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“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.

At Sonja Roesch, Dieter Balzer showed colorful minimalistic-al surfaces. Hm.

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.

Claire Ashley project for Eggman & Walrus

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.

Artist project, Amy Sealove

Amy Sealove artist "project" for Zane-Bennett

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.

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  1. Linda Durham says:

    Thank you. As daring as it is to speak/write truth to those who “cannot handle the truth”, what you wrote had to be written. More than that, it has to be read. And acknowledged. And understood. In candor, I don’t think there was too much Charlotte Jackson could have done to make ART Santa Fe a better fair—not given these uncomfortable, fear-filled, culturally-depleted times in which we exist. So much of the Art World has fallen into a boring trough of disinterest and disarray. The art fair phenomenon (in most places) has lost it’s way, it’s glitter, it’s usefulness. (IMHO) Meaningful and exquisite Art still exists, of course–although I find it harder and harder to discover/uncover. One can find it in many studios, as well as in a few smart art spaces. I think it is incumbent upon those of us who truly care about excellence and authenticity to search for it (exhibit it, write about it, collect it) through the encroaching thicket of all the ersatz stuff that is smothering the territory. And, by the way, there is a decided dearth of real Art dialogue out there. (Wow–the word “art” is even in the word dearth–not just in earth and heart!). Oh, whatever happened to real art dialogue? Who really cares about Truth and Beauty anymore! You do, don’t you? I do. But our thoughts and words are barely being heard–even when we dare to speak them—over the rush and roar of the pseudo-sophisticated and/or supercillious words that dominate the dialogue. There are so many (too many) arrogant and credential-less venues that hype all manner of mediocre expression. The supporters and purveyors are free to call it art whether it is or not. I lament the absence of artistic integrity and intention in the 2011 broad art world and I do not choose to kow-tow to the shallow commercial interests that dominate our culture, our world. I know…I have no right nor any real credentials to be the arbiter of taste. So, forgive me…I’m just sayin’!!!

    Reply
  2. Jeffrey Gillespie says:

    Ouch.

    Reply
  3. Well put. Santa Fe has always ‘perceived’ itself as a major art market (the third largest in the country after LA and NY). Unfortunately for its hype, it is a luxury center with a distinct disdain for ‘internationalism’. The effect causes an inverted self-importance as to the ‘City Different’ influence on the rest of the world. It makes for good posh talk. Most of the dealers there could just as well be selling Birkin bags to the decrepit riche which flood its streets. Alas, that would be crass, and unfamiliar to the town’s marketing; better would be to sell them some self-infatuated hokum, dress it up in trumped ‘art-speak’, and package it narcissistically as ‘different’.

    Reply
  4. Great that you are here, Ellen Berkovitch! Your article plus comments is presenting an authentic
    commentary on the state of this small town’s art scene. I’ve been associated with it since the early 70′s and one factor has given rise to lots of special problems, in my opinion…has been and remains the lack of candid, probing assessment of the art made there in Santa Fe. This lack of and lack of support for genuine criticism has served to create a special kind of superficial ‘persona’ that’s always seemed to be at the ‘heart’ of things in this small burg. So – the comments here today do reinforce the impression that a silent but pervasive conservatism has a significant, if punishing effect on Santa Fe’s creative scene. And now, on top of that, we do have the nation’s funds drying up as we speak. Sooo got to hunker down and savor and figure out what resources we still have. I’m sure that’s what we’re doing here.

    Reply
  5. Ellen’s and Linda’s comments that were provoked by the recent S.Fe Art Fair raise important points.
    As someone that has made a living from my Art for nearly 40 years (including being represented long ago in Santa Fe by Elaine Horwich), I, too, lament the state of the Art World. I’ve enjoyed attending and having my Art exhibited at the once Flag Ship of Art Fairs…the Chicago Navy Pier Art Fair used to be the most popular. The Santa Fe fair has never really been of significance and Santa Fe has certainly lost it’s credibility as an important “Art Market”. I concur with much of what Ellen and Linda have stated via words of “artistic integrity”, “mediocre”, “dishonest”, “culturally depleted times”…
    it was also interesting to hear Linda speak of “beauty” and “exquisite art” as if anyone cared about those things these days. I enjoyed Ellen’s work with Trend magazine and the fight for beautiful architecture and Art. As an artist, neither Ellen, nor Linda ere ever welcoming. I don’t recall either of them ever replying to my emails or notes. Part of the problem with the Santa Fe Art Scene might have to do with some of the internal arts politics lacking integrity. I’ve witnessed some strange dealings on the part of artists and galleries…
    and they were all based on “commercial” motivations. I would say that Charlotte has over the years maintained her aesthetic integrity in terms of championing her minimal artists in a town based on realistic landscapes. I validate her for trying.
    The Press certainly has some responsibility for the general lack of interest in Art by the broad public. Esoteric and philosophical attempts at being interesting by the Press has driven away many. Paradigms have changed and I agree with the new importance of “artists groups” and we have also seen a more “grass roots” interest generated by artists vs. the old gallery system. The Art World seems to have created such and exclusive club that it has separated the larger potential public from the Art World. Money seems to follow attention. What the press gives attention is often money motivated in the end. It would be great to see new vitality in the general support of Artists by the Press, the Galleries, the Museums, and a much broader group of Art Patrons. Most Artists aren’t able to make a living and if they do make a living it is usually sub standard. Most Artists have no “union” or support group and hence no health insurance etc. To this date artists can only deduct the amount of their materials for Art that they donate to non-porofits. Few artists get mention by the Press and fewer yet have their art purchased for museum collections. Art and Artists are not much cared for by our Society…
    so, it’s no surprise that the FAir was poorly attended.

