlequins and hunky skeletors. In their adept blend of fashion, art and performance, they contain an exuberance that is breathtaking within the context of Volta NY. As is ADA Gallery’s inclusion of the wondrous George Kuchar. Here photographs depict this venerable rascal from the 1960s underground film movement on film sets, on Santa’s lap or hanging out with his brother, Mike, friends or students. Kuchar now lives in San Francisco where he makes a yearly creature feature with his undergrad class at San Francisco Art Institute. The work on view, which includes wily drawings from the 70s, light boxes and ventricular photographs, is a testament to the depth of Kuchar’s creative vision. As one patron near-shouted to the charming gallery director, John Pollard, “this is just the most vital show at Volta!”

The Moving Image fair is a new addition to the art fair circuit – and an impressive start it is. Occupying the Terminal building off the West Side Highway formerly inhabited by Bridge Art Fair, the sleek fair offers a corrective the white box projections that most booths engage in, showcasing most of its work on two rows of opposite facing, uniform plasma monitors which hang from the ceiling. Each gallery in attendance exhibits one video piece. The result, when uncrowded, is an intimate experience seldom arrived at in the art fair bustle.

There is an impressive array of treats to behold, though most galleries have chosen to focus on contemporary work made within the past decade. Stand-out pieces include Oskar Dawicki’s Tree of Knowledge, 2008, exhibited by Postmasters Gallery, in which the artist bites into apple after apple, spitting out the pulp before leaning in for another taste. It’s a fantastic mix of obsessive and mystical, as the Dawicki eventually takes flight, in order to reach the highest offerings. Leslie Thorton’s Binocular (Parrot), 2010 is an aesthetically rigorous and fascinating formal study. As is Martin Hohout’s Moonwalk, 2008, which stacks youtube scroll bar atop youtube scroll bar in a diminishing pyramid, synchronized perfectly to its formal composition. Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s gem of a video for envoy enterprises, A Separate Piece, 2009 layers found footage from A Separate Peace a young adult film adaptation about the relationship between two boarding school students during World War II. It’s a startlingly beautiful work, which flows languidly, combining degraded video footage of the boys in a video collage style. And Shana Moulton’s The Galactic Pot Healer, 2010 adds a keen sense of humor into the mix.

Glen Fogel’s recent Participant Inc. installation, ‘With me… you’ is reproduced in full, here. A meditative and austere work, wedding rings of the artist’s family rotate as if on a tasteful version of the Home Shopping Network. One ring is missing its stone, a theft that occurred when Fogel attempted to return it to his mother via FedEx. This unfortunate violation became something of a happy accident for the work, as the missing stone adds a mortal gravity to the 5-channel projection, which eerily ebbs a melancholy feeling of loss. Fogel is also represented on the monitors by Calicoon Fine Arts. His monitor piece, Quarry, 2008, edits the artist into an episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” in which a pedophile thumbs the baseball caps of the boys that he’s molested. He brings their hats to his face and inhales their scent. The slowing down of this sequence and constant dither between source footage and reenactment grants the grim sequence a kind of metaphysical tone, as though this was not a morbid showcase but some prescient phenomenological ritual.

Further down the road marked the return of the Independent, a fair started last year by New York gallerist Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook of Hotel Gallery in London. Allegedly, “INDEPENDENT strives to reexamine traditional art fair models and methods of presentation, in response to the changing attitudes and growing challenges for artists, galleries, non-profits, curators and collectors as the experience of viewing and interacting with contemporary art in a group context.” In truth, the show is a cool school, which loads the old Dia building with good-posture contemporary art galleries and non-profit spaces. As a writer, the show presents a terrific challenge since there is no clear division between floor space, few name tags and a dearth of check lists. The pieces, mostly austere painting or sculptural work pose in an orbit drained of context or alterity. If, as Chris Kraus writes, "the work of art as such … exists to manufacture ambiguity" than Independent is a flagship vessel.

To think the fair in another way, perhaps there is excitement to be had in the mélange of space, a flow, from one territory to the next. This is the way of the world, right? Am I small minded for lusting after name tags, narratives, specificity? The show has more established galleries this year and is less erotic in its display of materials. Last year, oozing black was de rigueur. This time it’s concise and angular sculpture from which fecund objects sprout, and vaguely nostalgic painting.  Jack Hanley replaced last year’s DoLorean with Folke Köbberling and Marin Kaltwasser’s Thunderdome-like Saab 900, rust eaten and retrofitted with motorcycles protruding from its missing doors. Mary Mary hosted an impressive selection of painting and sculptural works and Rossella Biscotti’s The Undercover Man, 2008 annotated FBI photographs were fascinating. Without the booth, the territory is diffuse and I should find myself more engaged with the work than I am. Conceptually, there’s a diplomacy to this navigation of space. The works are not just tacked on the wall with a price dangling from them. But the kind of respect which Moving Image fair lent to each work, with a wall text for each video containing an artist synopsis, a gallery synopsis, even flashcodes to access additional information that grounds the work, conveys an aesthetic value, beyond posture, that I just don’t get out of Independent. As an artist, I’ve no doubt that fair is a great scene to be in on, though autonomy strangely seems to be a dirty word