A Scratching Not a Biting (Art Review, Mar 2016)

A Scratching Not a Biting

Bureau, New York

10 January 10 – 14 February 14 2015

DG.2015.S.2395.StonewareMural_detail.1.nilThe words ‘A Scratching Not a Biting’ evoke wilful action and physical sensation. Picture a dog scratching purposefully at the ground, creating both a performance and a visible mark. ‘Not a biting’ suggests an avoidance of direct aggression, however; despite their expressive or sensual tenor, the works in this exhibition – which encompass performance (captured on video), painting, sculpture and photography – don’t force their presence or stray far from a sense of humour or self-effacement.

Like that scratching dog, the motivation behind Aaron Garber-Maikovska’s movements in the video Kitchen (2011) remains unclear. Nonetheless, the fervent gestures he performs in a nondescript kitchen are highly compelling. He homes in on the bare countertop, slapping it with his palms, plotting swiftly with his fingertips and bouncing his hands as if follow- ing an invisible plan, almost as if the surface were hot to the touch. In this wordless demonstration one senses that the strength and determination of his actions, which flow without pause, are born not of forethought but of an obsessive compulsion he has come to accept and to use. These movements appear refined by the force of habit and repetition; the sound of his gasps and short breaths adds to this atmosphere of urgency and dynamism.

Garber-Maikovska’s performance is echoed nicely in three of his ink-and-pastel compositions (all 2015), whose coloured patches and black swipes testify to the energy that drives his artistic  output. Two oil paintings by Charlie Billingham, Strike 1 and Strike 2 (both 2015), express a similar expressive force, though this time it is contained within the subject matter and its implicit narrative: in each painting a figure in profile, the head and legs of which have been strangely cropped, hugs its torso tightly, giving off an air of stubborn anticipation; the paintings are hung next to each other so that the figures appear to be standing back-to-back. What looks like a truncheon is thrust beneath their arms, and the unruly, outdated clothing combined with a certain cartoonish handling implies that these are characters culled from nineteenth-century satirical drawings. The paintings are compelling not least for this unusual air of anachronism and the swapping of colours between them: denied any background context, one figure wears a blue shirt and is placed against an emerald green field; the other sports a shirt of the same green against a background of the matching blue.

The work of the other three artists in the show is loosely conversant in a different way. Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel work together, often learning a new craft technique for the purpose of making something as a combined effort. Their humbly titled Stoneware Mural with Pipes No. 2 (2015) is an uncanny piece. From a roughly two-metre-wide landscape panel composed of fired ceramic tiles in varying shades of yellow and light brown protrude ten curved or comically straight-stemmed pipes attached to the tiles by their bowls. Their placement is odd,  and without apparent reason, reminding one perhaps of crustaceans that have affixed themselves to a sea wall. They point across the room towards two sculptures, demurely titled Stoneware Vessels (2013), also by Dewar and Gicquel, which are modelled on a toilet bowl and bidet. The wall flanking the Stoneware Vessels displays two untitled photographs by Carina Brandes, in each of which two naked figures recline and slide over a bronze bear statue. Slightly blurred, the people strive to cling to the polished, rounded body of the animal (a form slightly echoing the Vessels), while each person’s gender is kept hidden. We see only their forms in profile, torsos curled over with their behinds facing each other (echoing Billingham’s figures), or holding on by the hips, legs bent with hair falling over their faces. One detects a deliberate play by the exhibition’s organisers here between phallic pipes, bathroom-related sculptures and these slippery, noir-ish bodies.

In tune with its title, which conveys expressive curiosity over conclusive action, A Scratching Not a Biting assembles a group of works that might at first seem ambiguous in their intentions. As one explores the show, however, subtle connections – between figures who don’t face each other, for example, the shapes of bathroom ware and bodies, or move- ments exacted on a kitchen surface or canvas – reveal simultaneously the strength of each artist’s work and an intriguing cadence of sensations among them.

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The Setting is Paramount (Randian, Feb 2016)

Of the reports that bounded online after the first day of Paramount Ranch last weekend, little was said in criticism. They focus on the unusual character of this small fair, in which participating galleries position artworks around an old wooden ranch hiding in the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles County. Artspace found it “uniquely pleasant”; Artnet credited it with being “free-spirited” and for “putting a fresh spin on the format”; W with satisfaction called it the “wild west of art fairs”. A less impressed gallerist there said, “People just like coming to LA”. Paul McCarthy’s giant green inflatable “Tree”, visible from the road, penetrated the vista disproportionally to signal the fair’s presence and provide amusing photo opportunities.

A view of Paramount Ranch art fair.

