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Frieze London: Strangely Beautiful, or Beautifully Strange?

Taka Ishi Gallery's Booth, with canvases by Tadaaki Kuwayama

I always hear mixed reports about Frieze London from my fellow art market professionals. Most enjoy it, some dread it, and a handful live for it. I am never sure before, during or after the fair exactly how I feel, as such a variety of contemporary art in one place can be extremely overwhelming. Galleries bring the best of the best, but oftentimes their ‘best’ is not always the easiest to understand, or the most aesthetically pleasing. Art is, after all, subjective. However, I have attempted to note my favourite booths and artworks, as well as those that I found the most amusing, confusing or obscure, before finally getting to the nitty gritty: the sales.

The Best

Every year the curation of the gallery booths becomes more impressive. It is no longer about a few key pieces neatly hung together, but a carefully curated exhibition that allows your artists to stand out. I always find the solo shows the easiest to navigate, although it is a risk for galleries to bring just one artist and miss the huge sales opportunities fairs of this level can bring.

My standout favourite this year was Kate Macgarry’s show of works by Rana Begum. I am a little biased, being a huge fan of Rana, and having been to visit her in her studio, seeing many of these pieces in the making (what a treat!). But among a sea of political messages, shock tactics and a few attempts at humour, this display concentrating on form, colour and light made me want to jump for joy. Her pieces are simple and paired back: blocks of colour, in perfectly planned forms, are placed touching or within close proximity, in order to explore how they merge and change with light. Simply beautiful.

Paul Heyer and Wanda Koop at Night Gallery

The ‘Focus’ section of Frieze allows younger galleries and artists to flourish, bringing a much-needed dynamism to the fair, and Night Gallery from Los Angeles particularly impressed. At its centre was Paul Heyer’s ‘Model of the Universe(s) with Brooms’ – an installation of charred, seemingly floating brooms, studded with bits of iridescent shells, in a surreal suggestion of the universe. Juxtaposed with Wanda Koop’s ‘Reflect’ series of bright and alluring abstract works, the whole feeling of the booth was almost magical.

Bernie Searle's 'Social Work' presentation by Stevenson Gallery

This year’s invitational section, ‘Social Work’, featured eight female artists whose work emerged in response to social and political issues of the 1980s and ‘90s. The most striking of these was Bernie Searle’s photographic installation highlighting Africa’s fraught history. The artist, from Cape Town, is seen covered in flour, a way in which she highlights issues of race; kneading dough, an intensely gendered undertaking. The imprint of her kneeling on the floor in the centre musters an almost ritualistic feeling.

There were such a large number of incredible works I can’t even begin to explore them all, but here are a few of my favourite individual pieces.

The Most Obscure

Frieze is well-known – and often criticised among more traditional collectors – for its more conceptual works. These tend to be works that, without further information on the artist’s background, circumstances and motivations, can be tricky to understand, and especially in the short timescales that are afforded to a trip around Frieze. This year’s chatter has mainly been around two pieces: Josh Kline’s ‘Unemployed Journalist (Dave)’, and Urs Fischer’s ‘Francesco’. The first refers to Kline’s idea that relentless capitalism and computer automation will make middle class humans obsolete, and he shows this using the latest throw-away / recyclable materials. ‘Francesco’ is more obscure still: a red statue of curator Francesco Bonami, made of wax, stands on top of a half open fridge – in the manner of a classical sculpture on a plinth – staring at his smartphone. But to be finished, the wick of this human candle must be lit, causing the destruction of the artwork.

Without meaning to offend anyone, here are some of the pieces I found most shocking, odd or amusing this year:

The Most Expensive

For all the pomp and ceremony of Frieze, we have to remember that the main aim for dealers is still to sell art. Wednesday’s collectors’ day seemed to be neither as busy nor successful as last year (although David Zwirner’s sell-out first day of 2017 would be hard to beat). However, murmurs around the fair on Sunday were that business picked up over the subsequent days. According to a recent ‘Price Check’ article on Artnet, there were a number of happy galleries around the tent, although it is unclear how accurate this data is (galleries do like to hike prices up when talking to the media!). The most expensive painting sold at Frieze was George Baselitz’s ‘Black Horse’ from Galerie Thaddeus Ropac. A steal at $920,000 (£695,000), this was closely followed by $900,000 (£680,000) for Lisa Yuskavage‘s ‘Couple in Bed’ at David Zwirner. The highest priced sculpture was by Carol Bove on the David Zwirner stand, for $750,000 (£567,000), just ahead of Tatiana Trouvé’s bronze tree trunk installation ‘The Shaman’, at kamel mennour for $746,000 (£564,000). As one of the centrepieces of the fair, it is no wonder this fountain of bronze and marble sold.

Tatiana Trouvé’s ‘The Shaman’, at kamel mennour

And so the fair ends in London for another year, but the hype will remain. There will be talk of successes and failures for weeks to come (once everybody has stopped talking about Banksy, that is), and then it’s time to start getting excited about the inaugural Frieze Los Angeles in February, and Frieze New York in May. And the cycle continues.

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