Lighter Fair

Los Angeles

Left: Collector Don Rubell and dealer Kevin Bruk. Right: 1301PE director Alexis Johnson. (All photos: Andrew Berardini)

The second half of January has been surprisingly hectic in the Los Angeles art world, though last weekend’s offerings—museum-exhibition openings and an art fair—brought a quiet denouement to the frenzy of activity. The third-annual Art LA fair, held in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, was the most recent attempt by local boosters to compete with more pedigreed rivals—in London, New York, Basel, and Miami—and prove that the West Coast can also support a big-deal commercial showcase. But I learned quickly that market-driven cheerleaders are about as convincing as used-car salesmen, especially when no one’s buying.

Art LA felt a bit like an adventure in munchkin land: Everything seemed diminutive, from the number of galleries (an expectedly small turnout) to the size of the booths (imagine a midsize bathroom). Nevertheless, a number of quality spaces were brought into the fold, including Daniel Hug, Patrick Painter, and Susanne Vielmetter Projects. But the most charming contenders at Art LA were the nonprofits, which injected the sales floor with a little mirth and experimentation, including editioned cupcakes at LACE and a squelching Styrofoam orchestra from Machine Project that sent more conservative collectors scurrying for the outside bar.

At the Thursday-night opening, full-time fair director and Midwest transplant Tim Fleming exuded inexhaustible cheer, flecked with moments of self-reflective honesty. “Most of the big LA galleries signed on in the last month,” he conceded, the thinking being, “‘Let’s do this scrappy little art fair.’” There were supporters and customers, of course, including Don and Mera Rubell, Dean Valentine, Seth Geller, LACMA’s Lynn Zelevansky, and MoCA’s young collectors group (the beneficiaries of the opening-night festivities). But conversations with dealers, normally eager to inflate sales statistics, brought news of few transactions. Tellingly, the dealers’ gossip centered around other fairs—anecdotes from Miami, booth locations at the Armory, and, in one case, the viability of the upcoming Gulf Art Fair in Dubai.

Left: Artist Ezra Woods and Nicole Klagsbrun's Carolyn Ramo. Right: Dealer Susanne Vielmetter.

Wilshire Boulevard stalwart SolwayJones made the best of the situation, setting up a classic Tom Marioni installation in their booth, where, above a primrose-yellow refrigerator stuffed with bottles of Pacifico, a sign announced, “THE ACT OF DRINKING BEER WITH FRIENDS IS THE HIGHEST FORM OF ART, 1970.” I couldn’t help but sit and knock one back with the veteran conceptualist. “I got asked to do a show in a dry county in Tennessee,” he explained, pausing to sip the dregs of his bottle. “They told me I couldn’t bring any beer.”

Two days later, the Hammer Museum orchestrated Vija Celmins’s triumphant return to her alma mater, UCLA. The Celmins drawings retrospective—which opened last fall in Paris—was accompanied by soft openings for the current batch of Hammer Projects, including exhibitions by Erik van Lieshout, Ezra Johnson, Jan van der Ploeg, and the debut of a new film by Austrian artist Mathias Poledna. I spent half the night combing the crowd for the notoriously shy Celmins, to no avail, but I did manage to meet van Lieshout, a reputedly rambunctious Dutchman (“My challenge is to lose control!”), who seemed well behaved on the arm of new Hammer adjunct curator Ali Subotnick. Through the revealing interviews in his disarmingly funny documentary video on view, van Lieshout came off as a friendlier and more humane version of the aggressively bleak Lars von Trier, if such a thing can be imagined.

Strolling through the Celmins retrospective, one wondered how the artist’s labor-intensive, mostly grisaille drawings, dating from the late ’60s to today, would cope if they had emerged in the current frenzied climate. Here the work had space to breathe, and while most, it seemed, gladly succumbed to its genius, I heard one youthful upstart pronounce it “boring” with a dismissive flourish of his hand before disappearing into the tony crowd. Leaving the main lobby, I bumped into artist and CalArts dean Tom Lawson, whose artwork is as ripe for revival as Celmins’s. He filled me in on the previous night’s dinner, where literary luminaries Gore Vidal and Jean Stein held court alongside art-world heavy hitters. I asked how Celmins was surviving amid all this pomp and circumstance. “She’s shy, but she’s tough. And though Vija’s been through a lot, she’s come out quite all right,” he assured me.

Left: Hammer director Ann Philbin. Right: Artist Erik van Lieshout with Hammer adjunct curator Ali Subotnick.

Left: Dealer Daniel Hug with artist Bobbi Wood. Right: Art LA director Tim Fleming.

Left: Chung King Projects' Francois Ghebaly and Konstainer's Mihai Nicodim. Right: UCLA dean and Hammer adjunct curator Russell Ferguson.

Left: LACE director Carol Stakenas. Right: Dealer Angela Jones, artist Tom Marioni, and dealer Michael Solway.

Left: Collector Seth Geller with LACMA curator Lynn Zelevansky. Right: Dealer Zach Feuer.