A view of Paramount Ranch art fair.

The ranch and surrounding site was purchased by Paramount Studios in 1927, and, though it is now largely defunct as a film set, is part of a national park and available for weddings, birthdays, photography and, for the past three years, this boutique two-day art fair. Paramount Ranch is precisely as one would imagine or might remember from swashbuckling movies, with shabby wooden doors, a saloon bar, barns, a corral and smaller wooden huts with signs like “mining equipment” in large, weather-beaten print on the paneled façade. The eponymous fair is precisely the opposite of all the fairs you might have attended—their primed white panels forested inside in yawning exhibition centers and glowing translucent tents (Art LA Contemporary, or ALAC, also last weekend, happens in an airplane hangar in Santa Monica, but inside, the global-standard booths remain). At Paramount, gallerists were nonetheless encouraged not to let new holes mark the wooden walls, though existing nails helped. Visitors traipsed flatly between wooden shacks containing fresh’n’edgy works of art. Some galleries had played effectively to the setting, like Freddy (Baltimore), with snake sculptures by Puppies Puppies laid on hay bales; paintings by Liao Guohe were both striking and popular in BANK’s (Shanghai) wooden room, and Mendes Wood DM (São Paolo) did well to place a silver oil paint on bronze sculpture of a half-collapsed, bolted metal form by Paolo Monteiro on the porch of the “barbershop”. Elsewhere there were good and bad works, those that failed being the ones that were less distracting than the setting they were found in, or those that would look brash or insecure anywhere. A pleasing inclusion was an open, on paper auction of small pieces produced by artists at the experimental High Desert Test-Sites project in California.

High Desert Test-Sites, Gem/Mineral Expo and Painted Rock Auction, Paramount Ranch

High Desert Test-Sites, Gem/Mineral Expo and Painted Rock Auction, Paramount Ranch

Claire Barrow and Reba Maybury,

Claire Barrow and Reba Maybury, “Fish Wifes”, installation at Paramount Ranch (Shoot the Lobster, New York)

Paramount Ranch, of which this was the third and apparently last edition (the founders are busy elsewhere), is an idea hatched between the artist Pentti Monkkonnen, his partner Liz Craft, and the gallerists Alex Freedman and Robbie Fitzpatrick, who relocated from Berlin to LA and opened Freedman Fitzpatrick gallery there in 2013. “It’s relaxing,” some visitors were heard to remark of the atmosphere, which included pet dogs and coffee sold from a trestle table to the tune of a buzzing generator (the Flash Art café still had a macrobiotic sushi plate mimicking the design of the mag’s current Issey Miyake cover, thanks to the artist and now Flash Art special projects coordinator Cyril Duval). Yet the stalking presence of a number of famous bodies—Stefan Simchowitz (the New York Times called him the art world’s Patron Satan) shaking the hand of Art Rank founder Carlos Rivera, the prolific LA collector Dean Valentine, Jeffrey Deitch (recently re-installed in New York as a commercial gallerist) and the German über-gallerist Johann Koenig surely meant that such a sensation was merely a thin veil—at least for the dealers involved. The Ranch setting felt like just that—a stage set, and it was weird indeed. Paramount Ranch seemed a perfect embodiment of the art world’s inclination—and continuing license—to ask not “why?”, but “why not?” Deconstruct it and they will come.

Paramount Ranch

Paramount Ranch

Works by Keiichi Tanaami at Karma International (LA/Zurich)

Works by Keiichi Tanaami at Karma International (LA/Zurich)

Works by Camille Henrot at Konig Gallery (Berlin)

Works by Camille Henrot at Konig Gallery (Berlin)

Sculpture by Paolo Monteiro at Mendes Wood DM (Sao Paolo)

Sculpture by Paolo Monteiro at Mendes Wood DM (Sao Paolo)

A view of Real Fine Arts'

Real Fine Arts’ “booth” at Paramount Ranch

Installation by Maggie Lee at Real Fine Arts (New York)

Installation by Maggie Lee at Real Fine Arts (New York)

Works by Chuck Nanney at Jenny's (LA)

Works by Chuck Nanney at Jenny’s (LA)

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Rachel Rose (Art Review, Jan/Feb 2016)

Rachel Rose: Everything and More

Whitney Museum of American Art

Oct 30, 2015 – Feb 7, 2016

Installation view of Rachel Rose: Everything and More (October 30, 2015–February 7, 2016). Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

Installation view of Rachel Rose: Everything and More (October 30, 2015–February 7, 2016). Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

Everything and More is a new 11.5 minute video by Rachel Rose. A plush black carpet laid in front of the screen is reverently avoided by most visitors who choose to stand or perch on the bench along the back wall – perhaps better to bask in the gently enveloping imagery that Rose has put together to achieve something between collage and a “universal” narrative.

