Frieze Art Fair 2011: Critic’s Choice

Simon Bayliss picks out painting highlights from Frieze Art Fair 2011

The experience of walking around Frieze Art Fair is as intense as visiting a Moroccan street market; but instead of robed street sellers hassling and hollering under varying guises of friendliness, it is the art that beckons and bawls from all directions.

Over 170 of the world’s most exclusive galleries are crammed into a giant marquee where individual booths consider only their own curation- often with bizarre or inappropriate juxtapositions- intent only on showcasing their most saleable pieces and with no concern for possible clashes with neighbouring galleries.  Blockbuster artists are shown next to fresh unknowns in what resembles a hyper-intensified group show left to expand and mutate uncontrollably at the behest of an unruly panel of curators.  The visual noise is deafening!  

I love Frieze Art Fair however, and amongst the chaos I have always had encounters which have resulted in some of my most vivid experiences of viewing paintings. My task this year and for this article was to hone in on five paintings/painters of my choice. Under no preconditions or obligations, I paced around until I found myself lured and grabbed by a painting. I even surprised myself with some of the works that enticed me.  

Stelios Faitakis, Let's Define Intelligence, 2011, mixed media on canvas, 200 x 270 cm, Courtesy The Breeder, Athens

A giant pig’s trotter, stencilled like a Banksy, gestures from a billboard as if governing the troubled scene below. A toiling slave-worker glances back reproachfully at the hand of his god through a gold byzantine halo of martyrdom, whilst women behind the wall warm their hands over a barrel of burning children.

An obvious influence from Byzantine icon painting (particularly Creetian according to press sources) dominates the arresting apocalyptic street scene in my first choice. The characters in Stelios Fatakis’ Let’s Define Intelligence are flatly and immaculately painted as if produced by woodcut. They engage in surreal but seemingly unrelated activities similar to the slightly stilted allegorical scenarios found in the work of Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  No eye contact is made between subjects in the painting- everyone seems to be consumed by their own anguish or torpor, whilst all around them sperm-shaped fire balls spit down from the sun. 

A great list of influences is evident in Fatakis’ work- German neo-expressionist Jorg Immendorff springs to mind- there are also hints of Leger and Islamic patterns, as well Diego Rivera in terms of ambition. A mural of Fatakis’ covered the entire façade of the Danish Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale curated as part of a collection of artists from ten countries raising issues around the subject of freedom of speech.  Fatakis is Greek, and the narrative within this mural began with the story of a journalist whose photographs of a violent clash between police and protesters at the 2008 riots in Athens where subsequently censored.

Although the narrative in Let’s Define Intelligence is unclear, the work is nevertheless insistently arresting. I was struck perhaps at first by its warm and welcoming earthy hues, and this led me to question its defiant anachronism and its mysterious political narrative.  As well as being exquisitely painted and informed both by current politics and a bundle of historical references, this work delivers a punch unlike any contemporary painting concerned only by art for art’s sake.

Aaron Young, Untitled, 2011, Acrylic, burnt rubber and motor oil on aluminium, 244 x 366 cm, Courtesy Almine Rech Gallery

Stand close to Aaron Young’s Untitled and you will realise you are not merely witnessing an abstract expressionist throw-back made 50 years too late on the teleological time-line; the Brice Marden-esque loops are not painted by the hand of the artist, but are the remnants of burnt rubber- tyre marks left by motorbikes wheel-spinning across its surface. This piece I’m informed was made privately in a studio, as opposed to the making of Greeting Card 10a, which was created in 2007 during a grand spotlit performance using a team of choreographed riders. The panels from this event, which I had previously seen at a Saatchi show, had similar swirling track-marks made by the equivalent of a giant eraser, which had rubbed through a layer of black, revealing luminous orange and pink underneath. Untitled is a more recent version made on aluminium and is altogether more refined and beautiful. “A Young you could have on your wall more comfortably”, the gallerist commented.  A subtle juxtaposition is noticeable between the sandy-textured surface and the scuffed-smooth loops. The dense-black tyre-tracks are more prominent in this version- in this case the motorbikes have been used to add marks rather than erase. 

The most obvious comment made by Young’s series is the reinvention of action painting (the title Greeting Card comes from a 1944 Jackson Pollock painting) and the continuation of abstraction through conceptual means long after the end-game conclusions of formalism. Here we are looking at painting in a broader sense- its definition and boundaries continually expanding as artists find new ways to continue the practice.

