Hiding in Plain Sight

J.J. Charlesworth on Frieze London 2015, the first of a regular series of comment columns on artreview.com

By J.J. Charlesworth

Li Binyuan, Spring in the Sewer 2013, still, Courtesy the artist and Leo Xu Projects Lutz Bacher, Frieze London 2015 Projects Frieze London 2015

‘Welcome to Purgatory’, declares the roughly painted sign in the blacked out entrance corridor to Frieze London’s big tent. As the VIPs push through the heavy black rubber butcher’s curtains, filing towards the white-cube brightness of the fair ticket gate line ahead, some of the crowd aren’t ready for irony this early in the morning. 

"What IS this?" an angular German woman demands testily of nobody in particular, peering at the scruffy benches dotted along the hallway, mounted with iron rings where, one supposes, the manacles are meant to attach. Lutz Bacher’s ‘project’ for Frieze London could be an edgy provocation, a subversive reflection on the slightly weird phenomenon of the art fair as event, but, credulous Germans ladies aside, it’s quickly assimilated by the crowd as a slightly cheeky, funfair diversion to the real business of buying art objects.

Still, for an observer tasked with reporting back to his readers, an art fair can be a sort of purgatory, sifting through the cacophony of visual stuff being presented, as the gallery stands stretch far off into the middle distance. What’s there to be said, other than who sold what to whom for how much? Is there any value in tailing renegade US art impresario Stefan Simchowitz at a discreet distance for quarter of an hour, just to make a note of the things he’s Instagramming? Even if it turns out he seems to be just randomly snapping pretty much everything without paying them the slightest attention? Are there trends, themes, connections that emerge among the throng of objects? Is there order somewhere in the chaos?

shiny-bauble art – all polished surfaces and industrial finish, that stuff is totally out, folks

Well, as it happens, yes. Or at least I think so. Something to do with the evidence of the handmade, but also a particular shift in scale, away from the spectacular size of objects and images meant to be viewed at a certain distance, and towards a more private and domestic engagement with an artwork, which depends on the reappearance of the more haptic aspects of physical materials.

Now, on the surface, this maybe just means that we’re starting to see a lot of artists making tabletop objects in ceramic. Like the creepy, bucolic little sculptural sceneries fashioned by Aaron Angell, at Rob Tufnell’s stand. Or, in a branching away from her video-projection-and-object installations, by Trisha Baga, at Vilma Gold – a running shelf of roughly formed and partially glazed clay approximations of other objects – an old alarm clock, a cactus flower or a broken violin.

Handmade, and particularly a finish derived from the grainy reality of materials, is making a return, and it’s tempting to see this as a symptom of much recent critical anxiety about the triumph of digital culture and the eclipse of all things tactile, authentically present and properly ‘real’. Baga’s extensive forays into this area were also present at Vilma Gold, in the form of a whiteboard onto which a projection played, the obscure imagery conflicting with the painted and markered scribbles on its smooth surface. 

Crusty surfaces, heavy detail, and – wait for it – old-fashioned draughtsmanship, is in

Something similar was going on in Pilar Corrias’s presentation of Ken Okiiishi’s portrait-format flatscreens, on which blurred and hard-to-recognise sequences play, the image obscured by daubs and streaks of paint; while at Stuart Shave Modern Art, Yngve Holen’s array of washing machines stood in as plinths for arrangements of model airliners, themselves hidden under sagging sheets of translucent acrylic, printed with jpeg-resolution infographics and data. While the ubiquity of the screen-image has by now become a cultural truism, it’s prompted a lot of artistic work on what it subsequently means to return to materials, to unique fabrication and to an involvement with the particular qualities of objects that can’t be reduced to another jpeg on Artsy.