Watching Everything and More entails a subtle cocktail of seduction and dread. It is a sumptuous piece of work, with footage of colourful liquids accompanying descriptions of space travel heard in the voiceover, which is taken from an interview with astronaut David Wolf, among whose recollections are the sensation of no up or down and colours he had never seen before. Wolf wonders too if he had ruined his life by leaving Earth.

Rose’s imagery is not as remote as outer space seems to most of us. Much of it is rendered close-up and viscous (she achieved many of the video’s effects by mixing different oils and pigments herself and then shooting them). Also shown is footage of a neutral buoyancy lab, which is used to train astronauts. We waver below and on the surface of the water, and see a craft submerged at the bottom of the pool; bubbles rise through an intense blue environment of crisp, HD colour. Back amid the equipment around the edge of the training pool the camera swoons up to a pure white space suit, the image of which begins to split into sliding prismatic fragments; we look out through its facial shield into the oily galaxies again. Later in the video come pop-sublime shots panning a rock-concert crowd, which is moving ecstatically in slow motion and tinted in red as if in a darkroom. Quivering, soulful strains of a female voice siphon up at times, lending spiritual lift and a sense of poetic abstraction to the visual sequence.

There is a degree of trust required to commit one’s eyes and attention to any video piece. Rose is a good researcher and adept at fusing direct, research-based footage with that which is more purely aesthetic – here there are facts but also visual persuasion. To date her work has investigated life, death and purposefulness. Outer space represents a uniquely and universally compelling subject for human beings: a combination of mortality and the unknown, according to Mike Massimino, another astronaut who spoke recently in New York of his experiences. There is an undertone of mortality in Everything and More, as well as wonderment about whether any individual life is essentially important, or meaningless, like a rush of images that will be recalled by few and lost, just as Rose’s slipping marbled liquids are wiped away quickly.

Watching Everything and More is at once disorientating and soothing. In the intense work it must have taken to make this short piece, one senses a channelling of anxiety. Rose has found ways to make things vivid for herself, and in turn, for us. She matches the dark fascination of her subject matter with visual and aural analogs, conveying that fascination without being overbearing. The result is a work of memorable creative presence tied to the unending threat of human absence.

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Tamuna Sirbiladze (Art in America, Jan 2016)

James Fuentes, New York

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Tamuna Sirbiladze’s oilstick and pastel works give an impression of movement first and a vague sense of representation second. Six such pieces from 2015, all done on unprimed canvas and all but one sharing the same large dimensions (76¾ by 114 inches), made up her clean and orderly show. Thanks to the focused selection and an even installation, the works projected their energetic content clearly and forcefully into the room.

“‘Good enough’ is never good enough” follows the artist’s well-received New York solo debut at Half Gallery earlier this year. That show, titled “Take it Easy,” featured walls painted with dense swipes of jungle green. Earlier exhibitions in Vienna and London also experimented with presentation, sometimes leaning works against each other or hanging them over windows so that light shone through the canvas. At James Fuentes, however, the display was pared down to white-cube convention, limiting expressive potential to the works themselves, rather than allowing any flourish or idiosyncrasy in their placement.

Breaking the waves was perhaps the most striking among them. Areas colored broadly with bright yellow pastel accompany long royal blue strokes and open-ended shapes. Sirbiladze’s line is spare; abundant, creamy negative space supports the gentle diagonal flow of marks anchored by dishlike forms. Gray has been used for brief wavy lines at the top, and for the suggestion of a human form cradled amid the blue and yellow strokes. Nipples faintly appear on two of the gray lines that are emphasized by repeated drawing, unlike most of the other lines, which are made by single gestures that are not revisited. To the right there is an intimation of a head with an arm outlined below it. Analyzing the components of these pieces, however, takes away their enchanting quality. As a whole, breaking the waves is replete with movement and flow, delivered by sparing means.

These works could have easily slipped into decoration, as earlier series by Sirbiladze arguably have. But they maintain a consistent force in their abstraction. The suggestion of a face, for example, in Andre Breton is allowed to surface as a sinister, partially concealed pair of eyes in a dense field of swooping and glancing lines. Elsewhere, the viewer could notice distinct variances among the six works, from broadly lilting, rounded lines to rapid crosshatching, evocative of the different tempos at which the works were made. In double/one who meant one one of the time, the texture of the piece’s wooden stretcher was deliberately exposed by rubbing the pastel over the canvas surface. In which it is whether they went with it, too, registers the aggression of the artist’s gestures. It is also the most figurative, with the curves and genitalia of a female body visible.