For me the stark evidence of its making is the most intriguing part about Untitled; the romantic and rebellious gesture of replacing the paintbrush with a motorbike. You only have to watch one of the YouTube clips from the making of Greeting Card 10a to get an idea to the noise, smoke and petrol power that went into this more recent version. Stand close to the real-thing and you can even smell the burnt rubber. 

Installation view of Judith Bernstein’s Solo show, featuring War Gunk, 2011, florescent acrylic and oil on canvas, 244 x 244 cm, and, Birth of the Universe, 2011, florescent acrylic and oil on canvas, 244 x 244 cm, Courtesy The Box LA

Further on in Frieze Frame, a section dedicated to solo shows, I came up against two large unstretched canvasses tacked to the wall, which were so bright, crude and confrontational, both visually and in content that I found it impossible not to be completely captivated by them. I was simultaneously repelled, compelled, intrigued and intimidated by the giant phallus spurting it’s ‘war gunk’ across the face of a screaming female figure with male genitallia for eyes and a smiling face in place of her own genitals. Scrawled over the monstrous penis is a terrifyingly angry and explicit decree ordering the evacuation (of troops) from Afghanistan and other occupied countries.

Although easily dismissible as an offensive and unintelligible rant, I was convinced by the raw power of this image, immediate and unlaboured, seemingly made with little or no concern for academic painterly values, and I began to think about the message depicted.  Perhaps it was channelled by the artist from the collective emotional consciousness of the liberal west, symbolised in archetypal form as the screaming female figure. This is a guttural reaction to the events and government decisions we have had no control over, yet have dominated our news broadcasts for more than a decade. Whatever Bernstein’s motivation for making this piece, it certainly woke me up with a jolt the moment I came into contact with it; a reaction I’m sure she would favour. 

Bernstein is currently experiencing a resurgence after her career waned in the mid-seventies after Horizontal, a monumental charcoal drawing depicting a hairy screw, caused a scandal and was removed from a high-profile group show of American female artists. It was quoted as having ‘no redeeming social value’ by the Philadelphia Daily News- a term frequently applied to pornography. For others however, it was an empowering presence addressing the aggressive nature of men- exhibited at the climax of political conflict in Vietnam.  

Meeting the artist was the highlight of my day. At nearly 70, Bernstein is full of energy and enthusiasm. With upfront familiarity and charm she talked me through her second painting, a work based on Gustave Courbet’s infamously explicit ‘L’Origine du Monde’ depicting two flaming vaginal faces, one wearing a crown above a female body, all surrounded by a starry sky. The atom and black hole symbols, the artist informed me, which blare out from inside both openings suggest the origin and renewal of life itself on a cosmic level. Brought to mind was the Venus of Wllendorf– the famous pre-historic figurine, interpreted as a fertility symbol, which has no face, just enormous breasts and vulva. Bernstein’s painting is a contemporary fertility image questioning its own moral purpose with challenging intensity.  Alongside the aggression is bonkers cartoon-like humour, not unlike that found in the work of Carroll Dunham or even Philip Guston. The personifying and iconising of reproductive organs may sound puerile but it is what humans have been doing since prehistory.   

For me Bernstein’s paintings were immensely refreshing when the majority of other galleries at the fair were playing safe, apparently amid the fear caused by renewed economic turmoil- her work is challenging, both aggressive and funny, and essentially topical. Not for everyone’s constitution however, at the very least it is ‘bad’ art at its very best.  

My next choice may seem a little obvious or backwards, considering the amount of brand-new and cutting edge art available to mention. But Chuck Close’s Joel, painted in 1993, was arguably one of the most arresting works at the fair.

The painting is of Close’s friend and fellow Pace Gallery artist, sculptor Joel Shapiro. His focused stare beamed across a large open public space in the marquee pulling countless sets of eyes toward his immense presence. When I walked right up to the painting in order to contemplate the small abstract squares which make up the image, I found myself surprised at how mundane they seemed. The shapes painted in shades of greys and dull blues were consistently produced by steadily dragging a one inch brush across the surface. There is no evidence of painterly flare, nor mechanical precision- just very ordinary and pragmatic mark-making; an appearance which must consequentially be linked to Close’s disabilities- he was paralysed from the neck down in 1989 and now paints using a hand brace.   

Close famously described building his paintings by putting little marks together- ‘some look like hot dogs, some like doughnuts’. The squares containing these shapes which make up the image have all kinds of connotations. Apart from being miniature abstract paintings in themselves, they suggest pixels (although apparently not the artist’s intention) as well as stimulate all kinds of meditations on the building blocks of life: cells, atoms and so on. Although the pattern of making is mechanical, these ‘cells’ are all subtly different and organically formed.

