Under the Big Tent

Frieze Art Fair 2016.

Frieze Art Fair 2016
Damien Hirst’s Black Sun made up of dead fly carcasses. Hirst is so famous that none of his works at Frieze were labeled. He is the artist “who need not be named.”

The Frieze Art Fair gathered more than 200 galleries from 31 countries under one very large tent on Randall’s Island in the middle of the East River for its fifth consecutive year.

Frieze is a riot of creative expression so visually cacophonous that only the most bizarre and surprising work has a chance of impressing itself on your memory. I left with vivid impressions of the live donkey under the crystal chandelier by Maurizio Cattelan, the mimes in their wooden car, the grey-clad reflective disk wearing cloud girls, the giant inflated crying baby, and the Damien Hirst tour de force butterfly kaleidoscope painting and his dead fly tondo. The dead animals in formaldehyde are no longer surprising. There was talk of a professional pickpocket hired to roam the fair and put small pieces of art into people’s bags. I’ve been to several other Frieze Art Fairs. I‘ve come to expect the attention-grabbing stunts, though they have lost their shock appeal. I think there was quite a bit of understated work of real quality that gets lost within the massive scale of the fair, which is nevertheless an interesting survey of the contemporary art scene.

Frieze Art Fair 2016
Heather Phillipson’s 100% Other Fibers

I spent over two hours walking through the tent and that is only enough time to form very general impressions. One needs to devote two entire days to really absorb what is being presented. Most viewers probably don’t have that much time to devote to digesting such an eclectic visual feast. Heartburn is the most likely result. Perhaps one should spend one day lightly grazing among the offerings and return the next day refreshed to spend time with only the choicest selections. Of course, most viewers at the fair are not buyers at all. Many are artists, students, and connoisseurs appreciating and plotting. I saw quite a few fashion model types and other glitterati.

There really is work worth ruminating over. There were some fine figurative pieces in traditional oil, though always with some conceptual edge. With fewer than ten exceptions that I could find, simple observational painting really doesn’t make it to the big tent. Lisa Yuskavage had some very sexy, if somewhat comic, large figurative paintings. Big breasts are predictable attention-getters. William Kentridge displayed some marvelous ink paintings on newsprint. The interaction between the ink and print made intriguing palimpsests. The series of them hanging together made a stronger impression than any single one could, but it was refreshing to see a large wall of figurative work. There were some marvelous large-scale montages and some assemblages that were aesthetically pleasing. Wayne Thiebaud had a modest offering of a slice of cake. Any Warhol seemed to be peppered throughout the fair.

Frieze Art Fair 2016

There was a plethora of questionable art. What should I think about the legitimacy of appropriation artist Richard Pettibone who created a facsimile of Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans? Is it good art to create a copy of a well-known piece of art and then put your own name on it, albeit giving credit via the title to the original artist? Has sampling gone too far? Multiple halves of a white dog sculpture attached to flat screen televisions, complete with wagging tails, appeared throughout the fair inside and outside the tent. This work, 100% Other Fibers, by Heather Phillipson “imagines the structure of the fair tent as a chopped-up human spinal cord besieged by mutated dogs and screens, describing the intersecting bodies as ‘a clash of nervous systems-dismembered, dissected, and flung down on Randall’s Island.’” OK. I didn’t feel I had the time to really digest that one. Honestly, I didn’t have the appetite for it. Much of the art was like that, so obscure as to be self-indulgent and even lacking some aesthetically-pleasing qualities to make up for the opacity of the concepts.

The real take away for me though was that I did find a lot of work I wanted to spend some more time appreciating. The overwhelming scale, the grandstanding of the art star with guards hovering about his work, and the attention-grabbing stunts failed to distract from the gems that were sprinkled throughout the tent. It was a bit like a flee market, full of items of dubious value, mostly junk, but worthwhile and enjoyable to hunt for the hidden treasures.

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