“’Good enough’ is never good enough” was a convincing and consistent exhibition. These canvases harbor a memorable charge. Highly expressive, but nonetheless measured, they convey a clear and personal sense of artistic purpose.

Read it in Art in America

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Justin Adian (Art Review, Dec 2015)

Justin Adian: Fort Worth

Skarstedt, New York

10 September – 24 October 2015

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These paintings by Justin Adian, part of a series he has been working on since roughly 2010  (all works here are from 2015), are pitched at an unusual point between the look of Minimalism or hard-edge painting and an evocative ripeness that is Adian’s own.

The paintings – for this is what they are, according to the artist, despite turgid volumes protruding some 7 – 12 centimeters from the wall in a sculptural fashion – are made  by enveloping foam shapes in heavy canvas, placing them with other shapes and slapping oil-based enamel paint on them. Most of the works marry two components together, though one (Slip It In) has seven parts, another four (Fortune Teller). Their flat color, unbroken shapes and level depth is reminiscent of the work of artists who have in?uenced Adian, among them Ellsworth Kelly. A subtle balance is struck between individual shapes, which have been carefully cut and thoughtfully combined, and the more organic puckering of canvas over bodies of spongy material.  The paint, applied last, in the main creates smooth, glossy surfaces, but it has also been allowed to pool slightly and congeal in some of the seams where two shapes nudge against each other, creating minor elastic textures in the cracks. One has the impression of works that are principled, but not purist in their execution.

Even without prior knowledge that this series is inspired by the artist’s Texas hometown, which lends the show its name, the paintings collectively deliver an atmosphere of place or locale. This might be traced to different aspects of the show. The works, in  the way that they bring different shapes into relation with each other, adhering physically,  so as to seem both intimate and pleasantly incongruous (in a manner almost anthropomorphic in some cases, and often emotive  when seen alongside their titles, for example Slow Goodbye or Outfeel), amount to a conversant community of forms. In terms of color and texture, the show has undertones of machinery, perhaps shiny automobiles, or blatant signage. There is a feeling of continuum between the works, which were designed specifically for this gallery space and show, as if each were a moment in a broader narrative.

Adian’s practice to date has drawn inspiration from books and music as well as stories or specific memories of his own life. A solo exhibition at Skarstedt in London last year was accompanied by short stories he had written. The works on show in New York lack such an accompaniment, but when combined with their titles, they retain a certain air of unselfconscious, low-fi poetry that upholds a consistent character. Names such as Orange Crush, Shoot Out and Valley High are almost Pop – certainly not esoteric – and convey a sense of freedom beyond the works’ careful formal decisions.

It is clear that Adian finds fulfilment in the continuation of this long-running series. Although the works presented here were completed within a short period, one has from them a sense of nourishment and purpose, rather than quick assemblage. Fort Worth is a show that instils confidence.

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Picture for Women (, Even magazine, Nov 2015)

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Book of Ruth, a fictional journal composed by the late artist Robert Seydel, shares with this magazine an inspiration in Duchamp’s infamous, unfinished painting The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Seydel conceived of a work between art and literature, featuring “Ruth” as the bride among the bachelors Sol (her brother), Joseph Cornell, and Duchamp himself. The resulting 78 pages of poetic, verbal and pictorial collage are attributed to her; “Ruth is the artist in the book,” Seydel declares in the preface.

Seydel’s strange work went on view this summer at the Queens Museum in New York, and the journal pages, along with related small compositions, are radiant and eccentric: photographs vie with rough scraps of newspaper, painted patches, stick figures, spontaneous typewritten passages, pasted numbers, bits of advertising and floating orbs or cartoon eyes in startling red. The hare recurs as an emblematic creature. Seydel’s work is ripe with the mixture of pathos and fierceness which haunts successful collage. And yet he disavows authorship. Seydel’s alter ego, Ruth, is the author—she is based on Seydel’s real aunt, Ruth Greisman—and she is not alone. Duchamp himself was sometimes Rrose Selavy. The potter Grayson Perry is also Claire. The writer JM Coetzee has delivered lectures as Elizabeth Costello. (There’s also the artist Joe Scanlan, whose avatar Donelle Woodford is both of a different gender and a different race, but perhaps we should leave her be.)

