News & Commentary, Visual Arts

Art fairs: what are they good for?

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In Spring the pulse quickens and the sap rises, regardless of whether you’re a fieldmouse, an almond tree or an art dealer. Australia’s now well-established tradition of large art fairs where dealers and potential buyers come together under a single roof is mutating.
One outcome is the hunt for new and novel settings for the sale of paintings, sculpture, photography, works on paper, video, and increasingly, the so-called decorative arts like jewellery, fabric, furniture and works in glass.
The most recent development is the Spring 1883 Art Fair, an idea which began in Melbourne in 2014 in tandem with the large and lively bi-annual Melbourne Art Fair. In that year Spring 1883 was held at that bastion of faded grandeur, that grand old doyen of Melbourne: the Windsor Hotel. One can hardly imagine a less sympathetic showcase for fresh and contemporary art.
This year, 24 galleries — one third of them from Melbourne — occupied all four floors of the crisp and minimal Establishment Hotel in George Street Sydney to present their stable of contemporary artists. Their timing was perfect. ‘Sydney Contemporary’ with its sprawling 99 galleries (give or take) was taking place over the same weekend at the Carriageworks in Redfern. But more of that event later.
Spring 1883’s crisp gold and white brochure tells us that the show’s template is the Gramercy Park Fair, New York, and its intention is to showcase the best “contemporary art practice from Australia, New Zealand and beyond”. Its ‘exclusivity’ was coyly referred to: “participation … is through personal invitation only” — just the sort of line that art snobs are susceptible to.
One of the principal sponsors was Bulgari, which along with splendid floral arrangements, took the opportunity to showcase a specially designed steel and gold ring by the international art star Anish Kapoor.
It has become quite acceptable for architects and artists to be commissioned to design a piece of jewellery, but as jewellery requires the same hand from the first sketch to finished design, thence to its physical execution which requires an actual jeweller’s skill, most of such pieces are doomed to be oddly lifeless and mechanical.
It was certainly a novelty to see art works propped up against pillows and marble bathroom ledges as well as hanging on walls, and the effect was at once intimate and oddly disorienting. There were some splendid works seeded throughout the four floors which snagged the eye and delighted the senses, which is surely sufficient challenge for art today. The accompanying text in the aforementioned brochure was entirely superfluous to the experience.
Example? “Reacting to the recent surge in institutional interest in performative practices, 1 Room 13 Times reintroduces a context of intimacy and situational specificity akin to early modes of happenings, conceived for and implicating limited audiences.” What this actually means is anyone’s guess, but this reviewer thinks it might suggest that galleries are looking for new ways to sell videos and performance art to state galleries.
And thus to the sprawling white-walled labyrinth of the Carriage Works where this reviewer despaired to find the champagne — Ruinart no less — was $20 a glass and a single salver of four hors d’oeuvres could be spotted receding into the middle distance. But this is carping. There was a feast for the eye whichever way it turned, and the snatches of ‘art-speak’ from various booths seemed to float away in harmless bubbles.

Steve web Ormandy.
Work by Steve Ormandy at the Olsen Irwin stand at Sydney Contemporary

The New Zealand presence was particularly strong and is indefinably different from the work being created in Australia. Excellent contemporary and traditional Aborignal art and tribal works from Melanesia were prominent and a group of galleries specialising in works on paper had their own grid of booths which held a lot of small scale delights.
Paul Nache, web Gisborne Gallery New Zealand
Work by Paul Nache at the Gisborne Gallery (New Zealand) stand at Sydney Contemporary

Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of this very professional fair is the presence of works from an earlier generation of artists such as Col Jordan, Robin Wallace Crabbe and Peter Upward — all stalwarts from the 1960s and 70s and looking every bit as fresh as the work produced by a much younger generation.
Tony Twigg, web 5 sticks in 3 places, Rusting, 2015, enamel paint on timber construction, 182cm.
Tony Twigg’s ‘5 sticks in 3 places, Rusting’, enamel paint on timber construction, (2015) at Sydney Contemporary

The publicity surrounding both these two sophisticated events was substantial. The atmosphere was focused, optimistic and friendly. Not a sign anywhere of that species, the London or New York-style art dealer with impenetrable hauteur. Gallery owners compared notes, sipped wine, nibbled cheese and added new collectors and potential collectors to their data bases. And when it was all over, they wrapped the unsold works, packed up the props, and returned to their cities to assess their success: that is to say, their sales.
[box]Main image: Marie Le Lievre’s Shot, oil on canvas (2015) at the Paraphernalia stand at Sydney Contemporary[/box]

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