Randall's Island Park, New York
5-7 May 2017
by NATASHA KURCHANOVA
This year’s Frieze Art Fair in New York, now in its sixth edition, was, as always, an impressive undertaking. Located in a temporary tent construction on Randall’s Island Park on East River, which separates Manhattan and Queens, the fair could easily have overwhelmed the unprepared visitor by the sheer quantity and variety of art on display. With more than 200 galleries from 31 countries participating, it left an impression of boundless excess and barely contained creative energy, limited only by the space of the temporary construction that housed it and its short duration – just three days. What struck me as I approached it on foot by way of a pedestrian bridge was that this extravagant display of wealth and plenty was next door to Manhattan Psychiatric Center, a New York state mental health facility that caters mostly for the city’s poor and underprivileged, the majority of them black and Hispanic. The fancy fair and the mental institution may have been neighbours in terms of location, but they were worlds apart in terms of social stature and interaction. There was nothing within the fair that indicated the proximity of the hospital, or vice versa. This glaring divide between the inside and the outside of the tent haunted me throughout the otherwise brilliant display of highly selective art from around the globe. Guided by this sense of a gap, I was trying to find traces of that divide, which did not fit in with the clamouring business of visual stimulation.
It was not an easy task, although not entirely hopeless. Of course, there were many thematic and visual references to poverty and exclusion that were framed by the discourse of art history – as in a metal construction by Jannis Kounellis [who died in February this year] that combines a hard-edged steel-cast minimalist frame with multicoloured rags of Arte Poveraat White Cube, for example;or in a an arresting display of Sadie Benning’s “drawings” made of wood, Aqua-Resin, casein and acrylic gouache with motifs reminiscent of African textilesat Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; or works about otherness framed by the formerly excluded, or on their behalf – as in a display from the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa; or Andres Serrano’s unforgettable photographs of notable figures in American pop culture, such as his portrait of Snoop Dogg (America) (2002) placed next to that of Donald Trump, on view at Galerie Nathalie Obadia. Otherness as a gap, however – as something that was not appropriated as a symbol, but that could be sensed only obliquely as an oddity and a strange discomfort that we are reluctant to face – existed only in a handful of works, some of them installations that included at least two objects and some digital media work. Foremost among them was Anish Kapoor’s Void, a large hollow semi-sphere made of fibreglass and painted in a deep shade of velvety red in combination with his Mirror Glow (Oriental Blue), a concave mirror made of stainless steel and positioned across Void on the opposite wall in such a way that a viewer looking in the mirror could notice the other work’s reflection, while not seeing their own. The resulting sense of displacement and loss of one’s body is uncanny, to say the least. Were it not for the surrounding crowd, the disorientation and unease arising from not seeing one’s reflection in the mirror and, instead, facing the literal and metaphoric void would be viscerally unsettling.
Brock Enright’s installations at the Kate Werble Gallery booth was another memorable work that questioned our sense of boundaries and the status quo in a probing but subtle manner. It consisted of a sprawling display of objects, including transparent miniature containers, small twigs, winding snakes of varying shapes and sizes and tiny columns resembling cat scratching-poles – all placed on small pedestals resembling coasters on the floor in a form of a rectangle, occupying most of the available walking space in the gallery. This odd installation of fragile and transparent objects contrasted sharply with the clamour of the fair’s abundance and offered a refuge from it. Sparsely composed paintings by Michael Berryhill hung alongside Enright’s installation echoed its carefully organised randomness, contributing to a poignant sense of missing something essential. A similar feeling of disruption, but much more emotionally charged, was occasioned by watching a captivating video, Fight (2001), by Polish artist Zuzanna Janin. The video captures an excruciatingly brutal and seemingly endless fight between a man and a woman in a boxing ring. We find ourselves drawn viscerally to the reality of aggression emanating from the screen yet repulsed by its utter senselessness and sadistic undercurrents.
Apart from the exceptional examples of video, installation and sculpture, Frieze 2017 also demonstrated the enduring power of traditional two-dimensional media, particularly of the realist variety. Gigantic monotone paintings by Alfred Leslie were commanding in their scale and imposing presence. Depicting Americans as separate figures and in groups, they loom over the viewer, confronting us with their unsmiling gaze. Aliza Nisenbaum’s playful figurative compositions present a different side of Americana, in which people relax and enjoy each other’s presence. Teresa Burga’s masterful collages convey a sense of displacement and marginality not only by the composition of the figures, but also through the scattered, disconnected visual signs that form their background. Adrian Paci’s gentle paintings and watercolours of bathers transport us into the world of fun and relaxation, offering a respite from the hustle and bustle of our surroundings.
The fair is divided into five sections – Main, Non-Profit, Spotlight, Focus and Frame, with participating galleries arranged by their stature within the art world, sources of funding, and certain qualifying features of art on display – “academic” or “young,” for example. This division achieves a certain order as it guides the visitor through well-known names and an emphasis on research and art history to a more unfamiliar territory of “emerging” galleries and artists at various stages of their acceptance into the canon. It does not necessarily determine the quality of art on display. While Kapoor, Serrano, Burga and Paci are represented by well-established galleries – Kapoor by Lisson in London, Serrano by Nathalie Obadia from Paris, Burga by Barbara Thumm from Berlin, and Paci by both Frith Street in London and Galerie Peter Kilchmann in Zurich – Janin, Nisenbaum and Enright, for example, are featured by galleries in the Focus section – Warsaw’s Lokal 30, Glasgow’s Mary Mary and New York’s Kate Werble, respectively – meant to showcase “the strongest young galleries”.
The fair itself and its extensive list of programmes and projects – including a symposium on Latin American art, performances and films – celebrated diversity in a sense of inclusion in the world of the market of previously excluded but domesticated “others”. Its conspicuous location, however, required a more sensitive approach to the question not only of racial and cultural differences, but also economic disparities. It is a pity that the fair refused to confront the reality of the world outside the tent.