Britain’s departure from Europe is looming, but that hasn’t stopped the 160-plus international galleries setting up shop at the 14th Frieze London this week from enjoying all the fun of the art fair. From tongue-in-cheek displays to vaudeville performance and, of course, stop-you-in-your-tracks artworks, the mood was ebullient.
British artists typically peppered political polemics with upbeat humor. Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s video Dogsy Ma Bone, installed against a wallpaper of saucer-eyed pups at Sadie Coles, used rapping Liverpudlian kids to address the financial crisis. Wrapped in crazily patterned fabrics featuring dogs and flamingos, her cast decried banks "run by dodgers for the dodgy." Julie Verhoeven’s toilet installation with attendants embroidering turds similarly used a DIY approach to dress and display for a ribald commentary on the fair’s social dynamics.
"Britain is Best," declared Grayson Perry’s embroidery, below a nationalistic tribe riding a crowned, careening horse, at Victoria Miro. In spite of this knowing statement on the country’s predicament, gallery director Glenn Scott was unfazed by Brexit. “I don’t think it’s had any impact whatsoever,” he said of the fair’s first day, adding that, long term, “of course, nobody knows yet.”
At blue chip bigwigs Hauser & Wirth, senior director Neil Wenman noted, “There’s Americans wanting to buy in pounds [weak against the dollar] in London, but we haven’t seen a huge amount of change." Here the talk was all about the booth. As crowded with punters as artworks, it conjured a fictional artist’s studio that sent up the clichéd romance of that hallowed creative space. Walls were packed with everything from chicken cuppa soup packets to the dandy-ish scarf the imaginary artist donned for private views. Stories of studio life wove around 46 artists’ works, including Thomas Houseago’s battered take on modernist sculpture, a manic Paul McCarthy sketch and one of Louise Bourgeois’s psychosexual marbles.
London gallery veteran Pilar Corrias’s stand dedicated to Philippe Parreno complimented this weeks’ other big London art event, the artist's Tate Modern Turbine Hall commission, with trippy videos and floating fish balloons. Like other dealers, she was optimistic about Frieze and London’s future, pointing out when she began in the early 90's art had a very low tax. “Britain is the second largest art market in the world; if it doesn’t have favorable conditions, it will lose that. It has to take measures.”
For many, Frieze London’s big show-stealer was a series of stands curated by Nicolas Trembly recreating seminal exhibitions from the 90's, when contemporary art went through some radical shifts away from the brash 80's boom years. Game-changers here included a 1993 Wolfgang Tillmans show with photos of club kids and fashion shoots on magazine tear-sheets, c-prints and photocopies, and Sylvie Fleury’s reflection on technology and the body, A Journey To Fitness or How to Lose 30 Pounds in Under Three Weeks. In this piece, Jane Fonda, Raquel Welch and Cindy Crawford work it in exercise videos on a lifeless, haphazard stack of TV monitors.
Other early statements of intent included Karen Kilimnik’s Fountain of Youth (cleanliness is next to godliness). It sets her drawings of 90's mavens like Kate Moss within an English formal garden with box hedges and rose bushes, a fountain and discarded perfume bottles. Her signature sweet-toothed commentary on consumer culture here offered a moment of verdant respite amid the fair’s bright lights and white walls. A rather different visual reprieve came via Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s low-lit room in 70's brown. Inspired by a description of Rainer Werner-Fassbinder’s bedroom, it’s an off-kilter, eerily empty dream space.
The not-for-profit Frieze Projects offers artists the chance to counter the fair’s art bling and poke fun at power structures. In addition to Verhoeven’s crafty, scatological toilet attendants, the satirists included Martin Soto Climent, who stood in the fair’s entrance corridor flogging knock-off handbags. His performance-cum-sculpture outside, where acrobats were entwined in a spiders’ web of tights strung around Regent Park’s trees, forged extraordinary beauty with everyday materials.
Fair fatigue is a chronic problem wandering through display after display of objects and images. Every now and then, however, you come against something that makes your eyes pop, like Portia Munson’s Pink Project: Table at PPOW gallery. This exacting exercise in kitsch is a spam-like slab of lurid pink, with hundreds of plastic objects — think ponies, heart-shaped mirrors and vanity cases — arranged across tabletops with near-obsessive compulsive order.
Some of any fair’s best moments is the discovery of an artist, be it an overlooked talent or a newbie. Older artists getting their props included Judith Bernstein’s aggressively sexual expressionist drawings and Betty Tompkins’ paintings dealing with female bodies in close-up, X-rated detail.
Fresh talents to note veered from Celia Hempton’s cock paintings at London’s Southard Reid to Angelo Plessas’ shimmering silvery space blanket tent at Athens’ The Breeder. It’s the vestige of real world residencies-cum-retreats from the Internet, which the Greek artist creates with artists he met online, turning a virtual community of strangers into a physical community of friends. As a dealer recently facing Grexit rather than Brexit, The Breeder’s George Vamvakidis brought a wry attitude to the events in Britain. “I see people hurrying to buy while the UK is still in Europe,” he laughed. “It’s been a good day.”