Highlight’s from Washington DC’s (e)merge Art Fair

by Paddy Johnson on September 23, 2011 · 15 comments Events

Looks like a Miami fair, party doesn't it? The Capital Skyline Hotel, pool party.

While it would be a stretch to call what I saw at the inaugural (e)merge Art Fair good, a lot of the snickering I’ve witnessed online and off isn’t necessary. Whatever the shortcomings fairs may have — we all know they aren’t ideal exhibition spaces for art, particularly when they’re in hotels — there were many signs that the fair succeeded in building community in a part of the country whose scene could definitely use some help.

Unfortunately, DC is not a particularly exciting place for many artists; many who begin their careers in this city opt to live in hipper cities nearby, Baltimore being a favorite. The scene here is not very developed. As such, an event like (e)merge that in its first run attracts the majority of a field’s local participants should — at least on that level — be recognized for its success. Even if exemplary models exist elsewhere, mature scenes don’t just arrive fully formed; it takes years of work and a lot of trial and error.

So how was the work at (e)merge? Not that great, though this frankly puts it in line with a lot of other art fairs. So too does the environment: The hotel was packed, elevators were jammed, and the pool area (a trademark of nearly any Miami hotel fair) was full. Still, most other art fairs don’t have giant rideable chickens displayed in the basement, which may perhaps excuse my inability to see every lot last night. Surely I can’t be expected to simply get on and off that thing and be on my way.

In which I ride a mechanical chicken. Mechanical chicken by Steven Jones

A word of warning: that chicken is dangerous. The four-second delay before the piece starts moving means that — even with a warning label — a rider will be caught by surprise. When I spoke to the artist Steven Jones about the piece, he wondered whether there might be a happy medium between his chicken and his rideable steak, which he thought might have a gentler feel. I did my best to dissuade him. People need to live on the edge and get on the chicken.

The Idea Store, Double A Projects, Athena Robles and Anna Stein

Aside from this, there was the Idea Store, which literalizes the slogan “penny for your thoughts” by paying contributors a penny and then selling the product for two. While I could do without the baby marketplace lesson, one or two of the ideas tabled weren’t bad, my favorite being “Okcupid site for wingman (geolocated)”. Notably, this project was executed by Double A Projects, a collaborative located in Brooklyn. I’m traveling an awfully long way to see projects that exist in my hood.

Peacock, Sean Naftel and Chris Attenborough, Free Art Booth

Generally speaking, I tended to enjoy the unrepresented artists better than what I saw in the galleries, though I expect at least part of this has to do with my late arrival. Strong exhibition spaces such as Connor Contemporary, ADA Gallery and White Columns all shut their doors at closing time, and those that didn’t were generally not that strong.

I also tend to be less annoyed by bad art when people aren’t asking me to pay for it. Even the ridiculous Peacock Free Art Booth in the unrepresented section of the fair was mildly amusing to me, a good sign as even outside a gallery this is exactly the kind of weak conceit that would normally infuriate me. This collective gives away their stock of art, one by one, (and all of it bad) to anyone who would talk to them. “Is there anyone who hasn’t met your criteria?” I asked on of the collective members. Apparently, only one woman, who refused to hear even the artist’s name or give her own. The participation bar is clearly set pretty low. Meanwhile, while the group refuses to give any visitor more than one art work, the rule was bent after a woman passionately made her case for why she should be given several (apparently the works she wanted were related).

This project probably isn’t worth too much reflection. After all, it’s hard to have substantive conversation about a nude painting that looks like it belongs to Owen Wilson’s character in The Royal Tenenbaums. Still, so long as I’m advocating for more participation from the DC community, I might as well advocate for art that encourages just that. Speaking of which, if the point of importing emerging talent from places like DC and Baltimore is to stir up discussion here during the fair, it might not be a bad idea to bring in better representatives. I’m pretty sure stronger Queens artists than the Peacocks can be identified.


Steven September 24, 2011 at 12:21 am

Glad you rode my Chicken.  Lemme know if you want a turn on the ol’ t-bone- my treat.  Very nice pics of you and the ride.  Nice meeting you and best wishes,
Steven Jones

Natalie September 24, 2011 at 3:36 pm

that ‘idea’ was mine. and my friend liz’s. is that the same as a patent?

Me September 24, 2011 at 8:49 pm

Let me get this right: It reads as though you haven’t seen most of the work in the galleries as you arrived late, but you already know that the work being shown in those galleries is not good?

