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You've been seeing them everywhere on Instagram - but what's the deal with art fairs?
If it's anything like other kinds of fairs, where are the price tags? And what's the appropriate duration of time to look at a painting before moving onto the next one so you look like you understand art criticism?
There's only one way to find out. Feeling like true representatives of common man in our jeans and backpacks, we marched over to two of the biggest art fairs, Independent and Armory.
Art fairs are kind of like the science fairs you used to go as a kid. Its main purpose is to gather as many artists and galleries in one place for your convenience. There’s no doubt that it is a commercial event - galleries pay (often a considerable amount of) money to participate, and in turn, get exposure to more potential customers than usually come to galleries.
In the recent years, art fairs have diversified to accommodate different prices and genres of art. Affordable Art Fair’s name is pretty self explanatory; The Other Art Fair lets artists represent themselves instead of going through galleries; Spring/Break offers a more immersive, installation-based presentation.
Conveniently enough, Independent was only blocks away from Curina’s office in Soho.
As soon as we saw the huge letters on the wall in sartorial-style font (doesn’t it remind you of the New Yorker or some other mildly academic publication?), the pressing question became apparent: what is so independent about the Independent Art Fair?
The website tells us: “Independent remains the New York art fair whose edge most deserves to be called cutting, the one where you stand to learn the most about promising new art.”
But since “cutting edge” is a word that has been thrown around for decades, we want to focus more on the “where you learn” aspect of it. While no art fair puts the sales aspect forward, neither do they explicitly mention the educational element.
Indeed, Independent felt like a museum or gallery from the outset.
We get this feeling from the slightly aloof and effortlessly chic desk people at the entrance, which extends to the maze-like organization of booths.
Saya woolfalk, one of the featured artists, synthesizes patterns and ethnographic imagery from different cultures to create a vision of an alternate human species called the “empathics”. At her booth, visitors were encouraged to experience her sculptural pieces as a whole.
Then what was the curatorial angle of the whole fair?
That we were less sure of. Maybe that kind of coherence is too much to ask for in a weekend-long event. Instead, it was easier to observe loosely grouped affinities than a common theme.
For one, since its heyday in the 90’s, the abject - a fancy word for revolting, twisted, violent encounters with something - of the human body is still strong and alive. A lot of sagging skin, sullen faces, close ups of human body parts. Like fashion, trends in art do circle back.
On the other end of the spectrum from the raw human body are everyday objects, small and big.
This year’s treat was no doubt a mini collection of furniture and miniature sculptures entitled “Object & Thing”. These have been commissioned from various designers, from, of course, Brooklyn. It feels like a very clever irony, because instead of selling lofty things (i.e. paintings), they were elevating objects we usually don’t look at because they’re useful. Even aside from “Object & Thing”, many booths had partnered with design studios to commission furniture for the occasion.
Then there are small objects, recycled from traditional sculptures and memorabilia. Something your mother would put on the drawer for passing glances throughout the years. Sentimentality is no longer cheesy, it’s kitsch.
The Special and Featured Projects made it clear that Independent is trying to cross disciplines. This is nothing new especially since MoMA’s reopening with a new attention on installation and sound, but it’s harder to do the same under a commercial agenda. It was exciting, for one, to see RVNG’s record store Commend, its limited edition tapes and merch hanging right next to framed paintings.
Nothing comes without a cost - Independent is as small as it is curated.
To quote one of our team members, “this is it?” This is not just indicative of the quantity per se, but the fact that the roster of participating organizations was kind of predictable. Albeit the “international” label, Independent is a very New York event, representing that circle of nonprofit and profit-but-edgy galleries that you go to see the kind of show that will puzzle your non-artsy friends. As someone whose taste has been groomed by this circle (insert dry laughter), it felt like Independent had indulged my “haha, I’m so weird” taste but not quite challenged it.