Staring into the Abyss: New York's Downtown Modern + Contemporary Fair provided limitless opportunities to be inspired
This year’s Downtown Art Fair allowed you to stare into an abyss, but one into which you could not fall, take in the chaos of a suburban house with crying children, captured in a giant-sized photographic print, or watch a video screen that was, in turn, imbedded in a painted surface. Such marvels of technology and of art are what now define this and many other art fairs whose focus is modern and contemporary works. A woman was overheard saying at the fair, as she viewed a Gregory Scott print with a video inset, at the Catherine Edelman booth: “There are too many works trying to be paintings. Why not just make a painting? Different is not always good.”
While a lot of works at the fair, particularly those that incorporated mixed media and styles—video, abstraction, realism, applied objects—tried to be something they were not or could not be, it was, nonetheless, exhilarating to witness the range of creativity. Fifty-three dealers and some 600 artists assembled for the fair in Manhattan’s 69th Regiment Armory, May 8–12, 2014. There were a lot of different works; anyone interested in art, realistic or otherwise, would have found something to their liking. Indifference was not an option.
Fairgoers bunched at the lit array of realistic and abstract works by Chul Hyun Ahn, the Korean-born artist represented by Baltimore’s C. Grimaldis Gallery. Using mirrors, LEDs and fluorescent lights (but no smoke), Ahn has created works that appear to repeat into infinity. His Railroad Nostalgia (2012) reveals a rusty track that seems to vanish into an indeterminate point, though the work is really just three feet deep. He is less interested in filling space than exploring it. His Portal (2013) presents itself as a circular plywood object, through which the viewer looks to (or can sit on) a bottomless pit. While some might dismiss these works as gimmicky, they have an actual perceived limitlessness to them. It’s unlikely that any viewer could ever tire of contemplating the effects.
The greatest realist artist in attendance, both on canvas as well as in person, was Eric Forstmann, represented by Eckert Fine Art in Millerton, New York. Forstmann has a penchant for shelves with objects neatly arranged on them. Nine mouth-watering sandwiches, one per niche, are shown in his cheekily entitled 9-I-8 (2014)—say it aloud and you will get the reference. When asked about the pastramis on rye and hams and cheeses on hoagies, Forstmann said, “I want to point out that I ate every sandwich pictured and, even though club sandwiches are my favorite, I depicted other kinds, too.” It made sense, too, when he said, “I have great respect for Dutch Golden Age painters. Vermeer is my idol.” Like many Dutch still-lifes painters of the period, Forstmann is so intent on depicting every shadow and gleam in his objects that, upon close examination of his Rearranged Inventory (2103), depicting shelves of ice buckets, pitchers and the like, the viewer can find miniature versions of the painter reflected in the wink cast from a bowl or appliance. “I rarely add figures,” he said, “because I am more interested in what people have done in life, rather than what they are doing.”
Forstmann was not the only realist painter interested in the quotidian. At the Jerald Melberg Gallery of Charlotte, North Carolina, three decidedly poetic works by Chris Clamp drew viewers (one on canvas of a 1950s-era ice crusher, two on panel of a set of keys and a bubble-gum dispenser). The most poignant was Backup (2012), a spare depiction of a set of skeleton keys hanging on a nail, with a rust stain streaked beneath. The gallery representative explained that a textured surface on the work, which appeared to spell out a mysterious message was “some text carved into the wet paint—the result of the artist perhaps recalling some poem or song lyric that referenced the object shown.” That rep turned out to be the artist himself, eager to explain the works to fairgoers without fear of criticism. A hidden message in the paintings, a secretive presence by the artist himself.
While Botero’s ample-buttocked women have the power to repel (or seduce) many art lovers, the Ascaso Gallery of Miami balanced their bronze vixens with two arrestingly beautiful canvases by Julio Larraz. Victory (1999) is a Gulliver-scaled still-life of eggplants, leeks and tomatoes in a basket, while his Desplante (2013), which shows a bullfighter in the ring, is more about the shadows cast by the animal and the cape the toreador is flaunting than it is about the drama of the scene.
Other bright spots of realism included Nancy Hoffman Gallery’s New York cityscape portrayals by Don Eddy and Michael Gregory’s Council Hill (2013), a serene canvas on panel depicting a farmstead, backdropped by mist-enshrouded hills. Julie Blackmon’s large-scale photographs of her nieces and nephews in Springfield, Missouri, are certainly staged works, though the representatives from Robert Mann Gallery explained that nothing was photoshopped in. “Everything that you see,” the rep said, pointing to Picnic (2012) “was there”—the birds wheeling in the air, hunters taking aim, babies in the grass. Here is the kind of hyper-realistic scene we know is staged, but are willing to pretend is otherwise.
Some dismiss gatherings like Art Miami’s Downtown Art Fair as hype or a commercial bazaar. But, to attend this one and others with an open mind is to have fun and, often, to leave inspired.