A critic at an art fair is a little like a priest at a strip club — very interested but unable to fully participate.
The occasion does, however, provide an opportunity to assess the aesthetic state of the market from a point off to the side of the stage where the deals go down. And fairs can, at times, feel a bit like peep shows, depending on the sex quotient in the art world at any given moment.
This year’s Armory Show offers comparatively few risqué works, although there’s plenty on view that’s sexy, alluring rather than in-your-face, thoughtful rather than conceptually challenging. Subtlety, quietness, and monochromes rather than mirrored chromes appear to be the order of the day.
In contemporary painting, at Pier 94, this general tone seems to translate into a shoring up of quality. At Galerie Daniel Templon, letters on a juicy, tactile, and surprisingly ordered canvas by the German artist Jonathan Meese spell it out: “Revolution” becomes “Evolution,” while below we’re told that “Kunst Fuhrt” (Art Continues).
A couple of younger artists evince similarly luscious evolutions of talent. Natalie Frank’s raucous new paintings include collaged portions of canvas, and Bjarne Melgaard’s bright paintings feature actual clothing. Rod Bianco devoted his booth to this Norwegian artist, who collaborated with Sverre Bjertnes to produce a floor installation — an avalanche of drawings, fur, and exhibition catalogues presided over by a store mannequin.
Abstract painting, usually favoring a technological look over a gestural one, marches on vigorously here, whereas, for instance, the vogue for Chinese realism seems to have abated. Eigen + Art brought an expansive, abstract oil by David Schnell, created almost exclusively with vertical marks in a mostly blue-gray palette, which brings to mind an excellent take on a wonky computer monitor.
Espousing the digital aesthetic even more overtly are Julia Dault’s paintings, which fill Galerie Bob van Orsouw’s booth and are among the strongest at the fair. And while one doesn’t feel overly crowded by concepts here, a few pictures pack some heady conceptual and political attitude.
At Honor Fraser, Meleko Mokgosi’s wall-label paintings enact a postcolonial deconstruction of a recent show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and still manage to be arresting. Oscar Tuazon’s “Playboy Playcrete” at Galerie Eva Presenhuber transforms a slab of concrete into a wall painting.
Concrete is also the material of choice for an exciting young Puerto Rican artist, Ramón Miranda Beltrán, whose stack of slabs with printed texts on them, seen at Rhona Hoffman, are a sly nod to the great Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Indeed, the innovative energy at the show lies firmly in sculpture. It would be nearly impossible, for example, to pass by Hannah Barry’s booth and not gawk at James Capper’s sinister contraptions. The star is “Nipper,” which, like all of them, is a red handheld machine set on a plaster plinth — this one with giant, curving steel pincers.
Yet intriguing, if less lethal, sculptural works abound throughout. This being the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show, references to Marcel Duchamp and his painting “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” at the first exhibition, are nearly impossible to escape. One of the most trenchant is Matthew Day Jackson’s “Nude and Descended,” a broken iron skeleton that has crashed onto the sliced-off roof of a car and sits on the floor of the Grimm booth.
Some of the most exciting work is surprisingly in works on paper, a fact borne out in two single-artist booths. The Egyptian-German artist Susan Hefuna’s infinitely delicate grid drawings and her wall sculptures, all of which refer to mashybiras — the screens that shield Muslim women from prying eyes — are one of the fair’s highlights. They can be found at the booth of Istanbul gallery Pi Artworks. And Mai 36 Galerie has devoted its walls to Matt Mullican, including the gruesome “Untitled (Doll & Dead Man)” from 1974. The title says it all.
Also not to be missed but easy to overlook are Imran Qureshi’s watercolors of footprints at Corvi-Mora, which, depending on how you look at them, appear to be composed of flower petals or blood spatter.
For those whose taste runs more to Matta than to Matta-Clark, Pier 92 provides a respite from the visual frenzy of Pier 94. There, in keeping with the trend toward abstraction, a large, late Max Ernst abstract canvas, the green, hash-marked “Les jeunes et les jeux twistent,” from 1964, greets fairgoers at Die Galerie. In fact, a large, comely Matta can be found nearby at Crane Kalman.
The treasures here are vast and various, ranging from Max Weber’s 1912 “Four Figures (Sisters)” at Gerald Peters to the fantastic array of pictures by Chiyu Uemae at Whitestone. So broad is the selection that odd connections begin to appear, such as how a mid-sixties Jules Olitski at Hackett | Mill seems to have the same sort of mod shimmer as a 1967 Craig Kauffman at Vivian Horan.
Nonetheless, what these serendipitous connections and the fair as a whole suggest is that market caution has not cut into breadth or depth.