Suite Smell of Success


Left: Rena Bransten Gallery director Walter Maciel. Right: Collectors Jean Pigozzi and Anita Zabludowicz.

Having now visited the ~scope art fair in three cities, I report with confidence that a hotel bathroom is not an ideal setting for viewing art. Of course, participating in ~scope, which sets up camp in hotels near major art fairs, is far cheaper than renting a booth at Frieze (not to mention easier than getting past the latter’s selection committee), and arguably more convenient, since at the end of the day you can go right to sleep in the same room in which you show your wares. So eighty galleries, from San Francisco stalwart Rena Bransten to unknowns from out-of-the-way cities (Mantova? Cachan? Kitzbühel?), signed up for this iteration, hoping that an official nod from the Frieze publicity materials, in addition to a new, sleeker location (no floral wallpaper to compete with the art), would bump visitor numbers and sales.

The tube delivers me early Friday afternoon to St. Martin’s Lane, a boutique hotel that gained some notoriety for its Philippe Starck-designed interiors when it opened a few years ago. My artist companion and I can take or leave Starck’s efforts, but we agree that the variety of room layouts and the abundance of natural light streaming in from large windows make our tour a more palatable experience than expected. I manage to arrive within an hour of the opening, and, in one room, overhear Anita Zabludowicz—enthusiastic collector, museum patron, and proprietress of a soon-to-open kunsthalle in Kentish Town—asking fellow collector Jean Pigozzi, “Isn’t this fun?” (I would have expected to see both at Frieze, not ~scope—obviously a good sign for the fair’s producers.) She then inquires about the price of a small, charming Julie Heffernan painting and, when told it was “fifteen,” immediately announces she’ll buy it. The dealer repeats the sum—“Fifteen thousand, not hundred”—and Zabludowicz just as quickly retracts. I was surprised by the price, too. One doesn’t often encounter such steep rates at the ‘outsider’ fair; maybe the dealer had a premonition about who would show up.

Most galleries present a succession of small- to medium-scale paintings and works on paper; monomaniacally obsessive photographic self-portraiture, often featuring nudity, is also alarmingly prevalent. I have to give kudos to Mark Moore Gallery, which is presenting only one work, a (site-specific?) room-sized cardboard sculpture by Christopher Tallon that benefits from a mirror on one wall, and to Rokeby, a London gallery I had previously known only by name and which showed dozens of two-dimensional works (by Claire Pestaille, Kathrine Aertebjerg, and Zoë Mendelson, among others) that managed to make a virtue of their diminutive stature.

On Saturday, the dealers at Frieze who raked in cash from collectors on Wednesday and Thursday are paying penance by fending off hordes of commoners—I mean sightseers. I decide to absent myself from the melee to take in the Zoo Art Fair, another alterna-expo, sponsored by Zabludowicz and her husband (along with others, including dealers showing at Frieze) and now in its second year. One could argue that the best part of this fair is getting there, as the trip involves a lovely twenty-minute walk through Regent’s Park towards the London Zoo, where the booths are housed in function rooms in two separate pavilions. The fair engagingly mixes a few non-profits into the group of upstart, mostly East End galleries that act as anchor tenants, and manages to evince “consistent quality” (in the words of one biennial director I flag down near the Apes & Monkey cage)—which, alas, cannot be said for ~scope.

Left: One of Andrea Zittel's hikers at the Zoo Art Fair. Right: Rodolph von Hofmannsthal, Melissa Bent of Rivington Arms gallery, artist Annabel Mehran, and Thomas Hanbury in the Dicksmith Gallery booth.

One reason for this consistency might be the fact that when a gallery or organization is accepted, as Zoo exhibitions manager Alec Steadman informs me, they are welcome to their slot for three successive years: the fair as incubator. One European curator I speak with expresses concern that such young organizations are squeezing themselves into a narrow, overly commercial presentation model when they should be out experimenting. Indeed, a few of last year’s inaugural participants, like Hotel, Kate MacGarry, and the ever-more conspicuous Herald St., made their way quickly across the green lawns to Frieze. But others just schmoozed and went home, to reappear this year. Most of the dealers seem to be under thirty-five, and their bloom of youth gives Zoo a bit of a kids-playing-dress-up feel.

Part of this playhouse ambiance might be derived from the fact that the dealers settle into spaces that are probably smaller than the linen closets in the gracious homes where they hope their artists’ works will end up. (This didn’t stop one gallery from lending a corner of its teensy booth to the New York concern Rivington Arms, a gesture you certainly wouldn’t see under the slick white tent across the way.) The aisles aren’t much wider than a sidewalk, so once again smaller artworks and the lone pristine installation (a telephone-activated artwork by Carey Young in IBID Projects’ otherwise empty booth that was, regrettably, not working during my visit) make the greatest impression.

I was most taken with two tiny, dark, somewhat Netherlandish paintings by Edward Kay at Dicksmith Gallery, which were offset by Veronica Smirnoff’s equally small, colorful whirling-dervish icon paintings in The Great Unsigned’s booth next door. Also impressive were Jamie Shovlin’s watercolor copies (at Riflemaker) of ‘70s-era Fontana Modern Masters paperbacks. The artist has developed an idiosyncratic ranking system for the fifty-eight brainy tomes to “grade” them according to aesthetic and intellectual impact. Since I’ve visited three separate fairs and innumerable other art spaces in five days, this strikes me as being most helpful.