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Doublethinking the Houston Fine Art Fair

I’m not sure how to think about the Houston Fine Art Fair,  which occurred this past weekend at the NRG Arena across from the Astrodome. I know what to think of it: beyond terrible. Perhaps in self-defense, my mind turned away from the awful reality of the works on view to consider the sociology of the fair itself. Though the fair purports to be about art, these people (there was sizable, well dressed crowd at the VIP opening reception Thursday night) are not engaged in art as I understand it. So what are they doing?

Turner Wooderd, Windmills, $24,500

Three people feigning looking at art. Wall object by Turner Wooderd, titled Windmills, $24,500

I’m not a psychologist of schlock. I don’t understand who buys this stuff, if buyers there are. I don’t know if the dealers are cynical merchandisers and understand how bad their wares are, or misguided aesthetes who don’t; and I can’t decide which would be worse. I don’t even know if sales to individuals are the real goal here. Perhaps this is a disguised trade show for office decorators and interior designers, buying for clients who honestly don’t really care what they get, as long as it doesn’t seem cheap.

My worst fear is that this is the commercial underbelly of the real artworld: the fair was far more international than the TX Contemporary Fair, bringing in galleries from Cuba, Israel, Korea, Venezuela, Canada, France, Colombia, Japan, Hungary, China, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, England, the Netherlands, and from cities across the US. Is this what a worldwide art audience really wants, really likes, and really buys? I can only hope that these galleries are keeping the good stuff back at home.

Paul Rousso, <em>My Top Ten</em>, $14,000 at George Billis Gallery

Paul Rousso, My Top Ten, $14,000 at George Billis Gallery

 

Craig Allen, Trance, $35,000 at Lawrence Cantor Fine Art

Craig Allen, Trance, $35,000 at Lawrence Cantor Fine Art

 

Chris Hedrick, Strteched to the Limit, linden and nails, $24000 at Koelsch Gallery

Chris Hedrick, Strteched to the Limit, linden and nails, $2,400 at Koelsch Gallery

There’s a sameness in the effect of much of the work, regardless of differences in media and style: typically, each work makes a glossy first impression followed up by a clever gimmick. Ab-Ex paintings with embedded glitter, mechanical Buddha dolls in automated wiggling lotuses. Something to catch the eye, then something to think about, but not for too long. Art Lite.

jet set

Man feigning conoisseurship at the International Modern Art Gallery’s booth. The dealers are real.

At the preview, it was clear that one thing people were getting was a glamorous party. Doll yourself up and act out a fantasy of an artworld you’ve read about in magazines. Pretend you’re a Russian billionaire. Of course, this kind of play-acting goes on in front of real art, too, but it’s not necessary: decorate the party hall with any shiny expensive objects and you’re good to go. In fact, it’s better; at many a serious art opening, the mingling takes place outside on the sidewalk because the gallery is too full of art!

As befits party decor, finish is a preoccupation at the HFAF. I’ve never seen so many gleaming surfaces, or such meticulous workmanship. It’s interesting how technical polish still maintains its wide appeal in a culture where ordinary products are manufactured by robots. Perfection is standard, these days, and though an appreciation of the offbeat, handmade, and locally-sourced is currently filtering back into the consciousnesses of elite urbanites in the US, apparently the Red Corvette is still king in the broader global culture.

Federico Uribe at Art Nouveau Gallery

A red Corvette by Federico Uribe at Art Nouveau Gallery’s booth

I imagine someone buying this large, glossy flower-thingy made out of colored pencils, and hanging it in their office or living room, where it would conjure its vapid magic over and over again. Guest: “What a beautiful flower . . . (steps forward to peer) . . . . Ah! It’s made from pencils!”

Walt Disney’s equation of American culture states that technology + sentimentality = runaway popularity. Although there was no shortage of gimmickry at HFAF, sentimentality was lacking: unguarded, Disney-style schmaltz is incompatible with the posture of glamorous superiority sought by art people. That’s sad, because a lot of invention and craft was wasted: the only real appeal of many works was the “Ah!” factor, but unlike at a science museum or consumer electronics show, where people allow their inner geeks to run wild, at HFAF simple delight is always suppressed by a tacky, eggshell-thin gloss of sophistication. Doublethink is needed here: more than anything, what people want from participation in the art world is a sense of sophistication, but being wowed by the kinds of gimmicks that were actually wowing people at the fair makes you a rube, not a sophisticate.