I find it most fascinating that a face with a very human aura, in a painting with monolithic authority is made up of continuous small experiments in formal abstraction.  On first reflection it may seem that Close was primarily motivated by the politics of aesthetics  at the time when formalism was drawing its conclusions and artists and critics were declaring the end of painting- he has proved that painting was still possible through figuration by using the expended language of abstraction. But as well as accounting for Close’s physical restrictions which limit him to working on small areas of a painting at a time, the artist suffers from Prosopagnosia (face blindness) and has revealed that he is compelled to make portraits as a way to help him remember important people in his life. Close’s practice is therefore a pragmatic solution to highly significant circumstances.  Joel is far from just a functional painting however; there is alchemy in the transformation from abstract ‘doughnuts’ to formidable human presence, and I am certain the catalyst is within the paint itself. 

Amikam Toren, Armchair Painting - Untitled (inner beauty), 2008, Oil on canvas, 71.5 x 61.5 x 5 (framed), Copyright the Artist, Courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London

There has been a theme linking my previous choices- this maybe partly due (unintentionally) to my fondness for big, expressive art, but also because of their loud persuasion in a crowded environment. The final painting is altogether much smaller, quieter and perhaps more complex, although it has an immediate and unsettling violence of its own. 

Amikam Toren has been making his on-going series of armchair paintings since 1989. The exercise of a  simple concept; the artist lives with a picture he buys at a cheap second hand shop until a suitable phrase springs to mind, which he then carefully cuts it out of the canvas using stencilled lettering- often obscuring the apex of the image. The title of the series is an ironic reference to a quote from Matisse’s Notes of a Painter in which the artist confesses to a quest to make paintings for the everyday person; ‘devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, [which have] a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.’ Out of its historical context this message is easily misunderstood as an endorsement for leisure painters to make conservative and insipid drivel. We have to remember however that Matisse wrote this weary sounding note in 1908, at a time when he was ridiculed and despised by the Parisian art establishment for being too radical.

An antagonist for most contemporary artists is the domestic painter, accompanied by those who subscribe to the self-assured or ill-informed notion that real art exists only within three genres in painting- portraiture, landscape and still life. Toren takes images within this territory and disrupts them with bold, witty or offensive slogans which in some way reflect the image with an ironic ode- unlike the paintings of Ed Ruscha whose phrases and imagery are seemingly unrelated.  

Although simply produced, the Armchair Paintings suggest a web of references within the history of modern art as well as more immediate allusions to everyday advertising and stencilled graffiti or signwriting. Toren’s works begin as Duchampian ‘ready-mades’- the question of ownership made more complex due to the original ‘artistic’ nature of the prop- although this isn’t the first time an artist has exhibited someone else’s paintings. The picture plane is then broken through, adding a new dimension, like Lucio Fontana’s penetrating slashes. But whereas Fontana’s Spatial Concept paintings were informed by now archaic metaphysical ideals subjugating creativity, space and time, Toren’s ‘penetrations’ are mostly irreverent, giving freedom to the poetic relationship between the two artistic modes.

Supposedly a critique of the banal and a damning of regressive forms of representation, I’m uncertain however, whether the caustic wit reportedly inherent in the armchair series is present in Inner Beauty. I have no shame in admitting that I spent quite a while studying the (possibly Italian) impressionist street scene- for me it was one of the better painted works at the fair. I enjoyed indulging in the bold impasto, it felt like a work made in earnest, a hard-won image- not an off-the-rack item of tourist kitsch, nor a naïve or complacent outpouring.  If I had felt Toren had dominated and undermined the work of a ‘lesser’ artist, I may not have passed the time.  But for me, the modes of both artists seem to be working in equal collaboration; bridging the gap between the perceptual and conceptual, low and high, old and new.

Almost all painting at Frieze art fair resides firmly in the hyper-theorised heights of the cutting-edge, and there is a huge variety and an enormous amount on display. For my part, this year’s fair was another eye-opening experience- I simply wandered around following my intuition and allowing the work to provoke and seduce. I am sure there were many quiet but brilliant pieces that I passed by, although that I’m sure is due to the over-stimulating nature of the event. All around wall art is fighting for attention- it’s hard to know where to look. But if you can cope with the chaos there are finds for everyone at Frieze, you just have to seek them out.  

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Simon Bayliss is an artist based in Devon and Dorset. He studied painting in England, Czech Republic and Ireland and his work is exhibited and collected internationally.