Frieze London arrived in Regent’s Park two decades ago. In the ‘noughties’, it hit the London art scene running, bringing a new razzmatazz to the selling of art. On the opening night, anyone who was anyone was there. Even Anish Kapoor had to stand in the rain for an hour waiting to get in. London was buzzing with talent, and now that talent had a platform.
So what of Frieze, now, 20 years on? Well, it feels rather tired, a bit past its sell-by date, like a partygoer who doesn’t quite know that it’s time to go home. The opening day was packed, but everyone seemed to be on the lookout for other people rather than looking at the art. It’s still a hot ticket – Princess Beatrice was there in one of the many eateries having a late lunch with a group of friends – but the mood seems out of step with the times. In the early 2000s, Blair was still in power. The Iraq war and 9/11 hadn’t yet happened. Irony was still cool. Art was a mirror of aspiration and social change. But, now, walking around the hundreds of booths, it feels like being in a bubble, a parallel universe where art is piled high, money often speaks louder than talent, and you might never guess that Ukraine was at war with Russia, that there was a cost of living crisis and a conflagration in the Middle East.
The fair opens with Gagosian’s booth, replete with huge floral Damien Hirsts. It’s fashionable to say that Hirst is a rotten painter, but they aren’t bad. Still, then again, they aren’t really that good either, pastiches of numerous better painters and all rather safe from the artist who once stuffed sharks and preserved cows in formaldehyde. Altogether, too big, the fair takes time to find one’s way around and discover stuff worth looking at. Though if you’re prepared to look, it’s still there.
Over at Sadie Coles, there’s a lovely series of works in pastel, ink and watercolour by the Italian artist Isabella Ducrot that borrows imagery from folklore, textiles and weaving.
At the Blindspot Gallery in Hong Kong, Angela Su, who represented Hong Kong at the 59th Venice Biennale, is showing her embroidery works—drawings created with a single line of hair. ‘Sewing together my split mind’ (2019-21) represents the sewing together of body parts as a gesture in protest at the suppression of free speech.weaving.
Over at Victoria Miro, they’ve hung a Paula Rego next to a Chantal Joffe, showing the influence of the former on Joffe’s powerful painting. Some of the most interesting work is the quietest.
Barbara Chase-Riboud, for example, at Hauser & Wirth, is an American visual artist, sculptor, best-selling novelist and award-winning poet who creates different formations by using white silk thread to pierce and sew white paper. These spare and barely there artefacts suggest automatic writing and hieroglyphics. Born in 1939, she has almost certainly been influenced by the French cultural theory, l’Écriture Féminine of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray’s, which aspired to create a genre of literary writing that deviated from the masculine norm, to examine the relationship between the female body and language and text.
At Edel, Asanti Julianknxx is showing Black Room 2023, that merges film, poetry, performance, and music to explore Western society’s dependence on the unseen labour of Black communities. There’s also a witty series by Marina Abromović.
Marina Abromović of digital pigment prints at the Viennese Krinzinger Gallery. Wearing a big pointy red Energy Hat (like a dunce’s cap), she’s seen in the garden doing the ironing in her dressing gown. In contrast, at Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery, there’s a lovely minimalist series (perhaps, by Frieze standards, rather old fashioned) of rondels by the Glasgow artist Katie Paterson, created with pigment made from the ash of 10,000 tree species, sand from deserts across the Earth, and salts collected from evaporated oceans.
But the most immersive booth must surely be Pilar Corria’s showing of the Margate-based German artist Sophie von Hellermann’s painted diorama, Dreamland. Inspired by Margate’s funfair of the same name, it’s a dreamscape of whirling Ferris wheels and carousel rides that spill across the floor.
The hot Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui is showing a large shimmery bright shield of recycled and repurposed metal, Silver and Gold Have I Not at the Jack Shainman Gallery, while Alvaro Barrington’s exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ is full of vibrant colour that celebrates the artist’s early memories of growing up in Granada.
Cross the park to Frieze Masters, and there’s a very different atmosphere. There’s more light and space, it’s quiet, and people look at the work. This ranges from a beautiful miniature Italian book of the Hours from c1500 at Les Enluminures to a fabulous 1965 Fontana with punched holes on an aluminium sheet at the Mazzoleni booth. Over at Annely Juda, there’s a stylish solo presentation of the 1950s pleated fabric sculptures by the Japanese artist Katsuhiro Yamaguchi.
Basically, Frieze is now whatever you want to make it. For many, it’s an annual corporate knees-up that attracts those with money to burn (who are not necessarily the same punters as the art lovers). Once an exciting event, it’s not much more than a supermarket for the super-rich. If you’re really interested in art, as opposed to being spotted in your designer togs and sipping the warm prosecco offered by a few galleries to those who count, then go and enjoy the quiet elegance of Frieze Masters. There is some beautiful work there.
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