Best and Worst at the Armory Show Contemporary
Galleries may come and galleries may go, but The Armory Show goes on forever, it would seem. And for most of those thousands of visitors who will stand on line outside on Twelfth Avenue this weekend, “The Armory Show” means the Contemporary pier. This – far more than the fast evolving Modern section – is where the gladiatorial circus that is the international art fair can be enjoyed in all its schizophrenic glory – where you’ll still find artists (and, more to the point, dealers) falling over one another in their attempts to seem outrageous or cool, or outrageously cool; where you’ll see people laughing out loud at one booth and holding back tears at another; where young artists will be plucked from impoverished obscurity and thrust, no matter how briefly, into celebrity; and – underpinning the whole enterprise, obviously – where inexplicable sums of money will change hands.
Picking a best and worst here gets somewhat notional. There are many, many great pieces of art here, and many, many more pieces of overhyped, overpriced nonsense.
Best Single Work
Amid the clamor of a big art fair, subtlety can sometimes have particular eloquence. I almost missed Jesper Just’s Some Draughty Window (2007) on Galleri Christina Wilson’s booth (#1060), as it is slightly hidden away in a little cubicle. (This was constructed at the last minute because there is a large-scale light box right across the aisle.) Originally commissioned for the bathroom of Jeppe and Lærke Hein’s celebrated Karriere bar in Mr Just’s hometown of Copenhagen, Some Draughty Window is a narrative video piece installed behind a mirror. It is deliberately difficult to make out, as it is intended to gradually insinuate itself into the awareness of people using the bathroom. Its subject matter – not untypical of Mr Just’s highly romantic work – is nothing less than death and transfiguration, which is depicted occurring in another public bathroom. This is obviously difficult subject matter for an artist, and it has defeated artists as respected as Bill Viola, but here it is handled supremely well. The piece is only about eight minutes long. I would recommend you give it that much of your time, and I hope you find it as moving as I did. (And if you want to take it home, it will cost you $50,000 for the sixth of the original edition of seven.)
Worst Single Work
I am a big admirer of Toby Webster’s Glasgow operation, The Modern Institute (Booth #801). I am also an instinctive enthusiast for art that works outside of normal expectations, but I am afraid that artists far too often tumble directly out of self-seriousness into self-parody. My attention was drawn to Hayley Tompkins’ Tele and Data (2010) by the pair of middle-aged ladies who were pointing at it and giggling. It is a rather old-fashioned cellphone that the artist has painted over with watercolor. It looks, to all intents and purposes, like the paint smeared phones that you’ll find in artists’ studios from Glasgow to Gstadt. I asked the people on the booth about it and was told that Ms Tompkins was “sort of painting a landscape on the technology”. But there it is – a cellphone painted over. It’s sitting on a couple of nails hammered into the wall. And the gallery is asking $2,500 for it. No wonder those ladies were laughing at it, but in the end it’s not remotely funny. Artists owe a responsibility to other artists. It’s work like this that reinforces the distance between art and the vast number people with whom it could communicate, and I think that’s tragic.