By KURT MCVEY, photos by James Miille November, 2018
I did not purchase any art at Superfine! D.C., entrepreneur Alex Mitow and his partner (in life and business), the photographer James Miille’s latest incarnation of their fun and affordable art fair, but considerably more than a few people did, many being first time collectors. The fair, which opened Halloween night and wrapped Sunday evening, appeared to be a welcome, buzzing addition-and perhaps distraction-to a city gearing up for one of the most important midterm elections in the history of the republic.
Occupying the top floor (Dock 5) of Union Market, a trendy gourmet food hall that opened in 2017 in Washington D.C.’s rapidly gentrifying Northeast quadrant, Superfine! D.C. seemed less like a temporary, pop-up experience as opposed to something considerably more, let’s say, organic. In fact, unlike any other art fair I’ve been to, it’s actually difficult to imagine Superfine D.C. not being there come Monday morning.
Boasting over 4,000 attendees and roughly $300,000 in art sales, Mitow is rather pleased with the results. “We’re blown away by the response from the D.C. community and the support from our exhibitors,” he offered Monday morning. “People said a full-scale art fair in D.C. couldn’t be done, but we showed that with a friendly, accessible approach, Superfine! was and is actually the perfect art fair for the district.”
About a half hour walk from Capitol Hill, past the gothic Union Station transportation hub and through a leafy residential neighborhood complete with rows of tiny, colorful, fixer-upper townhouses; the immediate area around Union Market (which now boasts over 40 purveyors) draws a happily diverse group of slightly more culturally-minded citizens interested in healthy and unique lunch and dinner options and over the last few days, a fleeting but substantial window into the vibrant, socially-conscious, contemporary art world, with strong overall flavor traces of Miami, downtown New York and Brooklyn.
One of the most interesting features of D.C.’s Union Market is its close proximity to Gallaudet University, “the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students.” After one quick tour of the ground floor food, produce and niche retail bazaar, one discovers just how many ASL speakers populate, work and shop in the surrounding area, and how non signers, if they should choose to engage personally with members of this community, will have to make some necessary adjustments. On a deeper level, one comes to learn that these exact adjustments are very similar to those needed for properly approaching art in all its forms. Mitow and Miille seemed to have picked up on this immediately and at 2pm this past Thursday afternoon, the duo scheduled a tour of their fair with local Gallaudet students and other ASL speakers (about two-dozen took part). It was fascinating to view the fair and the work through their eyes.
Max Kazemzadeh, Associate Professor and Program Director for Gallaudet’s Art, Media & Design program, as well as the Program Director and chair of the Art, Communication & Theater (ACT) department, wasn’t surprised to find many of his students and faculty peers engaging with the work on a slightly different wavelength.
While viewing works by Arlington, VA’s own Scott Hutchison in the Artist Pavilion portion of the fair, several students inquired if the many hand gestures articulated by the figures in the artist’s works were in fact attempting to convey something literal. Though the artist himself claimed they were only silent gestural efforts conveying various emotions, it opened up an entirely new dimension to his work. Several of the Gallaudet students offered, through a translator, to recommend some subtle sign language maneuvers as embedded code for future paintings, ala Chuck Baird. For the remainder of the fair, I personally wondered if many of the figurative works on display were in fact articulating specific thoughts, feelings, and ideas unintentionally.
But this is what makes Superfine! interesting, regardless of the city. Mitow and Miille have a zero-pretension approach to maximizing the larger fair experience by leaning on the city’s larger cultural vibe and its local personalities. The opposite of this is true as well. On Friday morning, Miille (who also exhibits his surreal photos within the fair) and his beau were tapped to give a talk at The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. It’s a strategic move to pull power players at these larger institutions into the Superfine! fold. This is a huge asset for younger artists especially, as Superfine! seems to be something of an incubator as well. Space to show work publicly doesn’t come easily for artists of any age and a gently curated pay-to-play model isn’t a bad platform for leveling up in the industry. There’s an application process to showing with Superfine! of course, and the work has to meet a certain objective criteria of quality, but outside of sales (most prices cap off at $5,000), the fair seems to be an incredible networking opportunity, a low-anxiety collective critique, and an overall post and pre and everything in-between millennial art party. Superfine! in some ways recalls the mid-life days of the completely unrelated SELECT Art Fair, but before things got too weird, dark and chaotic, and certainly before its original co-directors parted ways.
