Wishful remedies

small-is-the-new-bigThe abundance of unusually available VIP cards that started to circulate a few weeks before the Armory week foreshadowed what was to come: a slow fair with dealers putting the best face, few red dots in sight —now with the pretext that they are not anymore in vogue—and a rather enjoyable Armory vernissage on Wednesday night where art could be seen at a more leisurely pace. Only that the art on view turned was rather safe and unchallenging, in the best cases tending to small works by major artists — a good compromise between maintaining quality and affordability. Dealers appear to hang in there, many more accessible and nicer to customers than usual, trying not to compromise their prices, although the word out there was that all price tags were negotiable.

I thought about the early years of decline of the Thomas Blackman Art Chicago fair in the late 90s, where major galleries started pulling out, the over-commercial quality bar started to descend, and modernist works and even furniture started to appear. Only that, as we well know, what we are seeing this week in New York is the symptom of something much larger. It has hit the art world so hard that we are still trying to come to grasps with it while remaining in autopilot. This past December in Miami there was still a sense of denial and a series of jovial comments of the kind of “well, the market was so unreal and out of control, now we have come back to reality”. But now that the Dow went under 7,000 and reality is much worse than previously thought, it is much harder to remain upbeat. Perhaps sales may turn out to be better than expected, but right now the current system of multiple fairs feels incongruous. The crowds may be still there, but without sales, an art fair booth becomes little more than an expensive, overblown ad.

One cant help looking for positive signs of recovery. I thought I was when a collector confided to me this week: “you know, I have lost so much money that now I realize that I may as well spend a million today in art than losing it tomorrow in stocks.” Which may be music to the ears of dealers. Yet as resources diminish, collectors will be thinking much more seriously as to where to direct their resources, and impulse shopping at an art fair doesn’t quite seem to be the right place to do it.

Amidst all this, the most stoic amongst us try to take the high road and say: if the market is short, art is still long. One of the most commented about works at the Armory —and, it appears, the only interactive piece — was Christine Hill’s fully functioning apothecary operation at Ronald Feldman made in her signature “olde-tyme” aesthetic. Hill stood behind a counter with a red apron, listening to each customer’s metaphysical ailments, and proceeding to prescribe artist-editioned items that could be purchased for $25. It was the only thing, aside to the drinks at the bar, that I saw actually being sold at the fair. Hill’s metaphor was spot-on: money, whether we have it or not, has long lost meaning, but art may still comfort us in small ways. But can we be content with that?

I am curious to hear the diagnosis of the other fairs by you all.

Christine Hill\’s Apothecary at the Armory

About Pablo Helguera

Pablo Helguera is a New York-based artist and contributing editor for Artworld Salon. Originally from Mexico City, his multi-disciplinary work often deals with topics such as history, social thought, perception, fiction, and academicism. His works, which are usually performative in nature, have included making phonograph recordings, composing orchestral pieces, inventing fictional artists and museums, founding educational and research institutions, and writing scripted symposia with actors. He has performed individually at the Museum of Modern Art, NY (Parallel Lives, 2003), and has exhibited or performed at other venues such as the Royal College of Art, London; the Havana Biennial, Performa 05, and many others. He received a Creative Capital Grant for “The School of Panamerican Unrest”, a nomadic think-tank that physically traveled by car from Anchorage, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, covering 25,000 miles, and becoming the most physically extensive public art project on record. This project will be showcased in a solo traveling exhibition organized by El Museo del Barrio in New York, which will also travel to London, Mexico City and in other locations. From 1998 to 2005 he served as Senior Manager of Education of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where he developed and oversaw the museum’s public programs. He has organized more than 500 public programs in the course of his museum career, including the international symposium The Museum as Medium (2002) and the Fifth Installment of the International Symposium of Contemporary Art Theory in Mexico City (SITAC, 2005). He currently is Director of Adult and Academic Programs of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a Guggenheim Fellow. He is the author of four books: Endingness (2005), an essay on the art of memory; The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style (2005; Spanish edition; 2007, English edition), a social etiquette manual for the art world; The Witches of Tepoztlán (and other Unpublished Operas), (2007), The Boy Inside the Letter (2008) and Artoons (2009). http://web.mac.com/phelguera/iWeb/Site/Pablo%20Helguera%20Archive.html www.pablohelguera.org www.panamericanismo.org

4 thoughts on “Wishful remedies

  1. Although swimming in space on its West SoHo pier, Pulse basically sucks. There are exceptions to any rule, and Ms. Diaz is right to cite McCallum/Tarry. I would add Jim Lee’s wall sculpture/paintings at Freight & Volume, Vadis Turner’s femme/folk wedding fantasia at Lyons Wier Ortt, Eckart Hahn’s cross fixations at Pablo’s Birthday, and various work at Conner Contemporary, Magnan Projects, Daneyal Mahmood, Bravin Lee and P.P.O.W. Was also glad to see Constance Collins-Margulies given space for her non-profit Lotus Endowment Fund, a portfolio of photographs by women artists to benefit a Miami women’s shelter.

    But Pulse was a general morass of post-student fiddlings, jejune installations and mindless decoration, not ready for prime time. Ironically, the Parsons MFA booth came off better than many of its surrounding “professional” counterparts. Or was I influenced by the spirited advocacy of Parson’s new Fine Art chair Coco Fusco? — we escaped the fair together by taxicab.

