A Tale of Two Art Fairs: Frieze & NADA
Written by Emma Riva
Art fairs are the streets of the high-end art market. While street artists and graffiti writers paste up on the walls, sidewalks, and lampposts of the streets we all walk on, art fairs create a miniature architectural ecosystem to look at and engage with some of the most expensive and trendy works on the market. The art fair space is a sort of middle ground between the gallery, which is an enclosed curated room frequented by connoisseurs and insiders, the museum, which is home to large and hallowed halls but is simultaneously more accessible to the average person due to its scope, and that mysterious mélange that is “the public.” It’s somewhere at the convergence of a trade show, a speakeasy, a corporate conference, and the watering hole of a savanna. The art fair is a microcosmic attempt to make physical reality look like the art world. For someone like me, who would much rather the world be populated by paintings than craft breweries, bank chains, or other people, they’re heaven. But man, do they drain you. As an art writer, I become a different person at an art fair. I become an endless fountain of conversation and a set of eyes that can only look at pigmentation, composition, and beauty. It’s a place where for a little bit, the way that I see the world, that art is the only thing that matters, is the way everybody is at least aspiring to see it. I don’t claim my experience as universal. A lot of people hate art fairs. Probably for good reason. But they exhilarate me, maybe because I am so used to writing about public art and art fairs create a space where you can wander through fine arts in an open-air environment.
In late May, New York gathered for two art fairs, both in Chelsea—Frieze at The Shed and New Art Dealers’ Alliance (NADA) at 548 West. I happened to be in the city at the time of both and snagged a press pass to Frieze and shelled out money for NADA, which, first of all, was about forty dollars less expensive. Frieze definitely is the more fancy-schmancy of the two, with The Shed feeling more like a convention center than a gallery. Before I even stepped into the fair, I knocked over a pile of brochures while trying to scan my ticket.
The art fair space is a sort of middle ground between the gallery, which is an enclosed curated room frequented by connoisseurs and insiders, the museum, which is home to large and hallowed halls but is simultaneously more accessible to the average person due to its scope, and that mysterious mélange that is “the public.” It’s somewhere at the convergence of a trade show, a speakeasy, a corporate conference, and the watering hole of a savanna.
But one of the first works that struck me at Frieze was the late Chicago artist Hollis Sigler’s A Longed For Dream of Fulfillment, a tender, tactile work. Sigler’s style is sometimes described as “faux-naïve,” as in using simplistic elements while still coming from a place of technical skill. Sigler’s painting was representative of a larger trend I observed—the desire for something tactile.
Modernity gives us an overwhelming capability to create whatever we want. What people want to see in fine arts appears to be effort, soul, and character.
I’ve written before for Bunker Review about maximalism making a comeback in the post-COVID world because of how hungry we all are to feel anything at all, so we want to feel things big. While I wouldn’t exactly call the prevailing trend at Frieze and NADA maximalism, I did get a sense that what people want right now is not sleek, polished work. There’s a tendency to lean into the subjectivity paintings provide. Right now, we are all overloaded with information from our smartphones and can take a photo of anything. Modernity gives us an overwhelming capability to create whatever we want. What people want to see in fine arts appears to be effort, soul, and character.
Both fairs raised questions about what’s ingenuity and what’s a gimmick. At Frieze, Glasgow’s The Modern Institute was a standout due to its mix of eclectic forms like Jim Lambie’s Cosmic Crown, an abstract sculpture made of sunglasses, and Andrew J Greene’s Timeless Symbols, a rotating reproduction of a Manhattan in a glass. Several other fairgoers and I gathered around it to debate whether it was a real cocktail or not. The Modern Institute booth brought me back to the way Glaswegian artists I met for my Glasgow series at UP were down-to-earth and vivacious. There’s a certain industrial city inventiveness I now recognize as a Pittsburgher. Call it industrial blight game-recognize-game. In any case, at The Modern Institute the forms were interesting enough that they didn’t feel gimmicky, but it did make me wonder whether standing in front of something and trying to figure it out equated to looking at it deeply.
The Modern Institute booth brought me back to the way Glaswegian artists I met for my Glasgow series at UP were down-to-earth and vivacious. There’s a certain industrial city inventiveness I now recognize as a Pittsburgher. Call it industrial blight game-recognize-game.
One of the showstoppers on the main floor of Frieze was Naudline Pierre at James Cohan Gallery, described by art critic Agustín Arteaga as a “seer of worlds.” Again with the emphasis on subjectivity. Pierre’s paintings are seductive and slimy. Even though she is not a textural or multimedia artist, her paintings create texture. A metal triptych was the centerpiece of the gallery booth, and every time you stepped you could see another canvas through the wrought iron flames. They provided a sort of framing device for looking at the paintings, and I lingered on it for a long time looking at the different angles.