One tends to think of an alter ego as an opportunity – a person one “would be,” beyond the limits of what one is. But Seydel didn’t use Ruth to imagine a more exciting life than his own. Quite the opposite, he admits: “Silly, isn’t it? You’d think you’d want to invent a heroine with more tooth to her.” He found in the life of his aunt, a bank clerk and Sunday painter living in remote Queens with her shell-shocked brother, a vessel to explore the quiet potency of a figure barely noticed by society. As a woman, Ruth was “further along the line of powerlessness;” her private status and domesticity, her position outside the mainstream and exterior to Seydel’s own self, signaled possibility for him.

Seydel dismissed the idea of “self-expression,” preferring the full conception of another self. In Book of Ruth, one finds the private universe of one man’s imagination layered onto his sense of someone else, and then expanded still further to conjure a third, female persona projected forcefully onto the page – for Seydel, a process of “opening outwards…into the air of art itself.” In a complicated dynamic, Seydel eventually found his own state blurred with Ruth: “I thought originally I wanted to inhabit another person; now she inhabits me.” Ruth also seems puzzled at times by her own expression in the Book, perhaps wavering between this and another, or simply “ordinary” world where disbelief prevails. And her perceived drabness is essential as a source of her power. Seydel enacts a valiant art against the forces of obscurity, against the judging of books by their covers, or artists by their outward lives, or indeed women’s roles as limited. Ruth triumphs. Through her, we see Seydel cocooning in an effort to emulate the “quickness and interiority” he admired in female artists and writers, and to better grasp his own creative tendencies.

In what transpires as a homage to the women in his life, the book is dedicated to Seydel’s mother, who, alongside the real Ruth, first introduced him to “the location of art and its importance as an activity….” Ruth is and was real, then, in more ways than one, and lest Book of Ruth be seen merely as a charming or sentimental work, its medium alone overpowers any such risk. Seydel loved what he called “contaminated” or “contradictory” artists; similarly, the strength of collage lies largely in its resistance, its ability to force disparate things together. Not unlike life – even apparently simple lives – incongruous fragments are cut from the procession and pieced together. Ruth’s unfettered making, her strange or humble fantasies, streams of consciousness and sudden artistic marks, are in their way resilient and impure. To quote another’s poem, this Ruth – and that Seydel, and even perhaps Duchamp, Coetzee, and their compatriots too – found herself unique, adept, and ‘somewhat more free.’ (Langston Hughes, Theme for English B, 1951.)

, Even magazine

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Harold Ancart (Frieze, Nov./Dec. 2015)

C.L.E.A.R.I.N.G., New YorkHANC1504031_low

These untitled paintings by Harold Ancart had something of the character of illustration. While the artist’s interests are plain – there is a relationship to the work of abstract expressionist Clyfford Still, for example – the works shared certain qualities with the pictorial culture of storytelling, its visual forms and imaginative effects.

All but one of the works (all Untitled, 2015) use large 2.8 x 2 metre canvases; in a skillful hanging, five vertical paintings made for a commanding line-up along one wall, while a single horizontal piece lurked in the gallery’s innermost room. Having done a lap of these, one saw a smaller work on the way out: a blustery yellow fire next to an unclear pink shape which is curtailed by the edge of the canvas. The composition mimicked – but didn’t copy – that of a larger work opposite. The exhibition’s arrangement evoked a sense of narrative, as if these were separate apparitions in the progress of an undeclared tale.

The paintings are large enough to slightly dwarf the viewer; at the same time, their subjects, though rendered abstract, appeared to simulate things which in nature are small. Two of the vertical works feature energetic crops of round, flower-like blooms taller than human height whose striped stems sprout from vivid technicolored grounds. In another composition flourishes a raft of what appears to be green and blue grass, bordered with orange. Above it, two differently-sized blue orbs which might have become detached from other stems, or be something else, float amid a buzz of flecks and swipes in various colours. A bright green fir tree, hovering without a trunk over a surprisingly level layer (a horizon?) of colours could be either large or small. Throughout, Ancart employs caustic, often primary hues, seconded by milky pastels – his fires are an impossible yellow, the fir tree an abrasive red and green (as if a sarcastic swipe at traditional Christmas scenes). Against black or almost-black backgrounds, these colours and the unruly shapes and fragments they fill ferment a lurid but apparently consistent realm which might be Lilliputian or giant. The disorientation caused by their abstract ruptures on a dark, non-perspectival plane breeds a near uncanny or folkloric atmosphere.

