Thursday, 22 November 2012

From Documenta to the Affordable Art Fair

Although I have always nurtured a more than passionate interest in the arts, one of the first important contemporary art shows I ever had the fortune to see was the 1997, Documenta X, in Kassel, Germany, when I was twenty-five. Never before had I seen so much cutting-edge art all in the same town. It was a truly libidinous eye-opener for a young art enthusiast.  

Tunga, Inside out, upside down (Ponta Cabeça), 1994-97.
There was Tunga’s ‘Inside out, upside down, eerily suspended on the station platform; the 'A-Z Escape Vehicle' of Andrea Zittel - which I quite fancied curling up in - and then there was 'Resident Alien' by Israeli artist Sigalit Ladau, which involved a ‘perilous’ hike in what externally presented itself as an abandoned cargo container. This was a very interesting and poignant piece and the first interactive work of art I had ever ‘physically’ engaged with; an interaction that the artist certainly didn’t make easy. She had deformed the floor of a container with heat, creating an undulating landscape that represented the Judean Desert. The sound of a heavy hammer beating against a smaller hammer and a distant radio could be heard, as you comically attempted to scale the slippery mounds of the container floor. On reaching the other side of the ‘hill’ the viewer was presented with a hole in the right corner of the container, which you just had to look inside, that was, until you realised you had your head in a toilet – a clean one, I hasten to add – listening to an Arab radio station. There were obviously many more fascinating works throughout the town, but these are the ones that have remained most impressed in my mind.

Andrea Zittel, A-Z Escape Vehicle, 1996. Exterior and interior.
Since that experience, things have never quite been the same. And, although, in truth, an art fair is by no means comparable to an event like the one in Kassel, because it is a showcase of allegedly ‘meticulously’ selected commercial galleries and not really an  ‘exhibition’ in the true sense, of the word, I still often come away feeling a little bit cheated by the art world. Couple this with the fact I lived in Italy for nearly twenty years, 
Resident Alien I, 1997
Sigalit Ladau, Resident Alien. 
frequented many artists, critics, gallery owners, and visited as many art fairs and exhibitions that I possibly could, it might well be that I’ve subjected myself to some form of visual and intellectual asphyxiation – or maybe not...

However, I can't deny that this ‘disappointment’, along with my passion for art, continues, so when we popped down to the Battersea Affordable Art Fair on 26th of October, I was already mentally prepared and had persuaded myself to put my expectations aside, repeating the words “it is what it is”, over and over in my mind.

Hollie MacKenzie, Downfall.

A sea of visitors were swarming around the bright white entrance hall, with its splashes of fuchsia-coloured carpets and signs, where we were greeted by the recent graduates exhibition, curated by Jessica Hall. In my opinion, one of the works that stood out the most was ‘Downfall’ by Hollie MacKenzie, a hand-crafted, ‘melting’ wooden staircase, that looks like paint drips. And, although the artists states, “...explores the notions of utopia and dystopia, creating my own version of a dystopian landscape in the form of installation. [...] I take a part of the site, whether it is the ceiling, walls or the stairs, and distort it to a point that it no longer functions as an element in the design of the building, but becomes something dystopian, distorting its surroundings and environment to present an alternative, deviant reality. The theatrical and absurd realities of the installations present extreme and unfamiliar situations for the viewer to engage in and interpret its proximity to the reality we live in. [...] I investigated the notion of the 'stairway to heaven' – stairway to utopia – and created 'Downfall'. An installation which presents a distortion of a staircase and its passage way, reflecting the impossibility of reaching utopia”, I initially thought the sculpture alluded to the art world and the difficulties and delusions of an artist attempting to climb the ‘ladder of success’ in today’s socio-economic climate.

Beosmik Won, Archisculpture Project 008,
Diasec mounted, photographic print
Another artist that really appealed to me was Beomsik Won, with his 'Archisculpture Project', a limited edition series of alien, yet familiar black and white digital montages, featuring a curious and lysergic juxtaposition of landscapes, composed of ancient and urban architecture that unfold like an oneiric and freakish excursion in Disneyland - or possibly even one my own nightmares...

Inspired by the Flâneur concept of the metropolis, the purpose of this fascinating project is to "create a gigantic sculpture using architectural elements by different architects". Along with a number of references to consumerism, the works also brought to mind the concept of  the 'Ideal City', particularly toyed with during the Rennaisance, which can be traced back to the days of Plato and possibly even further.  

Beosmik Won, Archisculpture Project 010,
Diasec mounted, photographic print
Beosmik Won, Archisculpture Project 006,
Diasec mounted, photographic print.