The main floor of the Shed was the part of Frieze with the most natural light, but curiously it was also where Gagosian had a whole slew of Nan Goldin photographs on display. Photography is arguably the medium that is most affected by glare, so I was curious about that choice. For Pierre, however, the opportunity for shadows gave her installation even more of an ominous presence.
Where Frieze felt sprawling and wide, viewing NADA was a bit more like climbing the Tower of Babel. NADA felt much more down-to-earth. Whereas Frieze required a series of escalators, going up through NADA meant ascending a spiral staircase that culminated in a stained-glass piece on the roof. Someone in Pittsburgh had told me that NADA was “cooler,” and while the cool factor of any art fair is a matter of debate, NADA had more of a social element to it.
Where Frieze felt sprawling and wide, viewing NADA was a bit more like climbing the Tower of Babel.
While at NADA, I overheard conversations about subject and medium while in the women’s bathroom and became acquainted enough with dealers’ faces that I spotted them mingling on other floors. Within the work itself, there was a sense of interest in domesticity and physical scenes. At Jack Barrett, Keiran Brennan Hilton’s Throughout the Day was a particular example of this. Barrett has an eye for patterns of light on surfaces, sunlit hardwood floors and the sheen of light on glass.
At Jack Barrett, Keiran Brennan Hilton’s Throughout the Day was a particular example of this. Barrett has an eye for patterns of light on surfaces, sunlit hardwood floors and the sheen of light on glass.
Another interesting idea that came up was at Harper’s, which was showing large-scale works by Justine Smith. The gallerist at Harper’s told me that Smith wants each of her paintings to contain “many individual paintings.” When I looked at the deep, lovely woods of her paintings, I saw that in the blue and purple shadows on the trees’ branches, in the ochre light on the trunks, or in the crimson patches of light in the leaves. That was where iPhone photography actually came in handy for taking pictures of these miniature tableaus within the series.
Conversely, Tristan Unrau’s series of paintings at Sebastian Gladstone were completely stylistically different but all by the same artist. Upon first viewing, I had no idea that they were a single person’s body of work. There’s anime-esque figures, a recreation of a still from an Italian film, and a landscape. Smith and Unrau take two completely different approaches to the same idea—that looking at art should not just be a one-time, brief viewing, but an immersive experience.
“With Amina, you’re looking at something, but you don’t quite know what. It invites deep viewing. It takes a long time for the image to resolve.”
The highlight booth for me was Los Angeles-based Hunter Shaw Fine Art’s exhibition of Amina Correa. I had genuinely never seen anything like Correa’s work before. The series centers around the ancient practice of “scrying,” or looking into a piece of obsidian stone for an image of the future, like a crystal ball. In Correa’s, however, the obsidian stones are full of strange, vaguely unsettling images from pop culture. “With Amina, you’re looking at something, but you don’t quite know what,” Shaw said to me. “It invites deep viewing. It takes a long time for the image to resolve.” What made Correa’s work so remarkable to me was just the depth and thought that went into the concept.
So, what exactly is the purpose of an art fair? I still couldn’t tell you. It’s true that the high-end art market exists in a separate plane of society with different rules and norms than most of the world. Maybe art fairs are just a way for everyone to pretend like the rules of their world where talking about the composition in the sticks of a painted forest or the appraisal of a mind-boggling amount of money on an abstract depiction of a square are the norm, for once. Maybe art fairs expose the fact that for all the glitz and glamor, art people are fundamentally weird and would much rather live in their own little ecosystem. The art world is made up of many more players than the artists themselves. Dealers, collectors, and writers fall into their own subset: those who want to hang out with artists and support them. There’s an adage about how unpleasant art fairs are for the artists themselves. Maybe, really, they’re for those of us who just like to look and talk and appraise to feel a little bit less crazy in the world around us. We get into these positions because art is what makes sense to us and we wish all of society were just structured around us. At an art fair, for a little while, it can be.
Emma Riva is the managing editor of UP. She is the author of Night Shift in Tamaqua, an illustrated novel that follows a love story between 24-hour-diner waitress and a Postmates driver. As an art writer, she is particularly interested in working with international artists and exploring how visual art can both transcend cultural boundaries and highlight the complexities of individual identity. Emma is a graduate of The New School and a Wilbur and Niso Smith Author of Tomorrow. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.