Although they have not strictly been cut out, the edges of Ancart’s shapes are often jagged or bristling; smaller patches of colour are splintered in a manner which from afar can appear less painterly than cut and scattered. Grassy spikes and the hard edges of flames might recall the tapering of bats’ wings or some other gothic outline. The three green and white cloud-like shapes in the horizontal piece have toothed edges. In the same piece, marks trailing the primary shapes tend more towards line, not unlike arrows which lend the clouds a drifting sense of movement; elsewhere, double lines might convey vibration or shudders in the manner of cartoon drawings. There is something in the wilt of stems or the slight compression of the fir tree which echoes the surreal, traipsing creatures in Edward Gorey’s book The Utter Zoo Alphabet (1998). In its expressive application and texture and the mixing of pure colours directly on the canvas surface, the oil stick used for these paintings exudes the flair of children’s crayon drawings.

Collectively, then, Ancart’s paintings can seem barely able to contain their energies. In the best spirit of illustration, they conjure a visual world which is both irresistible and continuous.

Read it in Frieze

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Beyond Emergence: ArtBo ’15

“I think we can go past our state of permanent emergence” remarked ArtBo’s Director of four years, Maria Paz Gaviria (incidentally, the daughter of the former Colombian president César Gaviria), her tone tinged with humor and some impatience. Indeed, this was ArtBo’s 11th edition, this time scheduled slightly earlier in October so as to avoid conflict with FIAC in Paris.

Gaviria’s fatigue with the question of an emerging art scene is a measure of the well-established goals of ArtBo. The fair is focused on visibility for its galleries, which are now keen to be present on the international circuit (among those on the selection committee are Elba Benitez Gallery (Madrid), Beatrice Lopez (Instituto de Vision, Bogota) and Maria Eugenia of Galería Sextante, Bogota). Equally, ArtBo aims explicitly not to feature international blue chip galleries of the kind seen at Basel and Frieze. Instead, it wants to support regional and smaller spaces and, it would appear, foreign galleries which are in tune with them; for this see Lamb Arts (its first time at ArtBo) which works between London and Sao Paolo and includes South American artists, and—for the third time—Galerie Michael Sturm, based in Stuttgart but engaged with Latin American artists and showing also at PArC in Lima and Zona Maco in Mexico City. Given the quality of Bogota galleries Instituto de Vision and Casa Riegne at Frieze in New York earlier this year, it was interesting to see their “home” fair.

ArtBo visitors

ArtBo visitors

ArtBo is an initiative by the local Chamber of Commerce and symptomatic of a broader push for cultural development. It should not be forgotten that until about 10 years ago, Colombia and its principal city were effectively closed off from the outside world, repelling visitors with a violent drug trade, high levels of corruption and their attendant threats at street level. At the height of these troubles in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Bogota was reputedly known as the “city of no-one”; subsequent leaders, most notably the charismatic Antanas Mockus (former President of the National University of Colombia and Mayor of Bogota from 1993-5 and 2001-3), have sought to transform Bogota, inspiring in residents a sense of ownership of the city and their daily environment. The last decade or so has seen very significant growth in the Columbian economy, which recently overtook Peru as the region’s fastest-growing; poverty levels have fallen from 65% in 1990 to under 24% this year, and there is a rising middle class. In Bogota, transportation and construction are clear priorities. The city is projected to open its first subway in 2025, and plans to improve and make its bus system energy-efficient.

ArtBo 2015, fair view

ArtBo 2015, fair view

For its part, ArtBo is referred to by its organizers as “non-commercial” in the sense that the money it makes must be reinvested (sales figures are not released). In the words of its director, since its inception the fair has been effectively “charged with showing the scene in its entirety”—not least because within the region, Colombia has relatively few museums and institutions. Varied sections within the fair purport to do this: a main galleries area, “Projects” (curated this year by Catalina Lozano and Manuela Moscoso), “References”, a show providing a form of historical backdrop (curated by Ana María Lozano), and “Artecamara”, the annual exhibition devoted to relatively new artists (curator Mariangela Méndez). New this year was “Sitio”, designed to allow galleries to propose works or displays that go beyond the normal booth format. There is a Forum for talks (which included artists as participants) and an appealing artists’ book section. “Articulare”, formerly a section for children’s activities, has developed into an impressive interactive project area at the end of the hall.

Following ArtBo’s lead, October has become Bogota’s “art month” (this has apparently been passed as a law), with 3-4 smaller art fairs, the most prominent of which is Odeon, closer to the center of the city, and other events including gallery openings in the La Macarena and San Felipe neighborhoods. San Felipe, in particular, has come up in the last two years as something of a new gallery district, with important spaces like FLORA ars + natura, whose Director José Roca had been curating Latin American art at the Tate. The Arte Circuito map done by the City Institute for the Arts, the Chamber of Commerce and Fundación Arteria provides a guide to the city’s permanent institutions, art spaces and other cultural outlets. No doubt connected, the first Bogota Biennial happened in May-June this year.  One certainly noticed the city’s willingness to place artistic interventions in public historic sites – there was an excellent installation of large wooden sculptures and a video work, “Héroes Mil”, by Juan Fernando Herrán inside the Monumento a los Héroes. Throughout the former colonial residence of Simon Bolivar in the city center, now a museum, Instituto de Vision had installed stuffed birds of all kinds by Alberto Baraya for the memorable project “Ornitología Bolivariana”, which also included an outdoor sound performance. A representative at the press lunch hosted by Bogota’s Tourism office and “Invest in Bogota” during ArtBo was unwitting testimony to the growth of Bogota’s cultural industry, having moved from her native Venezuela for the cultural sector opportunities and better quality of life available in the Colombian capital.

