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The Upstairs Art Fair Brings Real Life to the Hamptons

Arden Scott, C​ode Pink, 2014, powder coated steel, ​photo by JM Goleas, ​courtesy New Release Gallery

Upstairs Art Fair
July 14-16, 2016
11 Indian Wells, Amagansett, NY 11930

By JANET GOLEAS, JUL. 2017

Artists have flocked to Long Island’s east end since the 19th century, when Thomas Moran built his home and studio in East Hampton. Since then, the South Fork has seen a steady influx of solace-seeking artists migrating to its shores, soaking the ground with artistic legacy. But given the eternal sunsets, vast fields and proximity to New York City, over time the Hamptons morphed into a playground for the global one percent – good for commerce, but generally not an effective catalyst for artistic invention. Until recently, art fairs catering to the rich have dominated summer programming on the east end. They’ve offered little in terms of inspiration, and even less in crafting an authentic experience. Like Manhattan, gradually there was little room for the emerging, let alone the struggling, artist. What would befall this hotspot of artistry if its emerging artists could find no community here? 

Max Heiges, U​ntitled, 2017, hemlock, pine, steel plinth, ​photo J​M Goleas, courtesy New Release Gallery

Enter the Upstairs Art Fair, an amalgamation of some of the most forward thinking galleries from both East Hampton and New York City, which convened in Amagansett the weekend of July 14-16, 2017. According to Harper Levine, owner of Harper’s Books, a venue for both rare books and fine art, and Bill Powers, the founder of Half Gallery, the two hatched the concept over weeks of conversation about the quality of art fairs in the Hamptons.

Cynthia Talmage, Divorced and Selling the Beach House, sand on board, 38 x 63 inches, photo ​courtesy 56 Henry​ Gallery​

“It seemed to us the fairs here were not geared toward art – they were more about the fair itself and the big tent – less about the art,” said Levine. “We’ve had a little renaissance on Newtown Lane, and we thought we could take some of that energy and start a fair of our own.” This fair, housed in an Amagansett barn commonly known as the Applied Arts Building, is all about art. A former art school, the barn has retained its original beams, exterior and floors, maintaining an authenticity typical of east end architecture. “Just the second floor was available, that’s how we named the fair,” said Levine.

Claude Viallat, 2003​/223,​ 2003, acrylic on fabric, 94 x 65 3/4 inches, ​photo ​courtesy Ceysson & Bénétière​ Gallery​

Upstairs, artist and gallerist Ryan Wallace overlooked his gallery installation. “It’s sweet, right?” he said. Indeed. Halsey McKay, the East Hampton gallery he co-founded with Hilary Schaffner in 2011, is one of the standard bearers in this new, dramatic conversation about visual art. Here, works by Glen Baldridge, Sarah Peters and others mark the gallery footprint. Sharing the space with publisher and gallery, Karma, which has been doing summer programming in Amagansett since 2012, and longtime New York gallery Rachel Uffner, the mood is keen, relaxed, and uncorrupted. 

Sarah Peters, Floating Head, 2016, bronze​, 11 x 19 x 9 inches,​ ​photo ​courtesy Halsey McKay​ Gallery​

Duncan Hannah, C​atherine Spaak III, 2010, oil on canvas, 18 x 18 inches, ​photo courtesy Harper's Books

Speaking of that renaissance in East Hampton, galleries exhibiting contemporary art have begun to transform the hamlet, as if the Lower East Side has come to roost at the village perimeters. Marking the territory as their own, galleries Halsey McKay, Harper’s Books, and Rental Gallery have brought new spirit to the local art market. The energy is palpable; the art is cutting edge. Likewise, the atmosphere at the Upstairs Art Fair is casual and the art is spot on – vital, developing, fresh. With few dividing walls, proprietorship seems a loose concept as galleries blend into one another in a convivial, communal ambiance. All the gallerists are friends, in one way or another.

Genieve Figgis, G​iddy Up, 2014,​ ​acrylic on canvas, ​16 x 20 inches, ​photo ​courtesy Harper's Books

Sadie Laska, Cave Art, 2​016, ​o​il and acrylic on canvas, 70 x 54 in, ​image courtesy Ceysson & Bénétière​ Gallery​

Around a corner, Edsel Williams, whose gallery The Fireplace Project opened in Springs in 2006, adjusts a fiery canvas by Eric Freeman. A painting by the French artist Claude Viallat, whose innovative works are well known in Europe, hangs loosely on the next wall. “He’s been sought after in France since the 1960s – he had a retrospective at the Pompidou and represented France at the Venice Biennial – but he’s not that well known in the U.S.,” said Ellie Rines, director of François Ceysson in New York. Behind her, a sand painting by Cynthia Talmadge, represented by Rines’ own gallery, 56 Henry, dominates an upper wall.  R.J. Supa, founder of Yours, Mine & Ours, waxes about the artist Nicole Bittenberg, whose luscious figure paintings featured here are also currently on view at the Albertina in Vienna. Nearby, the long established New York gallery James Fuentes shares a wall with the youngest gallery here, Magenta Plains. Just across the way, Eric Firestone Gallery weighs in with selected works. On the grounds, Erin Goldberger’s gallery, New Release, recently opened in a former Chinatown video store, exhibits sculpture by Arden Scott and Max Heiges. 

Glen Baldridge, Stoned to Death I, ​2017, acrylic on wood panel, 48 x 36 inches, ​photo ​courtesy Halsey McKay​ Gallery​

Nicole Wittenberg, Upside Down Ben, 2017, oil on canvas, 72 x 54 inches, ​photo ​courtesy Yours, Mine & Ours

Back on the ground floor, Levine greets visitors as they mingle among striking paintings by Todd Bienvenu, Martha Diamond, Duncan Hannah, Genieve Figgis and others. It feels like real life has come to the Hamptons. Long live the Upstairs Art Fair. WM 

Janet Goleas

Janet Goleas is an artist, writer and independent curator. Her blog, Blinnk, is focused on contemporary art in and around New York City and the east end of Long Island.

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