Wednesday, February 20, 2008

ARCO'08 musings

ARCO art fair has been on my list of must-see fairs for a few years now. I have a preference for fairs where there is an assortment of galleries that I won't see under other circumstances, where there is art that is chosen for more reasons than that it will be an easy sale, and where the vibe of the fair is one of exploration and discovery. I would put Berlin's Art Forum and Paris' FIAC in this category among the ones I've visited. ARCO always sounded like it would be just as good, and it didn't disappoint. The scale of the fair was large, but not so large as to feel beyond the scope of a human mind to see it all. It also felt that while it was inclusive, the participants had been vetted. The quality level was high. Still, as I said before, I love a fair where there are failures or risk of failure; where galleries take chances. The galleries may lose, but art wins.

In keeping with my unplanned side trip to Lisbon, I was excited to be introduced to a photographer named Daniel Blaufuks ( at Vera Cortés Gallery ( He is more of a mid-career artist, but better known in the Iberian peninsula than in the US. The work on view were beautifully realized examinations of soon-to-be-extinct photo materials. There was a brilliant image of a Polaroid film frame:

as well as this sheet of Kodak packaging:

In keeping with the idea that these are materials that are almost gone, the work was available in editions of 1. Going, going, gone...... I hope some smart US gallery picks him up. The work was conceptually strong as well as visually engaging. The prints were exquisite.

Galerie Grita Insam had a fascinating booth. First off was an installation by the artist Peter Sandbichler. He hand hammers the portraits of political prisoners into metal shelving. The panels can either be hung as a complete portrait or "shelved" as a metaphor for how we treat yesterday's news cycle.

Also in the booth were multiple works by Gerold Tagwerker. Mr Tagwerker explores the nature of architecture in our lives through sculpture, installations, reflective wall hangings, and photography. The work inter-relates in intriguing ways as he re-photographs buildings or models of buildings at the same time as he uses bent and pixelated mirrors to reflect the image back at us with our own image included in the frame. I was engaged and curious to see more.

But best to me in this booth was the very first Candida Höfer photograph I have ever enjoyed. I would include a reproduction here but it reproduces very badly. I will try to describe. It was a photo of a diorama such as one often finds in Europe where you climb stairs into a turret that has a painting or photo of a scene in a 360 degree view. Jeff Wall has a work dealing with this subject in which conservators are working on the painting. In Ms Höfer's work, we see the top of the staircase, a slice of the diorama, and a sign at the top of the stairs that states that photography is forbidden. It was so refreshing to see work by her that did not flog the usual territory of a vast, formal interior. Also, that this picture had a literal and figurative subtext was a treat to see. If this is a sign of what is to come from Candida Höfer, I can't wait.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, it seemed one could throw a brick in any direction and hit a Vik Muniz. Whether this was because Brazil was the theme of the fair or everyone had one to sell, I can't know. Still, it seemed to show his work at his best and at his worst. The fact that there were so many, points to a fact many critics have stated that he over-produces using a large, factory-like studio. It seemed at times that he was struggling to find new iconic images to recreate with some other material. The newer pictures in chocolate seem tired and pat. The map of the world using computer parts was impressive in scale, but explores no truths or ideas that Chris Jordan hasn't been exploring for years.

The best for me was at Albion Gallery. The drawings in dust of an art exhibition using the dust that has been vacuumed off the art are phenomenal. This is not new work, but has the most depth of any of his photo series since the "drawing material" is integral to the image seen. This one was an installation of Carl Andre. The precision corners of Andre's tiles rendered in soft dust that has been sucked of of them is just too good.

Rudolf Kicken had his usual exceptional fine booth. That I had seen much of the work before was nothing against him and only said that I had been going to too many fairs. The new treat for me was a Peter Keetman photo from the Volkswagen plant series. It evoked the graphical and pattern-out-of-life imagery that the best Callahan and Ray K. Metzker do for me. A remarkable vintage photo poorly reproduced here. If any of the nice folks at Kicken Gallery read this and would like to send me a jpeg, I will happily replace the image.

Crown Gallery from Brussels had a wonderful print from Paul Graham's American Night series. Titled Man by lumber yard looking back, Memphis, 2003, I was struck by how painterly this series is. I realized I had only experienced this work from the book. In person, the white "veil" truly obscures the scene in a real and metaphorical way. The figures in it seem drawn or painted or both. The scale is 3 bears perfect; not too big, not too small, just right. I went back to see it many times. there was much Paul Graham to be seen at the fair (Shimmer of Possibilities at Steidl and a number of galleries), but this was the real showstopper.

Last and very much not least, was Galerie 1900-2000 from Paris. They had a wall sort of tucked away in the back of the booth that, as one curator I was with noted, "I would be happy owning anything on this wall". The prince of this particular little realm for me was by Raoul Ubac. His Penthesilisée was a superior example of a superior photograph in superior condition. I could easily look at that photo for years, and I'm sorry I didn't have the coin to buy it. What a gem.

This put a fine period on a show that had great work by artists with whom I was unfamiliar to superb examples by established artists of iconic works. I've left out many fun things (Dionysio Gonzalez' "exploding" sculpture, Helen Almeida painted photos, Jesus Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez op-art sculptures, and on and on), but to get the whole picture you're just gonna' have to go next year. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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