“The Champagne-Tinged” Art Santa Fe Falls Flat
I have been to four busy art fairs in other cities this year – and it manifested a new low that outside the Community Convention Center doors of Art Santa Fe Sunday afternoon, there were fewer than six bicycles parked and about as many stragglers exiting the building. One participating art dealer, Thomas Robertello from Chicago, called the fair “a disaster.” Betsy at the Radius Books booth reported the day “very slow.” Sonja Roesch from Houston, however, said business had been “good” for her.
With the mood running against and dealers begging anonymity when complaining, local art writers appeared not to be showing up either, judging by the untaken press nametags. So much for the hype from the fair website: “The champagne-tinged, high-stakes world of international art fairs provides heady, glamorous fare for serious collectors and scene-seekers alike, but Art Santa Fe ventures one step further.” Yep. Into delusion.
A front-door “performance” involving a woman playing a ukelele underscored the supersize silly factor. As if to suggest contemporary art is occasion for depressive sobriety, an audience numbering around 7 people, sat quietly watching her with glum expressions. She looked down at the floor constantly, consulting her pile of sheet music as she strummed. Don’t think Tiny Tim.
Art Santa Fe is a Charlotte Jackson joint; the art dealer based in the Railyard Art (and business) District has been at this running of the fair for 11 years. Last year coming just on the heels of SoFa West, the fair faced double-trouble: SoFa West’s superior design, which raises the height of the booth walls and installs custom lighting, made Art Santa Fe (which took place several days later) look like the poor country cousin. To boot, last year’s fair exhibitors showed very (very) dubious work. But comradeliness prevailed. Even Linda Durham, who told me at last year’s fair that doing zero business there was a disaster for her (and Durham closed her 33-year-old Santa Fe art gallery in March), praised organizer Jackson’s professionalism.
Heads up. It’s 2011 now. This fair at 11 years old doesn’t need false championing. Charlotte Jackson works hard, yes indeed. But maybe if this fair were less about Charlotte and more about a desire to make of this art fair what other art fairs are able to package – exciting showcases, youthful, vigorous work, rather than boasts about “champagne” and markets - it would live up to some minimum critical standard, not the Santa Fe fallback that holds anything that happens here is good, because we’re here.
Robertello told me, that he considers Santa Fe a “catch-all market,” which is why he had attended this fair for three years. This constitutes feedback. I don’t know about you, readers, but being “catch-all” is not the mirror that I imagine Santa Fe contemporary dealers would like to see held up. It goes without saying Santa Fe has a pronounced sense of exceptionalism: special because we say so. But this fair, 25 exhibitors and a handful of artist “projects” struck me, frankly, as not only mediocre, but dishonest. A bunch of paintings like Amy Sealove’s hung together because they look alike, does not a “project” make. And, Claire Ashley’s work for Eggman & Walrus popping up like orphaned carnival balloons around the convention center; time to call 911-curator.
At Volta this year I was able to see international work of intriguing variety and conceptual depth, along with meeting lots of artists who were traveling the halls talking about what they were seeing and texting about it in the lounge.The Armory Show flouts high gallery life from major art cities, but the galleries put on the dog, they don’t throw a bone. Art Santa Fe is rather like a commercial for a car: slick surface, no engine.
Back in 1980 in a famous (Marxist) essay titled “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression,” Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, of Columbia University and OCTOBER magazine, bemoaned the upsurge in big splashy-surface paintings, as art becoming “luxury products of a fictitious high culture.” It may seem strange in view of what we’ve been through, sea changes still in progress, that Santa Fe is holding so thick and fast to surfaces. We may be thick in luxury products – but if we’ve even had the experience we’ve definitely missed the meaning (to crib Eliot).
Mexican Tsunami (featured image) was to be this fair’s claim to edgy fame: a bright yellow wall, with curved wavy edge, of sandbags by Hugo Garcia Urrutia, for Decorazon in Dallas. It suggested an ocean of pot-bricks, yet with its hygienic surface and one-note conceptualism, felt insipid as weak coffee.
And then there were the booths of the art institutions and related businesses: Museum of New Mexico which showed Anne Noggle photographs; SITE Santa Fe; Radius Books; Bullseye Glass. No problem with their being here, but one did get the sense of the fair floor having been padded to keep the dream (or fiction of the fair) alive.
As to contemporary art here, Santa Fe has lost two fine contemporary dealers who often did pioneer the edgy and exciting – Linda Durham Gallery, and LAUNCH Projects. Robin Rule Gallery of Denver did not return to the fair this year. This happens. Art fairs are a competitive business. To hear Robertello tell it, Chicago alone has four fairs now, with a new one, MDW, which premiered in April, representing a “grungy” fair, to use his word. Leaving the champagne out of the equation, MDW describes itself as ” a gathering of independent art initiatives, spaces, galleries and artist groups from the Chicago metropolitan area.”
One might bear in mind that art vitality these days is often coming from, yes, independent art initiatives and artist groups. I saw quite a few of them in New Orleans. We’re soon to review the Due Return, the Meow Wolf installation here. And I remain (an aside) on the lookout for more signs of new media vitality given the ongoing pressures on print publishers, as measured by how many untaken art magazines also sat out on tables, harbingers of the low foot traffic or lack of interest.
We live in a changing world. But Art Santa Fe has not changed, and its deficits make Santa Fe look remarkably static and out of touch.