So yesterday I went, with caution and a sprinkling of malice aforethought, to maybe the most unabashedly commercial of all art fairs--- Art Expo New York. The Pier, and even the trip there, already gives me a little spatial anxiety. I mean, Macy's is not really my store, and in general, selective people with some kind of style and focus do better in a limited space with fewer exhibitors so they can actually 'see' the inventory. Old-school art collectors are generally selective. Even the Armory seems small compared to the scale of the Pier which not only dwarfs the art and the audience, but inherently poses the question: if this is 'art'-- a pricey, unique, manually generated commodity-- why does there seem to be a department-store sense of endless supply and mass-marketed over-availability?
Sundays in Manhattan are special for me…. always a little hung-over, that okay-to-be-late-and-not-answer-phones thing, maybe a tiny bit of church-vibe and spirit-access, and generally no gigs. No cell, no iPad… just me, my mind and myself-- my new BFF. On the trek west into the outer-borough of the highway Pier strip, I passed a little 'exhibit' of thrown-away furniture outside an old Hell's Kitchen building. A filthy, saggy sofa which brought up memories of the first furniture I ever actually ordered and didn't 'acquire'…. with hope, a new husband, a little cool apartment with a patch of river view if you leaned all the way out. Visions of the parties, visitors now vanished, nights of early MTV, dinners and cigarettes, bottles and toasts, stray dogs, sleep-over guests, couch-sex, tears and embraces, good meals and bad meals, Christmas gift openings, proposals, promises, discussions, good reads… and finally one day these members of our furniture family are put out for the Salvation Army or dump-maceration. It had a certain Tracey Emin vibe, this little configuration of past dysfunction and current disuse… of dreams gone wrong, stained and threadbare relationships finally boundary-expelled from hearts and homes… maybe an illness or death, etc. I had a nostalgic pang of material withdrawal… a little tug at that place where old songs and great paintings nest.
But that sofa was to be the beginning and end of my Sunday art quest. The minute I entered the cavernous Pier exhibition arena, the vague buzz of muted crowd noise, several music tracks muffled by the space, and the maze of booths-- hundreds and thousands, like one of those shanty-town photos with a jillion temporary homes and the sense of a hundred dramas in every one. I tried to plan a route, but the scale and the arrangement made it nearly impossible to comprehend even the diagram. Okay, I admit--- I'm not great with geographic technology. So I tried to push myself like a shopping cart through a couple of aisles. There they were-- the after-Picassos, the facile abstracts, the pseudo Harings and Basquiats, the graffiti-pieces, the studenty minimalists, the Sunday painter bad landscapes-- the birds and butterflies, the glitterized club-scenes, the tacky blown-up photographs, the mosaics, the paintings on glass, the ceramic monstrosities. Then there were the lights-- the neon installations and the LED backed glass pieces, the constructions of found objects which failed to improve on their garbage roots, the gimmicks and crystals. The mere number of these things-- one came down and another one went up. Even the intricate webby OCD paintings looked as though they were cranked out by the dozen-- no thought, except --look at ME, I'm an ARTIST!
And then-- the celebrity and especially the rockstar art: Jim Morrrison as a jigsaw puzzle, Jim Morrison out of spaghetti strokes of some kind of resin-paint, Jim Morrison in blue, Jim Morrison in red, Jim Morrison in red, white and blue, Jim Morrison from postage stamps, the Doors as dog-faces and cartoons. Objects-- painted, cheap guitars with Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi and the Ramones… holograms of the Beatles, Mick Jagger in candy and Swarovski crystals. Glass guitars with lights inside, lights outside, black lights-- guitars that play music, and endless digital rockstar cartoons on a loop.
I finally made it over to the 'solo' area, hoping that the one-artist concept would have a little booth-consistency and thematic coherence. But here were the artists themselves, seated like hopeful dogs at the pound-- waiting to be chosen, acknowledged, petted, taken home. It was beyond sad. I had to keep that non-engaged expression on my face because every single one of them, despite my sub-par clothing, greeted me like those Celebrity Apprentice contenders trying to lure customers into their pop-up store so they could log attendance. Also, being late Sunday afternoon, this was their last shot. Prices were being slashed, deals were being made. Or were they? One artist-- the only one whose work caused me to stop and browse-- sheepishly admitted, despite the 'Blue Ribbon' she'd been awarded-- like best-in-show in the mutt competition-- that she had not sold a single thing. Packing up her wares, driving 12 hours in a rented truck… un packing, building, painting, hanging-- the business cards and photos-- then 5 long days of standing or sitting, including a reception-- making smalltalk to people who haven't a clue, conversing with bitter disappointed fellow artists, hoping for a gallery affiliation… then the depressing de-installation and the long drive home, with a hole in your pocket. It was unbearable.
The saddest of all-- was the number of galleries and artists from the Ukraine. People with a hopeless economy, putting all the eggs they maybe do not even have-- into the basket of this Art Expo, and then losing, like gamblers at the roulette wheel with no chips left. I tried hard to like the Ukrainian art-- even inquired about price, was told I'd get a huge deal-- maybe $500… then the gallery head who looked a bit like the So You Think You Can Dance host-- quoted $1,000, and I left without a bad conscience. But we owe the Ukranians a huge apology… in Russian, of course. I am so sorry…maybe you tried to appeal to the Americans who love the Kardashians and Beyonce and brought the worst stuff you had.
Okay… one 'bright' spot… a gallery from Nigeria, which equally underestimated American taste (or not) and hung stereo-typical African art-- but at least they had soul and panache. One of the gallery reps-- dressed in a suit despite the oppressive heat of the Pier lights and stale air-- took me in and gave me an analysis of a few pieces-- he was the artist-- and the story, and the symbolism, were truly a revelation. He was so charming and lovely and full of life and passion, and I so wished I could have liked his work a little more, because he broke my heart. Maybe 30 years ago I would have taken him home; he's going to be in New York for another week, he wrote on his card, hopefully. But I'm way beyond this kind of sympathy vote. All I now have is my ear, my heart, my eyes, my love of art, my passion to see something that rocks my aesthetic world and compels me to sacrifice food, phone, cosmetics, clothing, as I do, to support the artist.
I left at 6, with the sounds of de-installing and the sour stench of disappointment oppressive. The late afternoon air felt a little better and I had to forego revisiting my sofa for a bus ride, because I really needed to get back to my little haven and remind myself about art and spirit and the smell of old paint. I miss my Nigerian a little, but I can email him, and hope that he never reads my harsh words here, and that he returns to his country and figures out how not to please people with his art and just hunker down and DO it. Because the saddest thing of all is the wasted talent-- the human ability to draw and paint and make things, and the desire to do this, and the undeniable skill and uber-skill which really has nothing to do with art because being an artist is solitary and sad and difficult, and you must resign yourself to be unloved-- maybe hated-- and you must sacrifice and become horrible and smelly. Or not. You can become a Kardashian. I'm sure we'll be buying their paintings before long.