Ferry Tale

Michael Wilson at the fourth Governors Island Art Fair

Left: Outside the Governors Island Art Fair. Right: Inside the Governors Island Art Fair. (Photos: Michael Wilson)

I’D ANTICIPATED a quiet ferry ride out from downtown Manhattan for the first Friday of this year’s Governors Island Art Fair, which continues on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays throughout September. The reality was rather different, as a crowd several hundred strong milled noisily around South Street terminal’s bare-bones waiting room before streaming onto the boat like there was a tropical storm at its back. Evidently, the former British colonial administrative base was now a firm fixture on the tourist map. But once we arrived at our destination, the hordes seemed to melt away, and I struck out alone for the prosaically named Building 12, somewhere on the territory’s lesser-known far side.

Watching in mild alarm as a family of eight careened downhill past me on a for-hire pedal car, I almost walked past the entrance to the event’s first part. There wasn’t a whole lot of fanfare to announce that Section P of the aforementioned establishment was home to a fourteen-artist group exhibition and three floors of solo presentations. A desultory trio of visitors—or were they participants?—lingered by the door, but there was nothing in the way of an official welcome. Organizers 4heads (artists Ernie Sandidge, Nicole Laemmle, Jack Robinson, and Antony Zito) clearly expected attendees to do their share of the work—this was a fair trailed as “run by artists, for artists,” after all.

Trouble was, where were they? With no opening bash and a determinedly low-key approach to sales, the “fair” felt oddly adrift, separated from the city’s art-world action not only by a stretch of water but also by the total absence of hype. While in many ways this was of course A Good Thing, and arguably consistent with 4heads’ advocacy of “organically occurring culture” and the struggling artists who presumably give birth to it, it was hard not to wish for a little more snap, crackle, and pop. But there was no easing into this one—calamitously, even the trailed Two Boots pizza and Porchetta sarnies weren’t scheduled to arrive until the weekend—so I grabbed a checklist and got to work.

Participants in this year’s annual fair—the fourth—were selected from open call without dealer involvement. Each of the hundred-plus who made the cut was given a room in the abandoned barracks and free rein to use it as he or she saw fit. A handful of galleries—Open Ground, Standpipe Gallery, Ugly Art Room—were invited too, but there was no evidence of the thinly veiled rivalry that colors GIAF’s more prestigious counterparts. Again, A Good Thing, but some may miss the cut-’n’-thrust. Still, the building made for an atmospheric backdrop, its flaking paint, creepy attics, and doors to nowhere—along with the striking view of rolling waves outside from upper river-facing windows—easily trumping the standard portabooth.

How to characterize the selection? Well, there was some mediocre stuff, of course, but also a few pleasant surprises. Leah Yerpe’s precisely rendered Robert Longo–esque drawings of tangled, tumbling figures were highly effective; Ellen Blum’s large, luminous painterly abstractions, while not so much to my taste, also looked undeniably striking in the distressed, quasi-domestic interior. Michael John Davis scored a hit with paintings and drawings of cats that teetered enjoyably on the edge of kitsch, while Sandra Nydegger’s murky black-and-white photographs of sharks and other worrying sealife struck a darker note. There was a good deal else to enjoy, but while the lack of chatter and buzz resulted in an unusually tranquil shopping experience for those collectors that did make the boat, it had the unexpected side effect of making me actually look forward to the imminent season, in all its bitchy, competitive, posturing, gossipy glory.