Alberto Baraya,

Alberto Baraya, “Ornitología Bolivariana”, installation view inside the Quinta de Bolivar museum, Bogota.

At ground level, the fair felt comfortable and certainly unhurried, without the bombast of the blue-chip fairs—but also without their color. Regardless of ArtBo’s contemporary emphasis, there was a definite visual predominance of the sort of natural, earthy hues (beige, brown, white) common to a certain thread of late 20th century conceptualism around documentary and land art. One noticed a number of monochrome cityscape photographs, installations using animal hide and rocks and smaller scale graphic works, as well as some collage. Interestingly, the Projects section included noticeably more color and more varied media including digital art. Perhaps, one featured artist speculated, this was because its curators are from but nonetheless based outside Bogota, and thus “have different eyes.” The scale of the works on show throughout the main galleries section was mostly domestic, with few large installations.

Although a couple of the foreign galleries reported an unnerving start to the week, with “nothing ready and dust everywhere” on the Monday (one mentioned that the director’s first remark upon meeting him on site was “Sorry!”), by the opening the fair looked good; the quality of the display was high, if low-key, and the layout manageable. One sensed simply some cultural differences with regard to punctuality—there were not a few power drills were being wielded as the press circulated before the main preview. Notable hitches were the lack of functioning wifi in the exhibition center (also a problem last year), and the conspicuous absence of catalogues until the last day. Theft (a possibility not to be blasé about at any art fair) was sufficient to mean laptops were sometimes checked for proof of ownership as one left the exhibition hall. The cafes were underwhelming—but there were roaming stalls giving out free coffee shots. A stylized VIP lounge occupied a corner of the hall plus an outside area with woven rugs, a mixture of differently-designed chairs and sofas and a loud, soulful soundtrack, its walls papered with retro Banco de Bogota logos. The annual VIP party at a giant steakhouse hung with votive clutter and with a sunken salsa dancefloor in the neighboring town of Chia was unmissable.

ArtBo Director Maria Paz Gaviria addresses visitors to the fair's 11th edition.

ArtBo Director Maria Paz Gaviria addresses visitors to the fair’s 11th edition.

With booth costs ranging from USD4,000 for a project booth to USD 8,000-17,000 in the main section, and an admission fee of 35,000 pesos (about USD12; 15,000 pesos for students), ArtBo is relatively affordable. Although one noticed some sales occurring (Instituto de Vision had swapped out two large paintings in its booth by Day 3), the impression of this fair was not of rapid or even direct sales—nor of this necessarily being the primary objective. Josée Bienvenu Gallery (New York) was in attendance for the third year running. Considering the appeal of ArtBo, Josée described the experience of this fair in terms of less selling, but more valuable time spent with curators and other practitioners who come. She described an interesting scene and “sophisticated tastes” in Bogota, and deemed the fair worthwhile for the contact and presence it gave in this environment.  Looking ahead to forthcoming editions, one hopes that such an atmosphere will be maintained.

“Artecamara”, exhibition view at ArtBo.

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JJ Peet (Art Review, Oct. 2015)

MAGiCSTANCE

On Stellar Rays, New York

17 June – 31 July

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MAGiCSTANCE is a small exhibition, the first impression of which is quite modest. Attached to the walls are several mixed media sculptures from New York based artist JJ Peet’s Stilifes series and one large work on canvas. For those who merely glance round the show, the sculptures may appear naïve or simply quirky, like little protruding stage sets. Closer inspection of them, however, reveals the depth and sensitivity of Peet’s practice.