In other words, shiny-bauble art – all polished surfaces and industrial finish that likes to be photographed – that stuff is totally out, folks. Crusty surfaces, heavy detail, and – wait for it – old-fashioned draughtsmanship, is in. And on that point, it’s interesting that Gagosian’s solo presentation – last year a daft, kid-friendly, colourful laboratory/playground by Carsten Höller – was this year given over to the work of British artist Glenn Brown; once an artist who painted meticulous, ironic, bloodless facsimiles of the thickly painted canvases of Frank Auerbach, now Brown has gone all old-master himself, presenting works on paper that get back into direct drawing, surreal renderings of figures from Western classical art history. These are shown alongside freakishly caked and painted sculptures, in which icing-like piles of three-dimensional ‘brushmarks’ engulf old bronze statuettes, bits of limbs poking out from under the pasty maelstrom.

there is also a shift towards object works that set up various kinds of internal ‘narrative’

Connected to this is a shift towards object works that set up various kinds of internal ‘narrative’, assembling multiple elements organised so that you’re drawn into an investigation of their related significance. It’s a form of anti-monumental sculpture, mostly; one that slips from the contained object but refuses to be an installation in the epic sense we’re used to. Gallery-booth sized, for sure, but effective. At Ibid. Rodrigo Matheus’s magical, strange assemblage of door-hinge plates and DIY L-brackets acts as the armature for a sequence of diminutive objects – intricate plumb-bobs, a tiny candlestick, model firearms – that are both completely ordinary while casting some unusual spell over one’s usual sense of scale and place. And there’s something similar going on, perhaps, at The Approach’s stand, in Magali Reus’s unassuming sculpture-platform, with its mute fabricated drama of ceramic cups and chained-up plates.

If there’s a thing to note here, it’s that these artists are signalling an attention to what happens when you move away from thinking of artworks mostly in terms of their image – that other values, about manufacture, about how one goes about experiencing a work, about assembling something so that there’s a sense of the narrative history of the material – and that and an object might make a call on senses other than the immediately visual, or to be more precise, to the immediate legibility of an image.

Of course, there’s still loads of the shiny-surfaced, primary-coloured stuff on the stands, looking more and more like toy rattles for moneyed people insecure about how to express their wealth. But this more introspected and materialised work appears also at a time when the artworld is feeling a little uneasy about the public status and legitimacy of contemporary art – of big displays staged in airy venues as a focus for the public ritual of at-a-distance admiration – and of course, the vague embarrassment of all that money sloshing around. So, by contrast, these other works register a desire for an opposite sort of privacy, of withdrawal from the instagrammed-to-fuck visibility of the artworld’s primary product, the art object. Not forgetting, of course, that this shift to antiquated decorative and design values also hints at a reactionary taste for artisan manufacture as a badge of the exclusivity of artworks. Not coming from the artists, necessarily, but somewhere in the interface between dealers and their collectors.

As for social or political art, it’s thin on the ground 

For sure, there is a kind of retrenchment going on here. And as for social or political art at Frieze London, it’s thin on the ground, to say the least. A neon sign reading ‘Culture = Capital’ by Alfredo Jaar at Marian Goodman’s stand looks silly and forlorn above the throng of well-dressed collectors. Who cares, after all? Rachel Rose’s project for Frieze, by contrast, is a sort of benchmark for how ‘critical’ art has lost the plot. A scaled model of the fair tent can be crawled inside, where one finds lights and a PA system playing pop songs. It’s not a disco for midgets, in case you’re wondering – Rose has, apparently, gone to the inconvenience of adapting her DJ set and lights to suit the sensory ranges of various animals that live in Regent’s Park. Why? It’s not too clear, but there’s an ecological and anti-anthropocentric fashionable smugness to this inane work that does catch the mood of our tired-and-emotional cultural moment. Still, if Rose’s project seems oddly pointless, then it takes a Chinese artist to take futility and turn it into something surprising, even optimistic; on a corner at Beijing’s Leo Xu Projects, is a video by Li Binyuan, of the artist firing a rack of firework rockets from a bridge into a river below. It’s as extreme and evocative an image as you’ll find in the fair, which says something about the generally tepid sensibility towards anything remotely social or political.

If, by now, in case you were looking for an escape route, don’t think that Jeremy Herbert’s claustrophobic plywood tunnel – a crawlspace which ramps down from fair level before allowing you through a door into an enclosure below the floor of the tent – can help you. As you gaze out onto the empty, silent, grass below the tent, and its ranks of scaffold supports, there’s no way out except back up – back to the light and the crowds. 

Online exclusive published 15 October 2015