Frieze Masters and Frieze London are a fifteen-minute walk and a world apart. While the former is a wonderland of art, constructed by the great masters, the latter is an exploration of the collective consciousness of our times, pieced together by the artists that have lived through it. The viewer occupies a completely different experience inside each tent, yet there are some themes that inevitably overlap. Or perhaps it is the state of mind of the viewer that dictates these perceived themes. With the electronic noise that has pervaded every aspect of our existence, a strange phenomenon came to pass at Frieze this year. The louder, more attention-seeking pieces seemed to blend into the background and it was the quieter ones that stuck out.
No artist demonstrates the effective art of simplicity better than Lucio Fontana. Through his slashes, which have been curated onto monochrome canvases with masterful precision, he achieves a sense of controlled chaos. The tagli (slashes) create a three-dimensional space within a two-dimensional painting. This space with its semblance of order acts as a quiet place of sorts among the bustling maze of galleries, gallerists and artwork on display. His Concetto spaziale (‘spacial concept’) series thus becomes the antidote of silence to the white noise of the fair and the world beyond it.
It is no secret that in the aftermath of the modern art period, the art world is chockfull of paintings that aspire to be abstract art but don’t quite make the cut. Having a special fondness for abstracts, nothing is more underwhelming than a pseudo abstract painting. By the same token, nothing is more satisfying than seeing a true work of abstract art. Usually it is Joan Mitchell who packs that abstract punch at an art fair but this time it was Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga who took up the mantle. The glorious ‘Work BB88’ is a perfect example of the artist’s lifelong practice of performance painting in the Gutai Art tradition. Shiraga would paint with his feet while suspended from the ceiling, thereby quite literally ‘stepping into his paintings,’ in order to create a truly alive work of art. It is exhilarating to see his dynamic dance of muscular movement in the thickly lathered lashes of paint.
The most ambitious undertaking of the fair can be credited to the Helly Nahmad gallery. For the second year in a row, they had the most talked about booth at Frieze. While one has to commend the laborious expedition it must have been to construct Jean Dubuffet – The Asylum, their ingenious exhibit at Frieze 2014, titled The Collector, proves to be a hard act to follow. Last year they transformed the booth into an imagined apartment of an imagined collector – the overall execution and attention to detail was nothing short of brilliant. This year the booth is divided into two spaces. On one side there are three suites of rooms that serve as reimaginings of clinics and sanatoria that Dubuffet visited in his pursuit of Art Brut (the art of the marginalised, the eccentric, the untrained). This reimagined world stands opposite a number of Dubuffet’s works that it inspired. Though it may be contrived, there is something poetic about that.
Having established patterns and hit the highlights it is time now for universal truths. It is hard not to play favourites when it comes to art. Kees van Dongen is an old and absolute favourite, a thrill to spot at any fair. The sort of thrill that makes you gasp, in equal amounts out loud and under your breath, which is how I greeted his ‘Femme à la Blouse Verte.’ In my defense however, it deserved nothing less; Kees van Dongen, a portrait of a woman with sapphire hair, ruby lips and an emerald blouse; fauvism at its brazen best. It is impossible not to be partial.
Over to the contemporary tent and it appears that the running theme of quiet domination has quickly reemerged with Pieter Vermeersch’s colossal canvas aptly titled ‘Untitled.’ It is not easy to stand out in the extravaganza of art that is Frieze, especially if you are a large canvas of dirty brown merging, at snail’s pace, into an ordinary black. But somehow Vermeersch manages to draw in the viewer with a gentle magnetism that is hard to explain; perhaps therein lies its appeal.
Alternatively and interestingly, Jenny Holzer achieves the same seduction by contradiction. Her piece is not quiet at all, but what it stands for is the universally gravitating pull of introspection. ‘All Fall’ comprises five double-sided LED signs containing frenetically paced text, a running commentary taken from her writing. This includes ‘Truisms,’ a composition of single sentence declarations crafted to resemble existing aphorisms, ‘Living’ which embodies visceral themes like vulnerability within a fast paced environment and finally, ‘Survival’ which includes cautionary sentences that aim to inform in an urgent tone. Words whizzing past, coming at you from different angles, this piece smacks you with the feeling that you are running a losing race against time. She thus taps into the existential crisis of our lives as it lives out today.
Sarah Lucas, it has been said, is the wildest of the Young British Artists (YBAs), in the stellar company of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, that is a feat in itself. Her work is the kind of shocking that is silent but powerful, not necessarily in its magnitude but in its quality. Her ‘Tit-Cat Up’ and ‘Tit-Cat Down’ sculptures, cast in bronze, with the finished surface effect falling somewhere between Murano glass and plastic, are brilliant. As hideous as they might be in theory, the urge to pet these shriveled, deliberately pathetic, creatures cannot be denied. It is hard not to mentally contrast them as deflated opposites to Jeff Koons’ inflated Balloon Dog sculptures. One wonders, if Koons’ purpose is to inspire joy, perhaps Lucas’s is the opposite. Unlike Koons however, there is a delicious understatement about her ‘shocking.’
If, for the sake of indulgence, one had to pick a show stealer, it would be Glenn Brown and his powerhouse performance at the Gagosian Gallery stall. Some argue that he is straddling the thin line that is the art of appropriation. The controversy arises in his use of the work of other artists as the starting off point for his own. He then either distorts, stretches, inverts or digitally manipulates these works, to achieve his vision of fantastical subconscious discomfort in his own pieces. He does this seamlessly, as the end product is truly original. The sculptures, with their gravity defying, swirling chunks of multicoloured paint, towering over classical bronze cherubs in some cases, are remarkably effective. Though his material is taken from this world, like the fodder for our subconscious, his finished work belongs to the dream world that he so passionately seeks to create. And in this way, controversial or not, he achieves his purpose.
From the show stealer to the paintings that stole my heart, let’s end the tour de Frieze on a high note. Kaoru Arima’s portraits, screaming with colour, rendered in a ‘frenzy of taut brushstrokes to create latter-day Fauvist portraits,’ as Andrew Maerkle puts it, are indeed a very welcome revival of Fauvism, reminiscent of the portraits of Kees van Dongen himself. Like van Dongen, what makes Arima’s portraits so effective is that the spirit of the subject, which he captures so masterfully, supersedes the loudness of the paintings; the woman is the focal point, the colours are mere embellishment. And love at first sight is a forgone conclusion.
This year the overkill that is the information age, where every move on social media is a cry for attention, where every thought becomes a public statement, where very few things remain sacred, seems to have ushered in a new order in the art world; overstatement has became passé and understatement has emerged as the star. These understated masterpieces, modern and contemporary, thus act as a sanctuary of internal purity, untainted by the external. This artistic safe haven was scattered across two large tents and one big fair, but all it takes is a single moment of connection with a singular piece of art, to unravel its silent beauty.
Article first published on ArtNow Pakistan.