    Reply
  6. John S. Gordon says:

    There’s no doubt that Art Santa Fe was a dull affair, but I have a hard time faulting Charlotte Jackson. With rare exception, the participating galleries chose to bring middling works – intent on recapturing their investments. The net result was about as exciting as a plate of day-old sopapillas. I’m quite sure there were some excellent artists with works at Art Santa Fe, but with everyone hedging their bets, who could tell? Compare this tepid, white-box affair to the fancy, florid folk shindig held concurrently up on Museum Hill and you can see how the ever-clever purveyors of cultural commodities out foxed the no-risk affair downtown. It’s an unfair comparison, I’ll admit. But if we’re going to have a serious contemporary art fair in Santa Fe, we need to find a way for the artists and the risks inherent in their work to be more present. That can’t be Charlotte Jackson’s problem to solve alone.

    Reply
  7. Dear Art Santa Fe,
    please give me greasy, slimy, dirty, grimy, filthy, art that has no frame and no representation. Please find your way back to a hotel or even an abandoned restaurant where there are rusty nails sticking up through the floor boards to poke holes through my shoes into my feet to make me bleed. I want a dirty room filed with worthless art because it makes me feel good and I remember that money sucks and turquoise is for tourists.
    Thank you, -Clayton

    Reply
  8. Steve says:

    Nice article.

    Reply
  9. Zane Fischer says:

    Oh, snap.

    Reply
  10. I just read the Ellen Berkovitch article and I detected an oft-repeated theme; a theme that smacks of political stupidity. What I refer to is the constant “blame game” when something seems to be a failure. As a result we blame the promoter. If that does not get readership, then we skewer the praticipants. Their artwork was not edgy enough; or pretty enough, etc. We participated in the Art Santa Fe event at great personal cost. Many of our neighbors came from halfway around the world. Yes, we are motivated by commercial success. That is, afterall the goal of those of us who love this business, and yes we love our artists and love paying them. So, I guess we do this for money! So, did Picasso.

    So, Art Santa Fe was a failure. Most of the people who participated sold nothing. We sold nothing. You can mark that up to our bringing schlock like Joan Mitchell (in over 50 museums), Joan Brown (over 30 museums), John Grillo (over 30 museums) and Dennis Hare with over 37 museum exhibitions; or you can mark it up to a lack of support for art in Santa Fe. I do not like most of the artwork that I saw on Canyon Road. But, I still support the fact that people get up every day and give their all to support their artists and art in general with their sweat and personal finances. We are not just a bunch of capitalists who decided to take the easy road to promote our lavish lifestyle. We are champions of artwork; something that changes people’s lives. We represent the highest and best achievement that mankind can aspire to.

    So, if the community of Santa Fe cannot get behind this event then perhaps they do not care about art as much as all of the publicity indicates. Maybe the city of Santa Fe (like our sleepy little village of Carmel) should stop lying to itself and admit that they really do not give a damn about art. Perhaps the community (like our own) really does not care about the effort to make and promote “great art”, they just want the taxes it brings and bragging rights to call itself an art community. Perhaps they are telling all of us, Charlotte Jackson included, that art is not an important subject; not important enough to get behind, attend, promote and yes (nasty word here)
    buy enough work to keep some of us coming back.

    Reply
    • A failing art market might be a glimmer of hope for a flourishing art community. When the spotlight is off, artists often make their best work.

      I enjoyed myself hugely at Art Santa Fe. Met new people, great conversations, went to the panel discussion and Weschler’s lecture. Not to mention the parties were a blast! … all on the expense account of the galleries.

      There’s an Id, ego and super-ego to every event, and Ellen wrote about the Id. She hit it right on the head, and the fact is, we need to kill this art fair, at least in its current form. And hopefully Ellen killed it.

      Reply
  11. Adam says:

    WOW! I just read this article and paused. “Isn’t she totally missing the point?” Musings about art, aesthetic, and philosophy have their place but they are more appropriate in the context of a museum, Kunsthalle, or collection than in a conversation about an art fair. An art fair is BUSINESS. And yes, Ellen, an art fair is about art MARKETS. Crude, you say? Perhaps. But let’s face it: The art BUSINESS is what feeds artists. Especially in an era when patronage is long dead, and government support of the arts isn’t what it used to be (and likely to become ever thinner), the art BUSINESS is all the more critical. The art fair – Art Santa Fe or any other art fair – exists principally to sell art. And in that regard, I believe Art Santa Fe was a success. I have personal knowledge of several significant sales (including the art I purchased), and I overheard conversations that certainly sounded like serious negotiations. I know that a number of galleries sold quite a bit of art. Of course there had to have been those that didn’t. There ALWAYS are! (And WOW, Brian Westbrook’s comments are off the charts… OMG, sounds like a sarcastic sour puss. Of course the sour folks are usually the loudest voices.) That’s life. Name a game that doesn’t have winners and losers and I’ll introduce you to the Mad Hatter. We’re all grown-ups (aren’t we? … well, most of us), so let’s see art fairs for what they are, dismiss the cry-baby dealers who complain (better get a Costco-size carton of tissues, Mr. Westbrook), and get on with the business of selling art and feeding artists. (After all, if we don’t feed the artists, there will be no art for the critics to review, no art for dealers to sell, and no art on which museums can produce a retrospective.) So yes, Ellen’s article completely misses the point (but then again, she’s a writer, not a “do-er”). Footnote re the personal attacks on the fair’s director: What was THAT all about? … must be some kinda back story there.

    Reply
  12. martin back says:

    With regards to Linda Durham’s comment, ‘Who cares about Truth and Beauty anymore? You do, don’t you?’ Who says art has to be about truth and beauty? I find this to be an erroneous assumption about the function of art and the role of the artist. I left Santa Fe precisely because of all of this bullshit.

    Reply

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