One delightful artistic holdover from the SELECT days is Ventiko, who brought a small art posse of performers for her ongoing Sylva Dean and Me series, which she refers to as “the performative experience for the Avant-Garde connoisseur.”
For Superfine!'s opening night Masquerade Vernissage, Ventiko’s costumed performers, decked out in those freaky, transparent suburban serial killer masks, flesh toned cat suits and most notably, intricate ballroom gowns made from used Bushwick grade-school milk cartons (Ventiko debuted a new “warrior” costume for the fair) blended nicely with other costumes worn by the artists, dealers and other participants. Ventiko’s cadre of silent performers mingled, lurked, crept and crawled around the booths, carefully but often dangerously close to works, shook up some of the older, stuffier purveyors, and really elevated the entire experience, especially for those not terribly familiar with her work.
In many ways the art world is catching up to Ventiko and her peers, who, outside of being tactile, present and very physical, are living, moving, Instagram photo ops. Miille and Mitow are quite aware of what age they’re living in. Just a few feet above the work, where fat, hot pink “sold” dots would soon become abundant, gallery and artist title cards were fitted with vinyl signage that also conspicuously featured their respective Instagram handles. This evolutionary move felt very young, contemporary, economical and obvious.
Throughout the opening night, Erin Baker, decked out in a gorgeous white dress with a bunched-up train like the aftermath of an avalanche, treated fairgoers to her incredible harp playing, mixing classical compositions with classic rock (Stairway anyone?). Late Friday evening guests were treated to an unlimited ice cream social. I kept it to two small cups, miraculously. There were also a few art talks during the fair, centered around dealing and networking, though even Mitow slipped away shortly into these proceedings to “get a little work done” as they were incredibly boring. That being said, quite of few of the fair’s participants were happy to sit in and physically download some of this information, which many of us in the NY art arena especially take for granted.
Holding Superfine! in D.C. just days before the midterm elections made clear just how much we (a lot of us at least) take for granted in this country. Mitow and Miille, whose vibrant, authentic, effortless relationship never overshadows the celebration of the art and artists present, certainly creates an inclusive, fun and open-minded tone for the overall proceedings. There’s also still something a little punk rock (with a wide, glistening smile) about Superfine! that shouldn’t be discounted. While walking around the Capitol Building and various monuments in the larger D.C. area-especially with Superfine! as a concept anchoring this writer to the city itself-one is reminded that gay marriage was only legalized at the federal level in the summer of 2015, and after decades of struggle. It’s also a reminder that contemporary art is a powerful tool to remind us of how easily some of these freedoms can be taken away and how much further we have to go and how much more work needs to be done to fully liberate the human being. Superfine!, since its debut, has fervently championed women, artists of color and those along the LGBTQ spectrum. For this installment, Superfine! reached out to OUTshine, a film festival that supports queer filmmakers, to curate some video programming. This is just one example of Superfine! pushing the envelope in a nonchalant kind of way.
Though Washington D.C. has a sort of old European air to it, with all the marble, stately pillars, carefully curated greenery and giant, looming promenades, it’s clear that Mitow and Miille’s fair, the fairest of fairs, brought a much needed blast of color and excitement to a city attempting to figure out, much like our country as it stands, who it is, where it’s going and what it wants to become. As a model and microcosm for the future of commerce and social justice, Superfine! deserves more attention and applause than it’s currently getting. This isn’t to say that the fair doesn’t have an increasing number of fans, which may officially outshine the haters. If America as a whole would take some cues from this fun little fair-a safe, warm, inclusive, diverse, colorful, accessible, affordable, mutually beneficial, cultured ecosystem-one where everybody has a greater chance of success, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing at all. Actually, it would be a great thing. WM