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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.