    In additional to the asinine mechanical bull mentioned above, there is also the lingering bureaucratic bull of the Blue Menials, who have inexplicably been retained to “manage” Pulse’s PR. Quelle horreur!

  2. Another problem for Pulse is its banishment to the Hudson River littoral. Even after arriving at Pier 40, it’s still necessary to skirt several soccer fields just to reach the action.

    Volta fares better with a central midtown location, a compact, concentric imprint and the elegance of its one booth/one artist rubric. I particularly enjoyed David Kramer’s satiric journey to the heart of American pop yearnings (at Aeroplastics, Brussels); Lisa Sigal’s collages/paintings on paper at Frederieke Taylor; Alejandro Almanza Pereda’s sculptures combining a meditation on strength of materials with formal strategies of repetition (at Magnan Projects – yes, they had booths at both fairs); Karen Heagle’s drawings and editions at I-20; and Trong Nguyen’s participatory pillory project near the elevator bank.

    But both fairs suffer from a zero sum deficit, due to the Armory Show’s expansion from Pier 94 to also include Pier 92: 50% more space than last year. Combine this with the economic downturn and a significant group of major players who are sitting it out this year – including Gagosian, Gladstone, Marian Goodman, Lehman Maupin, Greene Naftali, Andrea Rosen, Matthew Marks, Luhring Augustine, Metro, James Cohan, Petzel, CRG, Gavin Brown, Maccarone, Casey Kaplan, Postmasters, Patrick Painter, Blum & Poe, David Kordansky – and the potential for attrition is obvious. Exhibitors who could never hope for Armory participation in fatter moments are able to “move up” – if they can afford the tariff. This leaves slimmer pickings and a potential dilution of quality in satellite fair participation.

  3. Climbing up to the Armory Show’s Modern extension is a decidedly uncomfortable experience. The metal and chicken-wire contraption that fairgoers have to mount to reach the upper level seems to have been borrowed from a military training camp. Yet it does have the delightful effect of reminding visitors of the original Armory fairs at the Gramercy Park Hotel.

    My memory of those events is all about the stairways. They were dark and loud, as I remember them, croaking under the weight of a thousand frolicking visitors stuck in perpetual two-way gridlock. The risk of an alcohol spill, a cigarette burn, or a lethal stampede made the whole thing feel slightly zany and seedy and dangerous, but in a good old-fashioned bohemian kind of way. This is the quality that some miss in today’s air-conditioned, business-minded, cappuccino-infused, VIP-besotted fairs.

    My aim is not to be nostalgic, just to point out how far we have come. The art fair modality has hardened into a set of firm institutional expectations. At each and every fair, even the more peripheral ones, one can see artists and fair organizers straining to break through this formality and claim moments of genuine surprise and authenticity.

  4. As the Dow quickly heads south and the Obama team attempts to jump start the economy with sudden (and hopefully necessary and sufficient) infusions of cash, the image of a flatlining patient, supine on the gurney and awaiting cardiopulmonary resuscitation, looms ever larger. It’s a relevant image not only for the severely injured macro sphere, but also for the bleeding, gasping art world. It makes one wonder what elements of “genuine surprise and authenticity” will prove an effective jolt to a patient in triage.

    Certainly Christine Hill’s botanica at the Feldman booth conjures up a ready metaphor for our current beleaguered zeitgeist. That’s why it has garnered such immediate attention. We all want to escape the pain, to place our faith in a fast and simple cure. We will accept the solace of theosophy, incantation and folk wisdom if it is correctly packaged and presented. No one actually expects Hill’s potions and amulets to work, but the modesty of her “nation of shopkeepers” gesture charms us into becoming her willing accomplices in performance/installation. We understand our belief is both conditional and consensual, and also recognize her underlying conflation of sincerity and irony: “if you feel, you’re healed” meets “caveat emptor” under the carny tent. But at $25-50 a pop, the cost effective price for a leap of faith, circa 2009, seems just about right.

    Hill’s Apothecary is designed to signify as genuine. But it is anachronistic, self consciously embracing time-tested virtues that Andras also finds of value in the rickety, provisional stairs connecting the Armory piers. Funky = honest. Less slick = more authentic. Embracing the jerrybuilt and familiar is, not surprisingly, a nostalgic retreat back from the studied perfection that has become the paradigm of the art fair experience, but which does not suit the reduced financial expectations of the moment. We should understand, though, that “the authentic” is still a construct, as much a product of artifice as is “the slick”.

    How will all this inform the future of the art fair? If we need to increase the comfort level of the art market by more fully embracing a “constructed nostalgia”, then the organizers of the Armory seem right on target with their “Modern” pier. I am writing this at 6 pm on Sunday, an hour before the fair shuts its doors. So we will soon know whether the many Tom Wesselmann paintings and editions, and the plethora of mid-sized Louise Nevelson sculptures, have found new homes. But certainly one of the reasons that many major US galleries opted out of the Armory Show this year is that they were able to display their wares, less than a month ago, under the “constructed nostalgia” of the ADAA fair, a more modest, “authentic” and guild oriented experience.

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