Party Politics

Alexandra Pechman at the 12th SP-Arte

Left: Dealer Nara Roesler and collector Ella Cisneros-Fontanals. Right: SP-Arte director Fernanda Feitosa and Heitor Martins. (Photos: Denise Andrade)

IN BRAZIL, when things go badly you make it into a party. Take the infamous 1919 carnival after the Spanish Flu, or the recent protests calling for impeachment—or protests of those calls for impeachment—which often devolve into long, beer-soaked nights. So perhaps it’s no surprise that this year’s SP-Arte, Latin America’s largest art fair, held in the middle of the country’s worst recession in decades and political upheaval, charged on with a determined gaiety.

The lines of communication appeared aggressively open to the friendlier, more stable market in North America: The fair’s talks program focused on the Americas, with forums on the Cuban art scene and the Getty’s LA/LA initiative for 2017. The weekend before the fair, Nara Roesler opened a show of Cuban artist René Francisco, his first with the gallery, curated by collector Ella Cisneros-Fontanals.

“I had never curated a show before,” Cisneros-Fontanals told us. Would she ever do it again? “No!” The opening was followed by a lavish party at Nara’s Ruy Ohtake–designed home. On the roof deck, complete with a lap pool, director Daniel Roesler mused about Brazil’s current drama—which from that particular perch seemed very far away. “It’s a messy time.”

Left: Dealers Pedro Mendes, Magê Abàtayguara, and Matthew Wood. Right: Pivô founder Fernanda Brenner. (Photos: Alexandra Pechman)

So look away. Roesler has a new space in New York’s Flower District. Mendes Wood DM joins them on the Upper East Side in the fall, and during the fair Mendes Wood and Michael Werner (say that five times fast) had a joint booth and also cohosted a party at the Copan Building Monday night.

Despite the downturn, new efforts continue to pop up on the domestic front: The week saw the opening of Luciana Brito’s new jewel of a gallery space in a former 1950s modernist home; Galeria Vermelho’s cinema space; and the opening of three shows at Videobrasil, just inaugurated last year. “Everyone is asking about the crisis,” Alexandre Gabriel of Fortes Vilaça told me on Monday night. “But here, life goes on.”

Later that night we landed a tour of Erika Verzutti’s new show “Swan, Cucumber, Dinosaur” at lodestar nonprofit Pivô. “They’re different notes to the idea of feeling the space with monsters,” Verzutti said of the massive, painted Styrofoam forms. Maybe a fairy-tale is the best response to a crisis. Another worthy example was South African artist Haroon Gunn-Salie’s show at Videobrasil. The exhibition recreated testimony about the mining dam break and resulting catastrophe in Mariana last year, which has been somewhat lost in the storm of other troubles. A victim donated a ruined home that stands in the middle of the space. “There's nothing more urgent,” Gunn-Salie said of the disaster.

Left: Artist Emmanuel Nassar. (Photo: Denise Andrade) Right: Sao Paulo Bienal curator Jochen Volz. (Photo: Pedro Costa Barros)

At the fair’s opening on Wednesday, blissful ignorance was more the norm. At the entrance, a Maison Perrier-Jouët–sponsored installation spurted bubbles onto entrants. The Open Plan sector of commissioned works, curated by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, billed itself as an “exception area– as Visconti said, there was no defining theme. Rather, the section was a way to invite international dealers who may have been worried about the moment in terms of sales. A fine showing of foreign galleries still came—thirty-eight, some for the first time, such as Michael Werner and Simon Preston. White Cube, which had recently closed its São Paulo space, also brought a booth.

São Paulo Bienal curator Jochen Volz arrived at the fair on his way to Accra for a site visit. He spoke of “the contamination” of certain words meant to illuminate Incerteza Viva (Live Uncertainty), the title of this year’s show, given the political turmoil. “A lot of the words we’ve used have changed,” he said, noting that the word “measure” has come to characterize governmental measures—or, one could argue, inefficacy. “The word ‘uncertainty’ is more in use.”

Stephen Friedman’s booth focused on David Shrigley, who has never had a major show in Latin America. A drawing of a dirty pig announced: I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE / FOR THE MESS THAT I MAKE. The artist’s simplification of chaos into cartoonish ignorance struck a chord.

Some Brazilian galleries addressed the day more head on. At Casa Triangulô, Ivan Grilo’s plaque announcing AMANHA VAI SER MAIOR (TOMORROW WILL BE BIGGER) was a callback to Brazil’s 2013 protests—now gold-plated and for sale. Rio de Janeiro’s Portas Vilaseca showed photographs by Iris Helena of crumbling buildings in the northern state of Paraíba—inkjet on toilet paper. “If we sell everything, we can party,” Jaime Portas Vilaseca told me.

Left: Dealers Simon Preston and Paula Naughton. Right: Thereza Farkas of Videobrasil. (Photos: Alexandra Pechman)

SP-Arte founder and director Fernanda Feitosa wore a star-spangled dress and galactic diamond-and-pearl earrings as she admitted it was the first year the fair did not increase in size. She noted the year had brought, if not the biggest fair, the largest number of visiting journalists. “Everything now is political,” she said. “The topic this week will be art.”

And so art it was, as much as politics can be divorced from it. A party on Thursday at the home of Feitosa and her husband Heitor Martins, president of the Museu de Arte de São Paul (MASP), followed that museum’s opening of “Histórias da infância,” a show literally about naiveté, uniting images of childhood from every corner of art history.

The fair’s wildest parties though were held over the weekend. Friday saw collectors Maguy and Jean Marc Etlin as well as Fabio Faisal and Tera Queiroz hold back-to-back celebrations—easy enough to navigate since they live almost next door to each other. The Etlins honored Dalton Paula’s solo project at Sé Gallery (winner of the fair’s Illy Sustain Art Prize) with a dinner, while Faisal’s late-night dance party didn’t begin until midnight. We heard from artist Marcos Chaves that the latter didn’t end until almost 7 AM—and of course there was the requisite mass dip in the pool. Things showed no sign of slowing down Saturday, when Mendes Wood held its much-anticipated annual party. Usually held at Wood and Mendes’s home, this year the gallery opted for a meaningful, and more massive, choice of venue: Lina Bo Bardi’s exquisite experimental space Teatro Oficina. It’s one of Bo Bardi’s few high-profile buildings—her leftist politics put her at odds with the military dictatorship and its supporters. So that party was maybe a tip of the hat to her spirit, in the wake of pro-democracy protests against a potential coup—though by midnight it was all but anarchy.

“This is a curation of one thousand people. I looked at hundreds of names,” Wood told me at the party, as people flooded onto rafters and beams and into the sprawling backyard. “These are the one thousand people you want to meet in São Paulo.”

I only met a dozen or so that night—a daunting enough task in itself. By the time I left, it was a little after 5 AM. I was just in time to miss the sobering light of day, or something like reality.

Left: Dealer Jaime Portas Vilaseca. Right: Artist Erika Verzutti. (Photos: Alexandra Pechman)