The Best and Worst of Art Berlin Contemporary 2011
The Best and Worst of Art Berlin Contemporary 2011
You know the story: Art Forum closed and all eyes were on Art Berlin Contemporary, allowing ABC (as it is called) to almost double in size — from 70 to 120 galleries — almost overnight. But to put on an exhibition/fair in Berlin titled "About Painting" — the only reaction is, really? In a city known for its innovative, creative atmosphere that benefits from cheap rents and endless lists of artist spaces, a painting show seemed conventional at best. The fact that it was a fair masquerading as an exhibition didn't help, either. (To be fair, it was one of the first to start that particular trend four years ago, which has since been adopted by New York's Independent fair, among others.)
So, was the whole "painting" thing a commercial ploy to try and shake some euros out of "poor but sexy" Berlin? Maybe. Was it really so bad? No. Actually, it was kind of refreshing, pushing Berlin's imminent trendiness aside and bringing together a list of artists that would otherwise never make it under one roof, given Berlin's struggling institutions. Sure, there were some offerings that really flopped, likely a result of the fair's openness (i.e. very low booth fees). But on the whole it was an extremely pleasurable experience, a far cry from most art fairs.
So here are the five best artist installations (the majority of which, ironically, happen to not be painting at all), and the three worst of what graced ABC's walls this week.
With Galerie Jocelyn Wolff and Meyer Riegger, Bock presented three sculptures: "Shifting" (2009/2011), "Zucker und Salz" (2011), and "Wet local color balance" (2011). Though the works were a bit cramped together and shoved off towards the side hallway, "Shifting" particularly captured my attention. Its amorphous ceramic forms, reminiscent of Louise Bourgeois works in marble, come together like a trio of orchids. Yet their artificially aged surfaces make them appear to date back to the Roman period and give them an archetypal quality, which is often present in Bock's work. In comparison to their immediate surroundings — a particularly safe, saleable section of the fair — they offered a refreshingly thought-provoking contrast.
The walls may have been museum-height, but artist Rasgado wasn't going to let them go too far. He created a series of his "museum wall" pieces, with "Unfolded Architecture" ripping a massive square hole directly from ABC's highly-touted architectural configuration. The artist, who was brought to the fair by ARRATIA, BEER, created three square paintings of varying dimensions using the shards of dry wall. The works hung next to his deconstructive handiwork. When I saw the piece during the preview, which included quite a bit of work yet-to-be-installed and post-it-notes in place of wall markers, I couldn't help but laugh.
I've long had a soft spot for Bircken's sculptural works. "Ganges, 2011" was no exception. Shown by under-the-radar gallery BQ, the work presents itself as a blackboard-like metal frame with woven yarn and twigs strung in the negative space like entrails hung out to be dried. This mix of stomach-turning association and precious material created a great push-pull reaction from the viewer. You could see it in viewers' reactions, some approaching closely while others gave it a wide berth. Moreover, Ganges is a perfect example of an investigation of the 'painterly' concept that ABC's curators were pushing for with the exhibition, bringing three-dimensional sculpture into a two-dimensional picture plane.
In the back hall of the fair, where everything admittedly looked better due to abundant light and more generous spacing of works, Thomas Schulte's offering "Yes or No, No or Yes, or No and No" (2011), by Michael Müller stood out. The massive, ten-part work, four panels of which were exhibited at ABC, consists of portrait-style canvases composed of white tile with bold, black 'X' marks painted slightly off center. Müller's use of tile as a canvas is doubly interesting, both in the weight of its materiality and its resistance to paint. I was drawn to the distinct deviations in the marks in contrast to the clean monochromality of the tiles: hesitations in brushstrokes, slight smudges, and places where the paint didn't take.
A crafty aesthetic popped up repeatedly among the younger galleries exhibiting at ABC. It was rarely successful. Lin May's carved and painted Styrofoam sculpture "Relief" (2011) was certainly among that group. Featuring a camel in the front of its diorama-like composition, the work looked at best like a practice study than exhibition-ready art. May seemed to be critiquing ecological impacts with teardrop-shaped elements that had "oil" and "eau" carved into their surface, but the gesture failed to read as anything meaningful.
Don't get me wrong, Dumas's work is undeniably amazing. In any other situation, I would have loved the opportunity to interact with it. But at ABC it seemed wrong, exactly the kind of commercial ploy that was off-putting to begin with. For any art fair around which there exists a thriving market for art of her caliber, including Dumas would have made perfect sense. Of course there were others of similar provenance, but the recent, rampant market fervor for Dumas's work made the gesture too obvious.
"I write really bad poetry that inspires god-awful abstract paintings and poorly exposed touristy-snapshots destined for cellars," writes Avikainen on his Saatchi online profile. But here's the thing: there's a difference between 'bad painting' and painting that's just bad. The over-layered works incorporated tribal-looking patterns, cloud washes, birds, trees, muted greens, and bright purples. They range from something your mother might have in her kitchen to a head shop's wallpaper. It's just a bit too much.
Alexander Forbes is the editor of the Berlin Art Journal.