MEXICO CITY- Is a bigger fair necessarily a better fair?
Having doubled in floorspace since last year, Material Art Fair feels like a totally different beast. The fair has moved to two lower floors of Expo Reforma, with larger booths arranged around “courtyards” for conversation and concessions. There are plenty of new exhibitors, and much of the work looks far more market-friendly than the wares last year.
Opinions remain divided over whether or not these changes are a good thing. Several people praised the new layout and expansion. Last year’s fair felt chaotic—construction workers were still putting the finishing touches on the build-out as the doors opened—with a labyrinthine booth layout squeezed between a bar/performance area and panoramic windows looking out over the city. It was cramped but intimate, with a relaxed, party-like atmosphere. Importantly, I found this complimentary to (rather than distracting from) the artwork itself. One of the things that impressed Paddy and me so much was the sense that artists and galleries were here to network and the culture of display felt peer-oriented.
This year, though, the atmosphere was tense. During the VIP preview, it didn’t seem like much was happening in the way of sales or conversation. Exactly two gallerists seemed eager to talk about the work they were showing. Not looking like a collector (apparently), even simple inquiries about artists’ names were often met with exasperation. Several exhibitors were so unenthused about their booths they seemed downright embarrassed. And honestly, I can understand why—a majority of the work here is kinda boring. Most people I spoke with conceded that they found this year underwhelming after how much everyone enjoyed the last iteration. My friend described many booths—characterized by decor-friendly small paintings and ceramics—as akin to an interior decorator’s trade show. We joked that so many booths with faux-naïve paintings of flowers or “kooky” pottery looked like set dressing for a late-90s sitcom episode wherein the comic relief gets her “big break” with a show at a local coffee shop.
Maybe that assessment is unfair—looking back through my photos, there were plenty of good booths, but the majority of pieces don’t lend themselves to much discussion. The fact that they’re dispersed amongst so many unengaging booths doesn’t help—maybe last year’s smaller, more crowded presentation distilled the art-viewing experience? It doesn’t help that some of our favorite galleries from last year didn’t return. But no one seems quite sure of why the mood and quality is so uneven. One gallerist I spoke with (who asked to remain anonymous) praised the fair’s new layout and centering of project spaces, even as they conceded that the show leaves a lot to be desired:
“I think some of the booths fell flat—I’m not sure why exactly but I think it’s a combination of the distance some galleries traveled, getting work across the border/customs (which is notoriously difficult and problematic) or if it was just a weird year”
And a weird year it is. Perhaps the near-total lack of acknowledgment of current events weighed awkwardly over the fair (some friends have said they spotted Ivanka-Trump-inspired art, but I must’ve missed it). It seems so strange to have an art event (which we once praised for being more discursive than commercial) almost completely avoid political topics, particularly one where pieces are sold in US Dollars as the local currency plummets, with a majority of exhibitors from two countries threatened by a militarized border wall between them. Contrast this with Zona MACO, where discussion of Trump and socio-economic crises where never more than a few meters from polite abstraction.
At Material, I felt almost guilty for the escapism of pieces I liked—which, predictably, mainly comprised some combination of wigs, dicks, plants, and neon. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of genitalia and houseplants (really, though, aren’t we all?) but it bothers me that these age-old, lowest-common-denominator motifs are the highlights of a fair with an artist-centric reputation at such a politically fraught time and place. Gleefully snapping pictures of crude dick-and-foliage paintings, I had the sudden impression of an ancient Roman libertine—drunkenly admiring a bathhouse orgy fresco while the Republic burned outside.
That being said, two booths stand out for their engagement with politics: Tijuana’s Periférica and Miami’s perpetually-on-point Michael Jon & Alan. Though technically, neither the curators nor the artist behind Siebren Versteeg “Fake News” at the latter had control over its political content. The piece is an algorithm which grabs images from trending topics online and assembles them into surprisingly nice “paintings” in real time. These are displayed in stock-photo-looking white rooms that evoke pristine domestic spaces, displayed on a monitor that refreshes every few minutes. It felt like a ghost in the machine was reminding us of the awful world outside Expo Reforma, despite everyone’s collective best-effort to ignore it.
Periférica is showing prints by Omar Pimienta, who works with passports and notions of nationality. Here he’s reproduced his childhood passport as an editioned screen print, stamped with the name of the fair as if it’s a visa for exhibiting the work. The artist also invites people to trade in their old passports for new “Free Citizenship” ones he fabricates, so anyone can call his invented nation-state home. The gallerist showed me a photo of his collection of passports, which is in itself an inspiring image: I like the thought that so many people would trade a symbol of their national identity for a piece of artwork.
I loved these Wickerham & Lomax purse-shaped prints before I even realized they’re named after two of my favorite people in Baltimore: The Contemporary’s Artistic Director Ginevra Shay and outgoing Director Deana Haggag. The whole booth is great, including abstract pieces by Sofia Leiby.
Another random/personal highlight: I was immediately drawn to this mobile of a dancer in platform shoes. Then it struck me: I once stayed in a friend-of-a-friend’s apartment here in Mexico City and snapped a photo of a massive painting that looked similar because I loved it so much. The artist happened to be in the booth and overheard me telling this story, and told me that piece was actually a “sketch” to plan this! What a small, great world.
The excellent Mexico City gallery josé garcía also has this wig on display, from Mario García Torres. It’s flattened and framed, and convincingly looks like a delicate painting from a distance. I also recognized this José León Cerrillo from a show Paddy and I loved at josé garcía’s brick-and-mortar location last year:
This Parisian gallery is named Chez Mohamed, but what they’re serving is anything but halal. I respect the fact that they’ve fully committed to obscenity with such gusto, including a Ren Hang photo, titled “Little Buddha,” which features a naked man ashing into an ashtray that he’s using to cover his anus while reclining at another person’s feet in an unhuman-looking pose. Also, a giant neon dick from Luka Arbay. This is what I imagine the anti-NEA Republicans think all big-city, taxpayer-funded art museums look like.
Sultana presented a solo show of paintings by Celia Hempton, each one of a blurry man’s crotch, with titles such as “Romania 25th of May, 2016” and “South Africa 5th November, 2015.” The names and distorted quality of the images evokes homemade webcam porn, buffering as it traverses international boundaries. These are really nice paintings, each with their own mark-making vocabulary that suggests haste but thoughtful color palette.
I’m ending on this KevinReinhardt painting because A) it’s one of my favorite pieces from the fair.Reinhardt is an architect who paints things that are a little fucked up, like these ruffled Venetian blinds. It’s so quiet but so lovely up close—down to the care with which he physically embroidered the thread running down the canvas. And B) because it’s a bit of a caveat: I almost totally missed this until a friend pointed it out to me.
I’d like to head back to Material, because I’m sure there are more small highlights I’ve overlooked due to fair fatigue and how generally stressed the vibe felt opening day (several acquaintances remarked that many people were concerned about lack of collectors, a noticeable difference from last year). Maybe those of us complaining about the fair are just disappointed that last year’s magic is impossible to reproduce. At any rate, there’s good art in there—it’s just in a bigger playing field now.