A Review of Frieze London at Regent's Park, London
In the midst of a world pulling itself apart at the seams and erecting more barriers than it's taking down, Frieze – one of the bastions of a globalised and multiverse ecology – has pitched its tent in London’s garden for the 15th edition of its Regent’s Park-based art fair. As every self-respecting gallery and institution across the city puts its finest wares on display, London has never looked more culturally spritely.
In light of the excitement that surrounds Frieze Week, the fair has recognised its potential for curatorial engagement, and alternative platforms for established and emerging artists have multiplied over the years. Frieze Sculpture Park, having arrived in the capital months before the glistening white tent did, provided a free public exhibition of works chosen by Yorkshire Sculpture Park Director Clare Lilley. On top of this, we saw Frieze Talks with an expansive, starry lineup; Frieze Live showcased performance that had been newly commissioned for the fair; Frieze Projects presented works from an array of artists including the Frieze Artist Award-winner Kiluanji Kia Henda; and the much-talked-about 'Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics', curated by Alison Gingeras attempted to incorporate museum-quality ideas under the roof of the art fair.
It is hard to believe that this all takes place across four days at a temporary venue in a public London park. The corridors of white cubes – which galleries have found ingenious ways to disguise – are the heart of Frieze. The side dishes of performance, sculpture and music serve to give it the soul that art-lovers have grown to expect from any major exposition of contemporary art. The relationships between “the fair” and “the gallery” are entirely symbiotic; with galleries and dealers reporting that over half of yearly sales are done over long weekends like Frieze, the one-stop shop has evidently streamlined business. Frieze’s push to appear more up-to-speed and institutional has been well-balanced with the commercial nature of the fair.
The popularity of the gallery stands seemed predicated upon the quality of set design. Marian Goodman Gallery created a Zen-like space with grey stone floor, featuring Arte Povera artist Giuseppe Penone, whose marble and bronze work took the focal wall placed above a Cristina Iglesias water installation. Four steps across the corridor was Hauser & Wirth’s dramatic showcase of sculptures in bronze – borrowing original display cabinets and cases, work by Thomas Houseago, Rashid Johnson, Louise Bourgeois, Henry Moore, Diego Giacometti, among many others, were presented in a light-hearted homage to the regional museum. Curated by Mary Beard and titled ‘BRONZE AGE c.3500 BC – AD 2017’, was a point of contention for me. The space was quite cluttered and, in the end, did a disservice to the likes of Houseago and Johnson, whose marvelous bronzes were sat high behind the glass ridden with glare.
The Focus section is where Frieze’s ambitions as a fair met the curatorial freedom of the galleries exhibiting. Various Small Fires, a gallery from Los Angeles, took home the 2017 Focus section Stand Prize for their presentation of a work by The Harrisons – two orange trees bathed in artificial light were a prescient reminder of the death knells of our environment – whilst a newcomer to the Frieze London scene, Shoreditch-based Emalin, received a commendation by the jury for their debut efforts with the Russian artist Evgeny Antufiev. In a stand whose modesty and manufacture echoed that of the artist’s work; the cardboard cutout entrance would’ve felt at home between the monsters of the Gardens of Bomarzo in Italy. The DIY nature of the stand’s decor – which was brilliantly modest in the face of its blue-chip counterparts – with the careful presentation of Antufiev’s ceramics, was a pressure-release in the face of such elaboration.
Other galleries in the Focus section that deserved recognition were the Sunday Painter gallery for their solo-exhibit of wall-mounted satellite dish works by the 2016 winner of the MaxMara Prize, Emma Hart, and Union Pacific for their artist-led space constructed by the duo Ben Burgis and Ksenia Pedan. This space, not dissimilarly to Emalin, featured a refreshingly retrograde interpretation of the art fair stand; vitrines and cases were littered with studio detritus, and the work was given depth through its own agency – pieces involving delicately modelled sun-loungers, ceramic and resin-soaked polystyrene were multiform and in abundance across the solo presentation.
In hedging ones bets against what will sell, it would be easy to turn up to Frieze with a boot full of swag that appeals to anyone and everyone. The one-artist stand is a gamble few risk at the fair; David Kordansky led with Will Boone, Hannah Black at Arcadia Missa, Mary Reid Kelly at Pilar Corrias and Thomas Ruff at Galerie Rudiger Schottle, are a few who braved specialism. These stands provide more engagement with the work than their film-set counterparts, which ideology negates the art rather than embraces it, and puts confidence in the minds of the artists and collectors alike, whose individual backing from the gallery in this instance seems faith enough to be considered a worthy exhibitor (and purchase) at Frieze.
The difficulties in committing to ideas and artists at Frieze are self-evident – not only are you judged by the market, but by an avidly critical audience who consider a failed stand a failing gallery. If it takes Zen temples and regional museums to cover the shame of the marketplace, shouldn’t the platform change in its entirety? Are pop-up, multi-venue events such as Condo the way forward? The city-wide fair provides more opportunity to smaller galleries and artists, but its shortfall is its fractured nature; Frieze is attractive to so many because it allows art addicts a near-lethal dose in such compact time and space.
The latest fashion of hiding behind flimsy special effects seems intentionally ill-informed. The solo-presentation provides a mini-catalogue and showcase that can be precise and wholesome, whilst collaborative installations – specifically Than Hussein Clark’s working with couture dressmakers studio GAN from Rome to create a pop-up tailoring salon – seem faddish and peculiar. At the other end of the spectrum, conservative stalwarts Gagosian earned a knowing nod of recognition for their efforts, bringing together drawings from all represented artists, the gallery was at liberty to curate a micro-exhibit of stellar proportions, with no additional fluff required. In the midst of galleries locking horns with their desire to appear institutional and their need to sell work, Frieze assumed the role of museum with its Alison Gingeras curated showcase of female artists practicing in the 1970s and ‘80s within the radical feminist movement.
The nine solo presentations featured in 'Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics' were presented side-by-side in their respective cubicles from an array of international exhibitors. Having been aware of a recent show at Venus Over Los Angeles titled ‘CUNT’, which included Betty Tompkins, Valie Export, Marilyn Minter and Judith Bernstein, anticipating these explicit and hardline works making their way to London for a specially curated element of Frieze was a thrilling prospect. In the end, it seemed unclear what curatorial input Alison Gingeras had on the special section – the compartmentalized exhibition took place under all the same conditions as the rest of the fair, and the overall effect was underwhelming in spite of the nature of the work.
Frieze has a challenge moving forward; with this urge to create more institutional and rigorous showcases, it must be willing to drop some walls and encourage galleries to collaborate if it wishes to chime into socio-political discourse and art-historical analyses, or else run the risk of proving a fair’s ability to deaden work and anaesthetize audiences. The curated section should look at alternative sites - a weeklong feature of Betty Tompkins’ ‘Fuck Paintings’ in the National Gallery would’ve activated the artworks and positioned Frieze, the exhibiting galleries, the curator and the artists as more critically-challenging bodies. As long as the work hides under the canopy of the fair’s awning, it risks being overshadowed by its prime function in that space.
This is not to say that the prime function is anything to be ashamed of. The Frieze Art Fair in its London and New York iterations are brilliant photographs of a moment in time that allows you to take the temperature of the art world every year on either side of the Atlantic. It serves immense purpose as a market driver and facilitator to many large and small galleries. Curated sections and project spaces already felt unwieldy in this context, but galleries are now taking to fighting against the old white box. This years London edition of Frieze has unwittingly pointed out its limitations – but this should only serve as a catalyst on which to expand its purview further.
Written by Oliver Morris Jones, a Contributor to Arteviste.