Plenty of people will head up to Randall’s Island this weekend intent on seeing Frieze — but just a quick lateral jaunt from that well-trod tent, at the corner of 125th Street and Park Avenue, is the inaugural edition of Flux, Harlem’s first contemporary art fair. There, the newly renovated Corn Exchange Building serves as an intimate two-story venue housing the fair’s 57 artists, roughly half of whom are based in Harlem.
“I’ve been producing pop-up art galleries in Harlem for the past few years and always wanted to draw attention to what was happening artistically up here,” said fair founder Leanne Stella. “Having an events background, I knew that if I presented an international art fair that had uniqueness to it during an international art week in New York, I could draw a much bigger audience.”
This international aspect comes through in the dozen countries the artists represent, from France to Iran, but also in the theme around which the fair was shaped: “the 21st-century artist is a nomad,” interpreted both literally and figuratively by the fair’s nine curators, in a nod to globalizing technology as much as to the neighborhood’s multinational residents.
For example, French-born, eight-year Harlem resident Capucine Bourcart counts 30 countries she’s visited so far — a locational patchwork that mirrors her photo-collages, assembled from close-ups of different skin tones and fitted together in varying geometric textures. And representing the sometimes stickier realms of spiritual movement, there are pieces like France-based Christophe Avella Bagur’s large-scale self-portraits — a personal favorite: the multimedia work in which the nude, blanched central figure holds a knife in one hand (a bespoke metal piece, affixed to the canvas), while the other arm, rendered in wood, juts out to offer up a sallow, dangling rubber skin.
“I think people have a vision of what art might mean in Harlem,” Stella added, noting it was an assumption she intended to contradict. Of course, there are plenty of works that engage with the tropes and conventions of New York City life — like Jeffrey Allen Price’s “BRICK-COLLAGE,” a meticulously fitted tower of debris (egg shells, magic markers, clothespins, Altoid tins), at once evoking a landfill cross-section and a model skyscraper, which plays nicely off of Carlos Arturo Arias’s more sardonic machine gun and bullet proof vest constructed from items you might find at your local bodega. And given the neighborhood’s significant African-American history, a number of the works examine the personal and sociopolitical ramifications of race — for example, John Pinderhughes’s understated, powerful photo series “Pretty for a Black Girl,” 1998, its lone subject staring somberly into bathroom mirror and camera lens in turn.
Still, the art on view is far from didactic, and certainly far from uniform. It’s funny and strange and inflected with cool, à la Aya Rodriguez-Izumi’s photos of hunched women wearing face-obscuring masks cased in traditional oval portrait frames, one ringed with Modelo cans. It’s subtle and abstract, as in the brightly patterned, fabric dotted canvases by Tomo Mori. It’s macho in some places (Ghanaian-born Tafa’s painting of a football stadium pulsing like a galaxy at the center of a massive black canvas, shell casings strewn underneath it to parallel sport with war), and genderqueer in others (Shahram Entekhabi’s glitter-hijab-bedecked boxer).
During my few minutes with Stella amid the hubbub of opening night, several attendees came up to congratulate and josh her in turn — and when I remarked on that notably friendly atmosphere, she was quick to agree: “That’s what you see happen around art in Harlem all the time. You see a diverse audience all in the same room, all talking to each other — about tough subjects sometimes, but it’s just all positive.”
It may be Flux’s strongest suit, that alongside keen art runs a sense of community and shared discovery — threaded through with a warmth that can be lacking in the traditional stark white booths of maxi-fairs, and all the more enticing for it.