Sometimes I wonder if the art fair is a symptom of the internet and our contemporaneous assumption that everything is instantly available at the click of a button. However, instead of individual surfing, at a fair, you are browsing at the same time as everyone you have ever met in the art world, jammed into an endless, windowless grid of corridors with virtually no access to refreshments. It’s like falling into your Google browser. Attendance is obligatory because London’s art calendar now hinges on this week, but it is a profoundly stressful experience, at odds with the deep contemplation many individual artworks deserve.
As the Frieze London queue was so long and insufferably fraught with maniacal FOMO, we decided to begin viewing at Frieze Masters. This was a good thing. Inside, patrons who had come prepared to purchase on inspection were quietly making deals on relatively calm stands. We were greeted by Nathan Clements-Gillespie, Director of Frieze Masters, fresh from his tour of the Spotlight section with its curator Camille Morineau and the Spirit Now London patrons selecting works for their inaugural prize.
Selection of Eileen Agar’s works at Gallery Wendi Norris
Like the art world, the fair operates on a hierarchy. Numerous initiatives attempt to offset this. Focus at Frieze London is a section accessible to young galleries; Stand Out, at Masters, curated by Luke Syson (Director of Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), addresses the hierarchical distinction between media to reconsider what is deemed ‘decorative’; and Spotlight, curated this year Camille Morineau (founder of AWARE, on a mission to rewrite the history of art by including overlooked women artists), features solo presentations of work by little known, but historically significant artists.
An increasing number of prizes proliferate the fair, giving the more studied visitor a sense of the overlooked, indicating ones to watch. The Frieze Focus Stand Prize 2022 went to Gypsum (Cairo, Egypt) for their solo presentation of Mahmoud Khaled. Marina Xenofontos, represented by Hot Wheels Athens, was the recipient of the 2022 Emerging Artist Prize, which includes a solo exhibition at Camden Art Centre in 2023. Frieze Tate Fund, supported by Endeavor, acquired works for the National Collection by Romany Eveleigh, Leonor Fini, Lewis Hammond, Rita Keegan, Frida Orupabo, and Sandra Vásquez de la Horra (highlighted in our Venice Biennale review).
This year saw the launch of the Spirit of Giving Committee, a fund established by Marie-Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre to acquire work on behalf of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Selected from Frieze Masters Spotlight section, Women Artists of the 20th Century, after much deliberation given the excellent lineup of solo presentations, the jury chose a work by African American artist Sylvia Snowden from the Franklin Parrasch Gallery.
“The section features works by women artists that are radical for different reasons,” explains Morineau. “Some are revolutionary in terms of artistic approach, like Margit Szilvitzky’s linen sculptures of the 1970s, or, because of their erotic subject matter, the surrealist drawings of Leonor Fini. Some are political: Sonia Balassanian’s ‘Hostages’ series (1980), or Lucia Marcucci’s feminist collages, such as Non-possumus (1971).” Radical for their persistence in pursuing creativity despite systemic societal opposition, this section also included the joyous work of batik and Adire artist Nike Davies-Okundaye (kó, Lagos) and the shimmering abstractions of Mary Corse (Pace Gallery).
At Ab-Anbar Gallery, Artlyst were fortunate to meet iconic Iranian Armenian American artist Sonia Balassanian, fresh from the opening of Sonia Balassanian: Five Decades in the Making, curated by Dr Omar Kholeif at Cromwell Place. Balassanian’s complex, delicately balanced works weave together elements of poetry, calligraphy, and field painting. Like historical artefacts, they give a sense of something important preserved, full of hidden meaning. This landmark survey included the launch of Imagine Otherwise—Volume 1: Sonia Balassanian, authored by Dr Kholeif, a new book series from Sternberg Press focusing on the lives of queer, non-binary, and female artists who do not currently have a book in print.
Sonia Balassanian, Hostages: A Diary (1980) Detail
Showing Hostages: A Diary (1980) for the first time in the United Kingdom, Balassanian was characteristically self-effacing, despite the fresh relevance of the work to current events in Iran. Made whilst separated from her husband, escaping the 1979 revolution in Iran, she photographed herself as a hostage, then collaged these images with daily clippings from newspapers. The private is subsumed by the public: overlaid with dissonant headlines and slogans, the imagery is scratched out and marked up. Describing the series as a kind of diary (love letter?), she “did not intend this to be art”. It was just something she “had to do” in response to events. All created in 1980, this series now represents the starting point of her approach to political art.
By embracing the confluence of personal, historical, cultural, and newsworthy information around her, Balassanian’s work is invested with the idea that a revolution is not something that happens “out there”, merely political, but affects everyone – regardless of how far removed. She symbolises this by turning herself into a hostage; blindfolded, locked into situations beyond her reckoning. Her art deals with the difficult face of revolution. “She treads the narrow line between opposing sides to express her outrage at the eroding human condition,” said curator Mayssa Fattouh of Ab-Anbar. With the proliferation of information online, it is almost impossible to imagine how an artist escaping the revolution today might cope (highly relevant to this discussion is Soheila Sokhanvari’s show at the Barbican – Rebel Rebel).