I’m just saying… that’s the way it reads…



Alan Lupiani September 25, 2011 at 4:00 am

Just got back from DC.  Had a great time at the (E)MERGE art fair. I was one of the participating artists in Peacock, donating my drawings of the thirteen original United States in celebration of the Emerge Art Fair taking place in DC.  Sidenote: Did you know that citizens living in DC do not have representation in the US Senate?  DC is a Federal territory with different voting rights than the rest of country. Strange but true. 

Anyway, regarding Peacock, the project conducted an open call for works to be donated which I and many others who know Sean and Chris were happy to oblige. While visiting the booth, many of us had engaging conversations regarding the project, including what the project meant us individually/collectively and how the recipients of the free art reacted (mostly positive) to acquiring an original piece of art. 
As with many conceptual based projects, it appears that PEACOCK makes a case for a sub-plot where “ART” also occurs around/in proximity of the art objects on display. The outcome can obviously be labelled many things from relational to the sublime, ephemeral, shitty, and heck even LAMEASS!  I welcomed the dialogue that took place at PEACOCK as much as I enjoy your Simon like lambasting of the project.  

In the end, it’s all good.

Going to save the rest for my bloggie blog.  


Kh September 25, 2011 at 7:52 pm

as a DC artist i’m a bit bewildered by the statement that DC is not a good place for artists or the art scene. but that’s clearly the opinion of outsiders and DC is a notoriously tough nut to crack.

Aside from that, i completely agree with your take on the show. and the steven jones piece.

Chris September 26, 2011 at 1:21 am

You should change your name to Nancy, ’cause everything you write is so damn negative all the time. I know we live in a world of shit, and you have valid points about DC’s art community… but seriously… why bother going to ANYTHING if you aren’t willing to give it a chance (beyond riding the mechanical chicken). The free wine? Hob-knobbing with the other sycophants and being able to post about how LAAAAME it was to garner facebook points? Your reporting on art is about as informative as a 140 character putdown on twitter, and frankly, now I’m bored. 

Anonymous September 26, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Actually, I didn’t come to that conclusion all on my own. I spoke to a lot of DC artists and based on what they said and what I saw, I wrote that statement. I may be wrong as I really don’t have so much experience with the scene there, but that was certainly the opinion of many artists I spoke to while I was there. 

Kh September 26, 2011 at 2:57 pm

very sad to hear. it may very well be that i don’t know what a healthy art community is, but i think what we have in DC is pretty great. 

Anonymous September 26, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Try rereading it then. I wrote that I had arrived late to the gallery section of the fair, and a lot of the galleries with stronger programs had already closed. I then wrote that what I saw wasn’t that good. Specifically, of the some 30 galleries whose doors were still open, that I saw, none exhibited the quality of work one would see at an international quality fair. This fair doesn’t make those claims yet, but still. The quality of art exhibited at this fair could use raising.

Anonymous September 26, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Chris, this is the first and last time I’m going to approve your comment without your full name. I authored this post using my full name and I expect the same in return. 

As for this report, you yourself grant the points I made in the post so why are you complaining that I didn’t give the art a chance? It wasn’t very good. Should I lie about it? Should I decide that the entire scene isn’t relevant at all because it’s not mature? I authored one post on the subject and led with the thought that I didn’t think the fair needed the deriding it received because at least (e)merge brought out a large portion of the Washington DC art community. I understand that’s rare. I haven’t been entirely negative, but I’m also not going gleefully report about how good I think the art was, when it clearly wasn’t. 

PS: Facebook pass around rates increase with positive reviews of events like this, not negative ones. No one shares their negative reviews with anyone. 

Will Brand September 26, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Also I don’t think he knows what “sycophant” means.

Jesse P. Martin September 26, 2011 at 6:51 pm

It’s a germy pachyderm, an illephant…

Chris September 26, 2011 at 11:14 pm

sycophant |ˈsikəfənt, -ˌfant|


a person who acts obsequiously toward someone important in order to gain advantage

Anonymous September 26, 2011 at 4:31 pm

baltimore the hipper city, who’d a thought?!

but hey, paddy, do you know of other reviews of the show, snickering or not? thanks!

Adrienne Mills September 27, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Dang!  I didn’t know you could ride the chicken and steak.  I missed the free bad art too so double DANG!  
I had the same take on the fair.  Most of the local artists were the same ones I’ve seen around town for a while.  Not too much excited me but that’s the case when I go to any fair, gallery or museum.  
DC has so much more going on that what you saw at the fair.  Come to the next Artomatic to see DC’s real unrepresented artists …… with a few represented ones thrown in for good measure.  It’s the kind of un-juried event that makes chicken riding seem normal.  Check out the website or flickr’s Artomatic pool.  It only has 21,000 or so photos from Artomatics over the past decade but it’s enough to give you an idea of what we do when galleries don’t think our work will pay their bills.

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