Ambika P3

Art fairs are a pretty good way of getting a quick overview of what is happening in the art world in terms of what galleries and curators are setting out to present how they want to be perceived. What kind of works they are promoting, the artists in their portfolio, their general approach to art. While an art fair does not in any way measure up to the experience of attending an actual exhibition, it serves as a snapshot, an indication of trends.

This being Frieze week the question as always was, “should I go?” As usual the answer was “Ummm … no.” Why? Well, the £27.00 was one consideration. I’m not a collector so that’s a lot of money. Yes there are talks and all that but still. Second, the crowds. Will I even be able to look at the art? But mainly I thought that Frieze doesn’t really have anything to offer me. As an artist, I already know that approaching galleries at Frieze is like asking a guard in a maximum security prison for a bowl of Honey Crunch and a kiss. The ritual humiliation that the artist receives in this kind of encounter is just not worth leaving the house for.

Actually, I jest. But I wanted to have a chance to have a more intimate experience of art.

So, no Frieze, then. A smaller fair? I was intrigued by the Moniker fair, which is oriented around graphic and street art, but then, being based in Shoreditch, I see plenty of that anyway. As I am currently working on a new curatorial project I was interested to see any new and interesting work done with moving image. Visiting the new Sunday Art Fair might be worthwhile, I decided. It’s a small fair that has been running for a couple of years and it is held in the Ambika P3 space, a terrific cavern in the basement of the Uni of Westminster’s Marylebone Rd. block. This is a very good space for art, bare and modern and industrial, but with lots of horizontal and vertical space.

What was on show varied wildly. Let me say first what I did not care for, and say it forcefully. The paintings on exhibition – with ONE exception – were uniformly atrocious. Call me a traditional old f**t if you like but I’m sorry, I won’t lay a brick on 7000 years of art history (that’s if we go back to the Egyptians, and not Lascaux). I’m totally OK with the Dubuffet approach to painting, or trying to access the pre-logical “childlike” part of the artistic impulse, but too much contemporary painting goes way too far in this and denies even the tiniest shred of skill. Hideous, revolting paintings made even viler by their size. The only good thing about this kind of painting is that it’s usually bought by banks for their offices, and the bankers deserve them.

There was one ray of divine light in this disaster, the beautiful painting by Kiki Kogelnik at the Simone Subal Gallery. This Austrian-American artist (b.1933 d.1997), represented here by several drawings and one huge luminous gorgeous and inspirational painting, is little known in the UK and surely this must change. More information about her and her work can be seen on the gallery’s web site: but she was active in the 60s and 70s in New York. Her work is as powerful as any in that era and it acutely highlights just how difficult it has been for women to write themselves in to art history. Simone Subal Gallery, based in New York, was one of the best and most interesting of the exhibitors, offering an excellent dual screen video installation loop by contemporary US artist Erica Vogt. I loved the videos, despite the discomfort of having to watch moving images situated on the floor (a common occurrence, of which more later).

More good stuff from the USA was manifested by gallery Gaudel de Stampa who brought a terrifically entertaining film, Apple Life®, by Hildegarde Duane and David Lamelas. Let’s face it, it’s not very often that a gallery film is truly gripping, and this one is. Funny and genuinely intriguing, this is work by a pair of well-established artists. Lamelas and Duane are critics and storytellers, combining a sense of parody and masquerade with political awareness.

As I was on a quest for video and moving image, I was interested in Aleksandra Domanovic’s dual screen loop presented by Berlin gallery Tanya Leighton. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the imagery and iconography of the evening news from former Yugoslavia, complete with theme tunes, remixed as dance culture. It did, however, leave my companion quite cold. She was much more taken by the presentation of another Berlin gallery, Kraupa-Tuskany. This gallery fatured the project Absolute Vitality Inc., a sharp satire of the art market as installation. Intriguing and witty, the work led to me to Kraupa-Tuskany’s web page where I saw that they are indeed doing really interesting things with some pretty incisive artists.

From Glasgow came gallery Kendall Koppe with a very strong artist, sculptor Niall Macdonald. Macdonald casts everyday objects – stuff he’s found and picked up or stuff from around the house, particularly juxtaposing natural and man made objects. The result is deceptively delicate yet strong works – shells that have become heavy, a camera fused to a seasnail.

Kendall Koppe, like Simone Subal, was staffed by a very well informed and articulate gallerist, both were a pleasure to talk to.

I liked Lucy Skaer’s piece at the Tulips and Roses exhibit, a gargantuan print with a woodblock print overlay, despite it being primarily decorative. However it has to be said that, apart from the galleries mentioned above, I did not find anything else intriguing or rewarding in the fair.

The same irritating tendencies were repeated here: long, involved videos stuck on screens on walls, or on floors and the visitor is expected to stand there awkwardly watching them. Look, standing there like that you feel like you are on a bus. It’s not comfortable you are hyper aware of your discomfort and therefore – ergo – you don’t concentrate on the work. Therefore only the most shocking works can be seen in that way. Subtle intellectual work, you just walk away. That is wrong. So why don’t exhibitors make a viewing space of the moving image? A chair, even? – but no, the chairs are occupied by the gallerists, who clatter away behind you, interrupting the very video they are trying to present. I did not mind the floor perspective so much in the Simone Subal Gallery presentation, but it did harm the Tanya Leighton presentation. Gaudel de Stampa made a proper little screening room for Lamelas and Duane’s film; that was great.

I was particularly disappointed in the London galleries. Limoncello left me cold. I was not overly surprised to see the lamentable Seventeen with an unengaging display: passing the gallery’s window daily for a number of years I have never failed to be unimpressed with their offering. It is just the utter abyss of contemporary London conceptual art.

I’m not sure what to do with some of the stuff on offer here. Am I meant to want to buy it, to collect it? But what would I do with a clutch of cheap utility tables, even if they do have a digital print glued onto them? And if something is hideous, being really big does not make it more appealing.

I’m laying out my stall here. I have always tried to make a point of never reviewing anything I don’t like, and always reviewing what I do like. It doesn’t always work. But I am sick of the unspoken assumption that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Criticism is always going to be somewhat subjective, because it’s written by people – people with likes, dislikes, phobias and passions. I too have likes, dislikes, phobias and passions. And you’re probably going to disagree with me and that’s fine.

I am not interested in art because the art school the artist went to was “prestigious.” I am not interested in stuff that is just clever, that “works on the notion of” or “comments upon”. I like art that can inspire, that can reflect what’s going on, that can express real human emotions or tell a real human story.

I love art made with skill, made with the hand and the eye, that does not need a page of A4 next to it to “understand”. I love art that manifests itself and unfolds over time, as each new experience of it is somehow different and always rich. How many times have I seen de Chirico’s The Uncertainty of the Poet? I love art that moves me emotionally. Jeremy Deller and Joan Miro can both make me weep, right there in the gallery. I love artists that can take some piece of crap from a skip and create magic with it. Just today I saw online a series of incredible 3d paintings by Paris based artist Bodo – painted on old mattresses. But I hate art takes some piece of crap from a skip and just puts it into the gallery, the same piece of crap from a skip. Ironic? Give it up. Irony is dead. Things have got out of hand. The world is collapsing. Concept is not everything. Irony is not going to cut it anymore. In a world where the digital has made such a big part of our lives virtual, the hand skill is more precious than ever. Let’s look around and get real.

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