It was hard going for real art amid this orgy of crap. Paintings crusted with gold leaf and plastic parakeets by Guus Kemp at Zoya Tommy Gallery might have been ironic and funny in a solo show, but not when far kitschier objects were being presented with total seriousness on both sides. In a university gallery, Ken Little’s stiff, hollow suit made from one-dollar bills (at Dan Allison’s booth) might have been about obsession with money and the conformity it enforces, but here, where Little’s  point was most appropriate, it was  drowned out by flashier works openly celebrating exactly what Little decrys. At Linda Clarke/Wade Wilson’s booth, the difference between James Surls’ whimisical outdoor sculptures, which have been creeping towards perfunctory vacuity for years, and the many vacant, art-like objects at other booths was painfully small.

Surls booth

James Surls is still OK, but just.

The highlight of the fair was the booth of Houston alternative space Alabama Song, invited by the fair’s organizers and provided space gratis. The art was slow and obscure, rather than speedy and superficial. When I arrived, a ping-pong game was in progress; when I left, a cello performance. Unassuming art by local hopefuls wasn’t much to look at, but in that circus of glitz, it was a breath of fresh air. I told proprietor/ringmaster Gabriel Martinez that his booth was the best in the fair, and we both chuckled simultaneously at the unstated punch line: at HFAF, that wasn’t saying much.

Alabama Song

Alabama Song

 

also by Bill Davenport
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25 Responses

  1. The underwear to me was just not good- especially not by itself. It’s just the sort of thing that needs some kind of context with other pieces.

    I think the flower made out of colored pencils is really beautiful, but I just have to question why colored pencils? even if it was made out of colored wooden sticks it would have been beautiful. It is why I don’t have much of an attraction to images made out of other materials ( like coins matching up to make a face or something like that).

    I would love to see more of the paintings though just to see what is out there.

  2. If the good fairs of previous years had been a commercial success, the good galleries from those fairs would have returned. If Bruce Lurie Gallery sold a bunch of those Gary John cartoons-over-newspaper pieces (and I suspect he did) we’ll see ‘em next year.

  3. Bill, you have really taken on the Fair that has not been a sponsor of Glasstire. Bravo for the dispraises by not only describing but defining your selections with distinctions of the mysteries of value from your perspective. But what of the HFAF’s “Hall of Fame” selected by the nationally recognized critic, Patricia Johnson? Wish you could have provided MANY MORE images, especially paintings as the Great God Pan Is Dead has done. Waiting for more.

  4. Thank you for saying this!!!

    I vote for C:
    “a disguised trade show for office decorators and interior designers, buying for clients who honestly don’t really care what they get…”

    I wonder if the disappointment you felt came from dealers who pay to be a part of this show are more preoccupied with filling their space with a “type” of art that performs well in this sort of environment. I’m sure it has more to do with their business strategies and manipulation of a confused audience with more money than sense.

    This kind of scene is a “The Emperor’s New Clothes” type of pluralistic ignorance where “no one believes, but everyone believes that everyone else believes…but the execution of the pieces you highlight are slick as snot. I can’t hang with that and don’t want to.

  5. Doris Murdock

    Some of it was interesting; the Neiman Marcus booth was study in minimalism. The umbrella condom sculpture was both functional and stylish.

  6. John Hovig

    HFAF and TCAF are distinguishing themselves from each other, which is healthy and welcome. HFAF is becoming more for decorative art, and TCAF for vanguard art. (The two are not entirely distinct but that’s a different discussion). We used to ask ourselves whether Houston needs two art fairs, but now we know that the two fairs no longer wish to compete for the same crowds. Which is smart. Next year the participating galleries will align themselves even more clearly along those lines. HFAF will not fade — in fact this growing distinction may strengthen it — but will fall off the Glasstire crowd’s radar, or at least move further from the center of the viewfinder.

  7. Letter to a friend:

    I guess Houston is pretty tired of art fairs. I was tired of “our version” of art fairs by the time the second one came around. Remember the movie “Tin Men” with Richard Dreyfuss? I feel like some New York aluminum siding salesman had come to town, and had sweet talked our galleries out of about $150,000 of their money, and then brought in about 80 galleries at each art fair that put a $3 million dent in our local art collecting budget.