‘Sculpture’ feels inadequate as a description of these intricate and multifaceted works, an example of which might combine ceramic elements, a newspaper photograph, pine, aluminum, acrylic, rope and paint (INTO, 2013). Rather, each piece comes off as a kind of microcosm – a marvel of subject matter distilled not into minimal or highly-finished form, but into a new configuration infused, literally, with the artist’s touch and characterized by an idiosyncratic approach to composition. INTO, for example, features a coil of cream coloured rope hanging from its left side and a turd-like ceramic shape (one suspects Peet wouldn’t object to the simile) with six even holes punched through the back of it and dimpled all over by the pressure of the artist’s fingers; putty-like, this curls over the side of a ceramic cut-out shape of a camera. Two tiny orange-red cylindrical shapes are affixed to the acrylic base, which protrudes horizontally and also supports a small earthenware disc with a hole in the middle and a horizontal black rectangle whose bottom right corner has been painted in white. The left side of the composition is pockmarked, scratched aluminium; the right a page taken from an American newspaper whose title has been roughly painted over in broad strokes of black leaving only a central phrase, ‘LATE CITY FINAL,’ and the price, ‘$1.00’. Below this is a horrifying photograph of men on motorcycles brandishing pistols and dragging a half-stripped body along the road. A pinkish stain marks the tarmac, and all the faces have been whited out.

If the above description appears to shift from drawing quite a personal, tactile sensation from humble or found materials to a subject altogether less intimate, this would begin to introduce Peet’s approach in Stilifes. The series is partly addressed to a passive mode of receiving news from media sources and through electronic devices. Peet’s work has been likened to guerilla journalism. But as reflections on contemporary society and imagery, these works come across as a very pure, direct kind of art in which the surrounding context is absorbed and reformatted by the artist into a new, interpretive object or community of forms.

As such, the exhibition conveys real confidence in the power both of materials and of objects to convey meaning. Also clear is Peet’s attachment to and respect for the media in which he works (though it should be noted that his practice extends to painting, drawing and video). There is an underlying awareness of the potential of relatively small scale work to invite and reward curiosity, and of collage to conjure productive visual relationships. The Stilifes are affective sums of carefully-chosen parts.

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Michal Helfman at P! (Art in America, Sept. 2015)

I’m so broke I can’t pay attention

P! New York

14 June –3 July

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Israeli artist Michal Helfman presented a taut display of drawing, installation, a game and a video–her first in New York. This was the penultimate in a series of six quick-fire exhibitions addressing contemporary value systems (for which the downtown nonprofit P! temporarily rebranded as K.). Passersby were misled by CHANGE (2013), an illuminated green sign in the window mimicking a currency exchange storefront. Inside, a number of visitors asked to change money at a service window before discovering the ruse. Surprise, one might also say, is a form of creative currency.

Helfman’s regard for staging and interaction in part dates back to time spent working at a night club. To the right of the service window, heavy strings of metal piping, elongated ceramic beads, small plastic skulls and shells veiled the doorway into the gallery. This partial barrier, smartly entitled Certain (2015), both generated discomfort and focused one’s attention. After the clanking awkwardness of getting past it, entering the show’s main space felt relatively free. An anthropomorphic metal sculpture, titled Attention (2015), pinned a bundle of bills under one “foot” and aimed an elastic band at a hole in the service window. This impish piece characterized the show’s light, slightly peculiar atmosphere.

Two works were particularly potent. An acrylic and oil pastel drawing, One Dollar (2013) expands the pyramid seen on dollar bills, with the “Eye of Providence” gazing from its floating apex. In Helfman’s rendition, one end of the ribbon flanking the pyramid gains a faint, demonic visage. Perspective has been shifted slightly from the original image; the eye looks askance, the pyramid is partially rotated and the now-lurid green vegetation, overgrown and seething, looks like the sea. Paradoxically, Helfman’s variations show that none are needed to demonstrate the ghoulish character of a symbol passed daily from hand to hand.

Two stools and a low dicing table stood in front of the drawing; the woven plastic of the stools also covered part of the gallery wall as if to continue the scenario. The installation, titled Give/Get (2015), includes a pair of dice with words, not pips, printed on them: We, Will, For, Get, Give and Not. An accompanying document lists the possible combinations and suggests meanings for them (“For–Give: I cannot forgive that art will sleep in the bed that was made for it.”) Riding a narrative of socio-political worth, the dice were 3D printed at the artist’s request on a machine smuggled into Syria by a humanitarian worker to make prosthetic aides.

“I’m so broke I can’t pay attention” belied the poverty of its title. In the video % (2014), dancers move in a line, breaking into formations but always falling into a collective forward step; in the show, the works likewise inserted themselves into streams of value and skirted them by turn. This waltz of engagement was astute, and never earnest. Helfman conjured up a lightness of being that shielded the subject matter—money, exchange, symbolism, economies of attention and care—from judgment or any pretense of consequence. What remained was a stimulating and unburdened reflection on contemporary value, with artworks as its conduits.

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