Outside Spotlight, a selection of intimate drawings by the late Vietnamese French artist Pierre Le-Tan at Tristan Hoare caught our eye. Early Works 1960s — 1990s, in collaboration with Le-Tan’s family, brought together his precise, meticulous scratchings of India ink with a series of watercolours in soft pastels. Quiet observations of everyday life — a desk of unfinished letters, a lit match, an aeroplane apparent through an apartment window – Le-Tan’s closely documented universe spiced with humour with a hint of surrealism.
Across Frieze Masters, historic works are in abundance – Frank Auerbach, Eileen Agar, Bridget Riley, Artemesia Gentileschi. To highlight their lasting influence on contemporary art was Tyler Mitchell’s commission for Frieze Masters 2022: ‘Nature Can be a Freeing Space’. Exquisitely curated, with photographic works shown as sculptures, in vitrines and on mirrors, Mitchell reimagines contemporary Black presence in the landscape. “A lot of these images are works in which we’re seeing Black figures contend with and be in relation to landscape and space, whether that’s an artificial landscape, like the sky backdrop in New Horizons III (2022) or in a collage-style way, hung in front of a city backdrop in New Horizons II (2022).” Referencing the history of art, such as Nicolas Poussin’s arcadian landscape With Orpheus and Eurydice (1650–53) or Paul Cézanne’s The Bathers (1898–1905), this project shows how contemporary artists continue to draw from history and classical archetypes. What we choose to show and preserve in public collections matters.
Walking through Regents Park, bursting with autumnal colours, nothing could have prepared us for Frieze London. It is fair that articulates how closely bound the art world is to the frenetic capitalism, or what Adam Curtis calls the “Contradictory Vaudeville”, of Post-Modernism. “At the epicentre of the shape-shifting world”, he reminds us “is quantitative easing”. With no opportunity to follow a narrative thread, here is a summary of the galleries that stood out:
What a pity Lisson Gallery did not leave the stage empty before this stunning tapestry by Laure Prouvost. Known for her idiosyncratic mixed-media installations, this work was obscured by a mind-numbing installation replete with throw-away slogans.
Solo booths gave the viewer a chance to catch their breath – our favourite was Timothy Taylor, showcasing artist of the moment Sahara Longe, also selected by curator Katie Heller as the anchor work for The House of Koko Club’s new art collection.
More conservative than Frieze Masters, large paintings were a big draw, and Night Gallery had all our attention with works by Hayley Barker, Clare Woods and Christine Wang. Los Angeles’ leading platform for emerging artists, it was founded in 2010 by Davida Nemeroff, with openings held between 10 PM and 2 AM, and described by the New York Times as “arguably the epicentre of the underground art world in Los Angeles.”
Victoria Miro did not disappoint, with a stunning Flora Yukhnovich and a room dedicated to Paula Rego. Maureen Paley was showing a stand-out pale lilac inkjet print by Wolfgang Tillmans from the series Zero Gravity. Frith Street had numerous gems, including a work by Fiona Banner, AKA the Vanity Press, from her Full-Stop Seascapes, and Blue Dive by Dorothy Cross, carved in Brazilian sodalite.
Thaddaeus Ropac showed the most photographed work, a giant oil stick and oil pastel on canvas entitled Mike’s Tooth (2022) by Rachel Jones.
Later, we bumped into the artist Emma Levine, who kindly provided us with a small postscript:
“I was hunting for the masterful and learned approach to art, the craft, the brilliance. What I saw were lazy interpretations. Ludicrous suggestions. Nothing to move your soul. The application was all very plain to see. What did arrest me were pieces that I couldn’t explain or work out how they were created. I was yearning to find the intangible response of emotion and searching for the wonder of thousands of hours of practice.
What I did see as an overriding theme was erosion and contamination. A sense of changing the chemical condition of whatever medium, forcing and pushing paint or canvas or wood or paper to become something other or disintegrated. I liked having to peer in closer to see chemical shifts and to work out the layers. Such as Alexandre Lenoir or Frank Bowling, Thomas Ruff or Lisa Oppenheim. I was attracted to the minimalism and sublime curation in Gallery Hyundai with Minjung Kim and Chung Sang-Hwa. It’s discipline and skill.
Dastan gallery was the one that propelled the most powerful punch. The exquisite pairing of Reza Aramesh and Homa Delvaray offered tension and proper unease. The hooded marble sculptures were extraordinary. It struck me that there was a lot of rubbish literally up on the walls. Black and pink bin bags. I couldn’t see a lot that I thought would have any permanence or timelessness. Maybe it’s a global and economic reflection. I didn’t find a lot of beauty or humour. I laughed only once at some irreverent silly birds who were in a world of their own.” Emma Levine, 2022
Words/Photos Nico Kos Earle Top Photo © Artlyst 2022
Thank you for the afterparty @kokocamden