Beomsik explains: "René Descartes claimed that in general, the design of the architecture built by one master is more beautiful and perfect than that of buildings by many architects. However, the purpose of the Archisculpture Project is to make a gigantic sculpture with a variety of building design characteristics by many different architects. [...] If there is the Punctum in photography, the elements of architecture I chose here would be my real Punctums, and the fabrication of these Punctums becomes the basis of the work. Within this project, various architectural elements are reborn as a gigantic and historic new sculpture. The Archisculpture Project creates new stories, connecting every meaning of architecture, or makes comments by dismantling a cityscape, rather than being merely an aesthetically pleasing artwork."

Andrew Reeve, Gathering the Harvest.
Puns on the art world ensued in Andrew Reeve’s works,  ‘Gathering the Harvest’, which consisted of a series of found framed pictures – an evident fetish of the artist - that have been turned to face the wall, whilst the back of the canvas has been pierced with the price they will be sold at, which can range from a few to a trillion pounds, depending, I presume, on how cynical the artist is feeling about the art market at the time. 

Bartholomew Beal, Melancholy Chime, oil on Canvas .

Bartholomew Beal’s atmospheric paintings show great promise and a love of tradition, with their solitary figures, often suspended in an indefinite space or set against geometrical forms. “Each painting begins as a pared down illustration of an Imagist poem, but there is consistently a point that the paint takes over, and each addition or subtraction that follows lies as evidence of its poetic mood. I would like my paintings to be a healthy tussle between the considered specifics of poetry and a deliberate surrender to the unpredictability of paint, because my paintings gain as much from trial, error and accident as they do from painterly proficiency”, affirms the artist.

Sanghyun Kim, Awake.
Worthy of mention, were also the intricate, large-scale works by Sanghyun Kim, who seems to be exploring ancient Japanese traditions in a new key, with his tumultuous waves and ‘mushroom clouds’, created using burning incense on Asian paper, which have a subtle and compelling uniqueness.

Inside, where more than 100 galleries awaited with their fare, we were met by the sweltering dry heat, customary at trade shows and in department stores; an endless array of landscapes, still life, Athena poster-style hyper-realism and supposedly ‘provacative’ photography that always remind me of images from masturbatory coffee table books,  ‘Reader’s Wives’ Polaroids or photo shoots for fashion magazines. In synthesis, nothing that made me go “Wow”. This said, I really enjoyed it and, although a little repetitive at times, the overall quality of the exhibits were good.

Graeme Wilcox, The Time Machine, oil on canvas.
I think the exhibitor that stood out the most for me was The Contemporary Fine Art Gallery, Eton. Established twenty years ago by Elizabeth Bayldon Pritchard, the gallery principally specialises in contemporary Scottish and British painters and Zimbabwean Shona sculpture. With an  interesting selection of artists, I was particularly taken by Graeme Wilcox, who currently lives and works in Glasgow. Beautifully executed and engaging, the artist often depicts solitary figures caught in a moment of action or emotion. Since graduating from the Glasgow School of Art, he has exhibited in the UK, America, Canada and Russia and has been awarded a string of prizes, including the Black Swan Publishers Award and the Celeste Art Prize.

I also really loved the works of Ryan Mutter, another Glasgow School of Art graduate, which, judging by the gallery’s website are selling out fast and furiously. Influenced by the likes of Edward Hopper, Anselm Kiefer, ClaudeMonet, Sir Muirhead Bone and Joseph Mallord William Turner, this skilful artist is inspired by industrial subjects, which are quite rightly described as: “bold realism combined with sometimes expressionistic brushwork, that transports you into a world of arresting detail and mechanized splendour”.

Ryan Mutter, Heading Quayside, oil on canvas.

He too has brought home several prestigious awards and has works in collections worldwide. The artist is particularly fascinated by Britain’s industrial heritage and Glasgow’s significant role in the ship building industry. “At the time of the First World War, shipbuilding provided work for 70,000 men in more than 50 yards spread along 11 miles of quayside. But today, the Clyde sits empty, a shadow of its former self, with executive flats and empty waste ground dominating the landscape. 

Ryan Mutter, Beneath Britanic, oil on canvas.
The advances in technology and design methods superseded the old, making once important skills and craftsmanship redundant. This is what drives me to observe, capture and remind people of how important this work force was in the development of the modern world”.

His use of a limited palette, chiefly black and white with the odd flash of colour, and striking imagery of imposing ships and workers bent against the elements, takes the viewer on a suggestive journey to these grey and laborious days gone by.

By Sarah Silver

*All images copyright of the respective artists and photographers.

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