    They didn’t bring us any collectors from out of town at the first two fairs, which is understandable. However they made no effort at the second round of fairs, or the third time through to set something in motion that would bring Houston any collectors. The HFAF is probably a goner. I was joking with the other galleries from out of town, (because misery loves company,) that it felt like we were snowed in at some airport waiting for a flight.

    I have to say though that I disagree that the quality of either of these last two fairs is any less than the previous six offerings. It’s just that with the low attendance, the whole thing looks a lot more like a trade fair, and a lot less like an “art happening” to the Houstonians that did show up. Art in a booth, how good can that be?

    I was saddened however, that the artists from Houston that I represented weren’t noted highlights as with some of the art critics when after a three year snooze, woke up from their art fair stupor. I guess they are making up for all the foolish enthusiasm they showed at the first six stupid fairs with some new found “jump on the band wagon” pots and pans of criticle review. Let’s all wakie wakie now……

    Kelly Moran, Ken Little, Ann Harithas, Jesse Lott, not to mention the Vinalhaven suite Mel Chin had with us on special consignment (in support of said artists and the whole event) were well presented in my area (notice I can’t bring myself to use the word “booth”) along with Patricia Johnson’s terrific effort and accomplishment showing a great selection of work in 1000 square-foot area designated as Houston’s Hall of Fame, …. and that was noticed by more than 70 of the galleries visiting us at the HFAF, and something to be proud of. Everyone who reads this should’ve witnessed Rick Lowe taking Jesse Lotts’ thousand pound twisted metal horse on machine skates around the art fair arena for a victory lap as the fair was closing up Sunday afternoon, or for that matter Patty leading the charge on the way into the fair Wednesday when we were setting things up.

    I took a pole as I left the fairgrounds on Sunday and nobody’s coming back to anything at Reliant Center. Me neither by the way.

    Thanks for your note Jack, and while we need a biennial or some kind of regular national arts event here in Houston to showcase the terrific artists and Galleries here we will have to grow into it …….. right now it’s awkward and we have growing pains.

    Dan

    1. Who thought the previous art fairs were all that great? Kelly Klassmeyer was brutal on HFAF last year. The reviews in Glasstire of HFAF in 2012 were a little more respectful–they seemed to be trying to accentuate the positive. But Laura Lark didn’t seem to feel any such obligation in 2011 with her Glasstire post about the first HFAF. Beth Secor writing about TCAF in 2011 was pretty brutal. However, Leslia Castro’s photo-blog on the 2012 TCAf was an unabashed rave, so you’re right there.

      But these two fairs this year were demonstrably worse than in previous years. I’ve been to all of the previous fairs, and while there was plenty to dislike in each, there was at least some things to like. TCAF was the better of the two in terms of work displayed. HFAF was just embarrassing–I felt bad for your gallery and Shoshana Wayne and a few other good galleries who were overwhelmed by the crap in most of the galleries there. But the thing about both fairs was how small they were. They both started strong in terms of the number of exhibitors, and now they have both shrunk down to little nuggets. Since the galleries are the paying customers at an art fair, you have to wonder how much smaller either TCAF or HFAF can go and still be viable. They seem to be playing chicken with each other, wondering who will fold first.

      I thought the Hall of Fame at HFAF was a nice gesture with some really good art, but it showed the inherent problem of HFAF. The best art in the whole fair wasn’t for sale. And the average artwork at the galleries exhibiting at HFAF seemed laughably bad in comparison (with some notable exceptions).

      In short, 1) I don’t think many writers were fooled into thinking that previous HFAFs and TCAFs were wholly good things, only to have the scales fall from their eyes this year, and 2) both fairs were noticeably less good this year than in previous years.

  8. Jeezus. So what does all this mean for working artists who are watching their hopes for sophisticated local venues bleed out?
    Look- let’s make something worthwhile happen. Other people are paying squillions to put on these whingdings; let’s use the hoopla to educate buyers, collectors, gallerists, artists. There is a way to look at the world-class art paradise Texas wants desperately to be and then make that happen. Because schlepping paintings and sculpture to Chicago and LA is freakin’ expensive.

    1. JAN, on flip-side-of-coin, we must always keep in mind, NYC, LA and even Chicago continually promote whatever happens in their bailiwick is promoted as ultra-important while hinterlanders often castigate their own undertakings, and artists, to oblivion, forgetting that “major” event growing pains are necessary. This is not meant to disagree with MOST of the foregoing complaints from the outset of Bill Davenport’s review, just an oldster’s observation having lived and/or participated in all of the three “big time” aforementioned venues.

