by Alissa Guzman
The Frieze Art Fair, inaugurated last year, is the latest addition to the New York art fair scene. The London-based fair descended upon Randall’s Island this past weekend for its second consecutive year, giving our homegrown Armory Arts Week a run for its money. Though less accessible, Frieze is still in keeping with the general art fair experience we have all come to know well—it’s exhausting, overwhelming, entertaining and exciting. Despite the claustrophobic bus ride to the island, the expansive white Frieze tent that is casino-like in blocking out the passing day, the expensive and at times pretentious food, the pop-up trailer bathrooms, or the feeble air conditioning, the artwork is undeniably stimulating.
While there are times when prestigious art fairs like Frieze feel like they are about anything but art—fashion, money, celebrity, connections, hookups—the overall quality of the artwork shown at Frieze in its past two incarnations has been higher and less predictable than other like art fairs. Over one hundred and eighty galleries participated this year from over thirty-two different countries, and all of them seemed to take risks with the artists, artworks and installations they chose to present. Frieze doesn’t have the youthful, DIY feel of fairs like Pulse, Scope or Nada, but its polish still manages to be surprisingly provocative. The unexpected freshness of Frieze could be attributed to its relative newness in New York City, and just as the Whitney Biennial used to be known for its daring and has stagnated in recent years, Frieze proved this year that it still has room to evolve and surprise.
Approaching an art fair by looking for trends is a bit like looking toward the fashion industry to tell us what to wear in an era where every decade, style and silhouette is in vogue simultaneously. A surprising trend emerged this year at Frieze, however, in the form of textiles. Fiber art, as art schools have dubbed it, makes for a surprising trend, in part because textiles are typically underrepresented or altogether neglected by high-end galleries. This year numerous artists of different gender, nationality and medium used textiles to break though the constraints of their chosen material preference, using fabric in lieu of traditional painting, sculpture and installation materials. Some unusual and almost Dada-esque items—plastic food, fruit, vegetables, fake plants—also found their way onto gallery floors and walls, giving this year’s fair a feeling of quirky originality. We as viewers could be witnessing the breakdown in the hierarchical and more importantly, the economic distinctions between painting, sculpture and installation so prevalent at art fairs.
Textiles masquerading as paintings can be found at Kate MacGarry’s booth, a British contemporary gallery that presented a solo show by Renee So, a sculptor born in Hong Kong who now lives and works in London. Using a knitting machine and imagery taken from antiquity and historical busts, So creates knit paintings full of odd figures, faces and animals. Using color-blocking and flatness, So’s paintings have a playful and unexpected sense of humor, vaguely reminiscent of Edward Gorey drawings. The graphic nature of the imagery pulls you into the gallery space before you realize the materiality of the work, and it takes time for viewers to realize they are looking at knitwear and not a painted canvas. So’s work pushes us as viewers out of our comfort zone, leaving us to ponder how her soft and subtly altered “paintings” change how we experience them.
In a different vein, artists Tom Burr, represented by Stuart Shave/Modern Art and Liu Wei, shown by the Beijing-based Long March Space, expand on the tradition of paining by also not using paint. Instead, both artists use fabric to create their “paintings,” establishing surface and texture by drawing our attention to the canvas itself. Burr uses tacks, nails and staples to fold and manipulate what looks to be repurposed work wear, while Wei creates freestanding, wooden sculptures that are wrapped in bulky “canvas.” Both artists approach fabric like upholstery, pulling stretching and tacking it, but instead of creating a seamless or smooth surface their fabric is draped, bunched and folded. Burr and Wei work with heavy, almost military-looking canvas in shades of khaki green and navy blue. Evoking the idea of class, labor and even war in their paintings, there is something Bontecou-esque and captivating in the crudeness of their constructions.
Another example of textiles replacing the canvas and paint is found at the London-based gallery, The Approach, which showcased the work of the young American artist Amanda Ross-Ho. Ross-Ho’s aesthetic is centered on a deconstructed approach to painting, and when her work does appear on canvas it often floats on an unprimed canvas or linen. Her Black Rags (2013) series consists of oversize, black jersey t-shirts that are cut, torn, ripped and reconstructed, giving each piece a very punk-like, recycled aesthetic. From a distance, hung against the pure white of the gallery, the garments look like complicated contour drawings, while up-close they have the movement and drape of a distressed textile. Though using somewhat literal garments her series feels anything but, and her re-imagined shirts seem to speak of self-presentation and youthful discontent.
Textiles used as sculpture and installation are also scattered throughout Frieze. The colorful installation at Gavin Brown by Bjarne Melgaard, a Norwegian artist who lives and works in New York, included fuschia gallery walls, a series of bright, abstract and expressionistic paintings, and a number of plush fleece blankets that padded the gallery floor. Bold but not off-putting, showy but not tacky, the installation drew viewers in and offered them a multi-sensory experience. It’s a rare occurrence when an assortment of blankets steals attention away from a series of paintings. Melgaard’s blankets provide a nice counterpoint to the distorted faces that seem to peer out from the canvas of his paintings with titles such as, Theresa starting to know she will die, and Theresa drunk and fantasizing about death.
In another installation at the German Galerie Gisela, the L.A. based artist Barbara Bloom pairs a blurry photograph of unrecognizable figures in motion titled Girl’s Footprint (2007), with a gray carpet that mimics the texture of the photograph. Permanently pressed into the gray carpet are small, scattered footprints, like those you might leave on a soft, freshly vacuumed carpet. The rug recalls the movements and placement of the indiscernible figures in the photograph—like all that’s left of them are small, childlike pairs of footprints—and Bloom brilliantly brings two seemingly disparate objects together in a compelling yet haunting installation. In the middle of the bright lights and chaos of an overcrowded art fair, Bloom’s piece causes viewers to pause and reflect, creating a quiet, pensive space in place where we might least expect it.
Though most art fairs are critically judged for their relationship to the capitalist side of artmaking, and Frieze is certainly no exception, if you look at just the artwork and not the people, the gourmet food, the VIP lounge, the outrageous priced coffee, it’s possible to forget about the distracting and ugly “for profit” nature of this art fair. The international selection of galleries and the vast array of artists they chose to represent them actually serve to illuminate the aesthetics of different cities and artists. In other words, if you ignore most of the aspects of Frieze that are popular, the artwork is a treat.
Alissa Guzman is a culture critic living and working in New York City.