Back to School

Nuit Banai at the 5th Fresh Paint Art Fair

Left: Outside the Fresh Paint art fair. Right: Fresh Paint art fair curators Yifat Gurion and Matan Daube. (All photos: Nuit Banai)

A MINISTRY OF TOURISM SNAFU had me arriving in Tel Aviv the day after the professional preview of the Fresh Paint art fair, cabbing it on the fly from Jerusalem because there were no hotel rooms to be found in the coastal city known as “the bubble.” Nevertheless, catching the fifth installment of the fair on the particularly humid night of the public opening was a revelation. Thousands of sweaty bodies jammed the sandy parking lot of a newly built high school in the northwestern part of the city. It was a crowd of flip-flops, shorts, and T-shirts, and together we slouched into the facilities to see the booths by twenty-five of Israel’s contemporary galleries and fifty-six unrepresented Israeli artists. The location, three floors of austere classrooms functioning as impromptu exhibition spaces and a central concrete courtyard transformed into a performance area, café, and bookstore, epitomized the fair’s touted goals, namely to educate the general public about contemporary art, create a new community of potential collectors, and consolidate Tel Aviv’s burgeoning art scene.

Before I could delve further, though, I was whisked off to an informal presentation by the fair’s curatorial team, Yifat Gurion and Matan Daube. They’ve joined forces with a network of collectors and entrepreneurs (including Ari Fruchter, also present at the talk), museum professionals, and art institutions to invent a business model suited for the local context—a “start-up” nation in all senses of the term. Gurion’s pithy explanation for getting in with Sharon Tillinger, CEO of Fresh Paint, was personal: “I want people like me to buy art.” Echoing the importance of making art “accessible” to new buyers, Daube promoted the fair’s unique Artists’ Greenhouse—an open-call section where artists without commercial gallery representation could showcase their work and build a collector base (the hundreds of works were hung salon style throughout the first floor of the building).

Left: Fresh Paint CEO Sharon Tillinger. Right: Curator Sarit Shapira.

Representing the entrepreneurial spirit, Fruchter breathlessly narrated his part in organizing Spencer Tunick’s Dead Sea Project, a “military-style operation” that culminated in the shedding of clothes and a collective feeling of “excitement, serenity, and unity.” Though he bemoaned not getting naked himself, I gathered that he found Tunick’s distinctively populist projects resonant with Fresh Paint’s unpretentious ambience and casual intimacy; they also underlined the explicit social function and economic agenda driving contemporary art fairs, namely spectacle and commerce. A tension between populism and profit runs through most of the fair’s special projects: On the one hand, a fund-raiser for underprivileged students organized by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s Meyerhoff Art Education Center, in which the public can purchase a unique postcard without knowing the identity of the artist; on the other, Sotheby’s Under the Hammer selection, in which one work by an “independent” artist from the Greenhouse is sold at the Israeli art auction in New York. (This year, proceeds will go to the artist, Or Harpaz, whose work is redolent of Walid Raad.)

The high point of the evening was the presentation of the Most Promising Artist award, a fat sum of $10,000 sponsored by megacollector Igal Ahouvi, which went to both Elham Rokni and Matan Mittwoch, chosen from a pool of more than a thousand anonymous submissions. The formal announcement was made by curator Sarit Shapira, who added that each artist will have a solo presentation at the next Fresh Paint. Encountering Shapira on the sidelines, I asked her to weigh in on the fair. Like everyone else, she was enthused that emerging artists can exhibit before signing with a commercial gallery and the public can purchase affordable artworks without the “mental distance” of the white cube. Even blue-chip galleries like Dvir and Sommer Contemporary Art, showing together in the same room, were trying on new hats, employing a “library concept” that allowed people to browse their collection of artists such as Tal R, Lawrence Weiner, Rona Yefman, and Pavel Wolberg as if they were at a book stand. (On a related note, TLVS cofounder Oran Singer told me that Israel has more book purchasers per capita than any other country in the world.) When I ran into Edna Moshenson, curator of the Greenhouse’s video section, in Gordon Gallery’s classroom-cum-booth, she argued that the fair was the last component that Tel Aviv needed to make it a “complete” art scene.

Left: TLVS cofounder Oran Singer, Ili Cohen, and Ari Fruchter. Right: Artist Shahar Yahalom.

By 10 PM, it was still almost impossible to maneuver the tightly packed school hallways and it seemed that the people’s party was just about to kick off. Hipsters in skinny jeans—that postnational tribe—drank draft beer and chain-smoked cigarettes in the central courtyard. Their parents’ generation, decidedly sturdier folk, sat around white wooden tables sipping water and talking loudly on their cell phones. One of my local art spies drifted by and informed me that the “kids” were heading to central Tel Aviv for an afterparty at a bar called Mount Sinai, aptly located behind a synagogue. It was the place to be, he claimed, and was steps away from a kiosk selling gat, the new legal drug of choice—a chewable plant native to Yemen that has euphoric effects. After the official populism of Fresh Paint, there was certainly something appealing about the unofficial. Alas, it was not to be, as my taxi driver back to Jerusalem, a forty-five-minute ride into cooler weather, was getting restless.

While it made perfect sense that Tel Aviv would eventually join the world circuit by establishing a local art fair, I wondered when Fresh Paint would begin to invite foreign galleries and open up to the global art village in which so many Israeli artists play a vital part. If Tel Aviv is making a serious creative effort and economic investment to combat the periphery syndrome by turning populism into profit, it certainly can’t afford to be provincial.

Left: Associate curator of Fresh Paint Matan Daube and artists El Ham Rokni and Matan Wittwoch. Right: Artist Elad Larom.

Left: Dealers Yuval Etgar and Yotam Shalit-Intrator. Right: Gordon Gallery's Amon Yariv and curator Edna Moshenson.

Left: Dealer Tzachi Rosenfeld, artist Tal Frank, and dealer Adi Goldner. Right: Artist Eli Gur Arie.

Left: Dealer Ermanno Tedeschi. Right: Noga Gallery's Nehama Gottlieb and Adina Alshech.

Left: Artist Moshe Gordon. Right: Collector and Fresh Painter sponsor Igal Ahouvi and curator Yifat Gurion.

Left: Artist Lena Revenko (far right) and friends. Right: Amon Yariv and Michal Freedman of Gordon Gallery.

Left: Artist Asya Lukin. Right: Stylist Rafael Art and artist Guy Yanai.

Left: Artist Miri Chase. Right: Art Station owners Aya Shoham and Shiri Ben Artzi.

Left: Artist Tal Frank. Right: Dana Rottenberg of Zemack Screens Project