  9. I think the greater Houston area really enjoyed it and was happy to see variety. Art and developing ones eye takes time and experience.

    I have to respect and be thankful to the people that put their money where their mouth is as they are the ones that keep me in business.

    I do not want to alienate these people that you are all shunning.

  10. Even schlepping work to neighboring states is expensive. It is supremely frustrating that my abstract painting work is more accepted there than here(Fort Worth)and I have had more opportunity not just to show but to sell too. I can show in Fort Worth several times a year but people who will complement the work by purchasing it are few and far between. I don’t know what to do except keep on schlepping and hope things get better here. So, I look at HFAF and the Dallas Art Fair with great envy no matter how bad everyone thinks they are.

    1. It’s an axiom that you can’t keep selling where you live- the market will get saturated. That’s why, for us as working artists, these fairs could be such a huge gift if we can parlay them into sophisticated, internationally recognized events. HJ Botts above hints that, if we give them enough time, that is what could happen…. she says, clicking her heels three times…

  11. K. Sheffield

    As a local collector, gallery goer, studio visitor, art auction follower, art pub reader, and attendee at all Houston art fairs so far, I want to register a protest against the tone of this column and some others that have appeared in this publication.

    In all years, many of the fair galleries have been local galleries, showing Houston and Texas artists. If we want to kill off our struggling local art scene and send our potential collectors to other cities and fairs, what better way than to put down local efforts at promotion so totally and to declare the work worthless?

    Obviously, not all local art has merit, and, like art everywhere, not all serious art made here is to everyone’s liking. But over years of looking, I have gained some confidence in my belief that Houston has many terrific artists. Many of them, past and present, could hold their own in a national and historical context. They need our support.

    It seems that this publication leads a local groupthink in which serious work by serious local artists is deemed to be without merit, unless it comes from a small group of insiders. This groupthink helps perpetuate the notion that Houston just can’t compete with other big cities, that our art scene is inferior. How about some constructive criticism and thoughtful perspective?

  12. gabriel martinez

    some random thoughts:

    the quality of the art in both fairs has diminished.
    conceptually flaccid works of art with high production values rule the wasteland
    the market has spoken

    the best booths were local
    fotofest was my favorite booth

    many of the gallerists i talked with at HFAF on the last day were kinda pissed. i imagine they will return home and tell their friends that they didnt sell enough art to return next year and this will probably do a little damage to the reputation of the houston artfairs.

    thats probably a good thang

    what makes the art scene amazing here (or anywhere) is all of the stuff that doesnt necessarily fit neatly into an artfair mold. this is what people outside of houston (foreigners) talk about when houston comes up: Project rowhouses, Nameless sound, the core program, fotofest, mari carmen ramirez. places like el rincon social, alabama song, HOST, Homeland, and others are an integral part of a balanced diet. these places, programs, and events should be folded into the artfair weekend even if theyre not in a booth. it should be a city wide event. without the extracurricular happenings, alternative spaces, and afterparties you might as well be shopping for a couch

    if you are shopping for a couch
    i have just the piece for you

  13. Dan Havel

    Art Fairs are only as good as the curating of participants, or if there is any. I don’t see them as being ‘bad’ for the local art scene, though. We are bigger than that. It’s just a big shopping mall experience and a good way to see a lot of art, good, bad, ugly, in one place.
    However, what I would like to see happen in this city is some sort of international art event along the lines of Prospect in NOLA or Spoleto every two years, a real Biennial that has room for the big names as well as local and Texas artists in the mix with the big wigs. Then you begin to attract not just buyers, but international art crowd that want the experience, not the product and art critics wanting to cover it nationally and internationally.
    Remember early International festival sculptures along Buffalo Bayou in the late 80’s? Both international (Tadashi Kawamata) and local artists did projects along bayou for the festival. This city needs a city-wide sculpture and installation Biennial.

  14. John Hovig

    We used to have the Houston Area Exhibition (HAE). It could be revamped as an occasional international event. We could pair up two curators, one from Houston, and a second who’s unfamiliar with Texas altogether, and see where it goes. We can talk about patrons and collectors, but personally I wouldn’t mind having internationally-recognized artists mingling among us for a few days. It could bring the dialog here.

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