Monday, March 30, 2009

PRIVATE EYE on the Scope and Armory Art Fairs/ NYC 2009

What I learned at the Scope Art Fair in New York this weekend is that the really exciting art is all happening in Berlin. Collector Michael Hort tried to tell me last summer…but I didn’t really believe it until I saw the galleries lined up side by side. My favorite booth, Wilde Gallery, featured street artist EVOL, who created city architectures with up to 75 layers of stencil applied with spray paint to found, flattened cardboard cartons. Price was immaterial – nearly every single piece had a red dot next to it, invoking the dealer’s motto that good work “sells itself.” The artist also had made a practice of transforming street electrical boxes into “little buildings” (i.e. on the street, also with stencils) and had the good fortune to be there when the City of Berlin was upgrading these boxes into an “undulating” style which resists tagging; thus the cheap old Platenbauden from the days of the DDR became “little building” bookcases. At $10,000, there were three left on Friday, before the weekend rush. Another tagger had left his signature on the sample during the Fair.

I heard a lot at Scope about LA painter Allison Schulnik, and her meteoric rise to fame since this time last year. Known for her thick impasto – compared in Art in America to “cupcake frosting” – Schulnik’s Cal Arts training was in animation, so her “Hobo Clown” character is available in 3 formats: painting, sculpture or clay animation video. In a series of 5, with two Artist’s Proofs, $6,000 buys you a signed DVD, which would probably be replaced by the artist if it ever got scratched. Again, this series at Mike Weiss Gallery was just about sold out by Friday morning.

The media machine is lapping up Schulnik’s mythology like whipped cream, but a savvy collector analyzed this work based on two factors: a “hook” -- check, that thick, swirling impasto that looks good enough to eat caught her eye – but then there’s the second factor, which is the final determination as to whether the collector puts down her credit card: is there more than meets the eye, beneath the surface? “Forget what other people are doing,” this collector advised, regarding the “rush” to collect Schulnik’s work. “Do you want to live with it the rest of your life?” Ultimately, the collector took a pass, calling the work not “mysterious” enough.

There was no coffee at collector and New Museum VP Laura Skoler’s open house breakfast, just mimosas. Drinking spiked orange juice, overlooking the city and the white planes of Laura’s apartment plastered in contemporary art, coffee was extraneous. I couldn’t help but overhear a statuesque blond tell two collectors from Kansas City that “you can always tell which artists are going to last.” When I asked her to explain, this curator, who specializes in emerging art and who recently returned to New York from LA, said it was a lot harder to define how she knows than it is to know, but ultimately said that her call was based on (1) whether an artist is already doing important work and (2) how connected they are to the network of artists that came before them. For example, she went to see Shepard Fairey at the Public Library. “Everyone thinks Shepard Fairey’s the Second Coming, but he disregarded any connection between his work and…Andy Warhol’s, for example, and didn’t even know the meaning of the word ‘appropriation.’” She said she left the event early.

The Armory Show took over two piers this year, one for contemporary and one for modern art. I went in at the Contemporary side of things, where the building was faced with huge canvases of what looked like spray-painted Kenny Scharf designs; later I learned they were “action,” paintings, done “live” by Kenny in a space suit rather than his underwear, due to the weather. There was also a space man driving around front in a goofy, custom golf cart, handing out donuts: this seemed to drive high attendance at Kenny’s dealer’s booth, which I avoided like St. Patrick’s Day in Hoboken, but understand was mobbed.

There was confusion among attendees about where the line was drawn between Contemporary and Modern art, but the young man in the press office made it plain that “modern” meant “resale.” In a year where money for “emerging” art is down considerably over last year, it made sense, according to one collector, for show management to appeal to more established collectors with perhaps deeper pockets by also including Cy Twombly, Joseph Cornell, Jackson Pollock and other artists with more established values in this year’s show. Talking to collectors in the coffee bar, one elderly New Yorker lauded the Contemporary venue for being “more about art” this year, with less video and installation. Painting did seem to be making a comeback, although she and many other attendees mentioned being “overwhelmed” with the amount of visual stimulus. “Your brain draws the line at 1,000 images,” she said significantly.

Art consultant Cheryl Perkey, in town from LA and shopping for several collectors, liked Andy Goldsworthy at Booth 119 (Springer & Winckler), the images of the “Transparent City” (see-through buildings and the people who populate them) at Booths 433 (Robert Koch Gallery) and 446 (Julie Saul Gallery), Beth Campbell’s branched hanging sculpture, and particularly the “flow-chart of ideas” behind it, in Booth 831 (Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery), plus the work of Vic Muniz at Booth 721 (Sikkema Jenkins & Co). Noting that half of Cheryl’s picks were in the “modern” side of the show, I walked with another collector – who said he couldn’t stand any more of the “gimmicks” of the Contemporary side-- up a crazy, steep tower of roll-away stairs that connected to the Modern pier.

And there we breathed a sigh of relief. At last we had found the really gorgeous art. Very impressive show; not stuffy. For example, there was a Stairns Twins revolving sun piece at which, like its namesake, you could not stare. The atmosphere was less midway and more library, with thick, hushed carpets. There was some flat Cornell collage work at the very reasonable price of less than $10,000, and, at a Berlin dealer, Dash Snow’s work, produced for a solo show there a few years ago, was going for about half the original price. The Modern dealers looked disappointed not to have the crazy crowds found on the Contemporary side, but I wonder – who will come out ahead in terms of sales?

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