Frieze London Remains a Harbinger of Contemporary Art Trends


By: Ben Eastham


Even after three days of immersion in the riot of styles that is the 13th edition of Frieze London, it is difficult to identify a dominant trend or to point confidently to a single emerging new approach in either the practice or presentation of contemporary art—because there are many. This is partly related to the different priorities of the galleries taking part: while some take the opportunity to showcase a number of their most reliably saleable artists, others have given the space over to an artist who is enjoying a new surge (or, in some cases, resurgence) in critical and commercial success. Indeed, one of the most immediately striking aspects of the fair is how many of the galleries have chosen to cleverly engage with the limits of a fair presentation by putting together carefully constructed solo exhibitions or by employing adventurous curatorial strategies.

Among the bolder decisions is Almine Rech´s move to devote the gallery’s booth to paintings from two series by the emerging Chinese artist Xu Qu. Appropriating the watermarks of various paper currencies across the world, his “Currency Wars” paintings suggest a colorful critique of the commercialization of contemporary art within an increasingly globalized economy. Meanwhile, the gleaming, labyrinthine complexity of Xu’s “Maze” paintings (a continuation of the “Currency Wars” series) combines with curiously totemic sculptures to summon the polished inscrutability of digital culture and the abstract nature of commercial transactions.


Similar preoccupations seem to prevail at Stuart Shave/Modern Art´s presentation, which counterpoints Yngve Holen’s post-Photoshop sculptural assemblages (washing machines, serving as pedestals for displayed model airplanes, draped in a glimmering plexiglass) with Mark Flood´s pixelated impersonations of Mark Rothko’s grandest canvases. The playfulness with which these works are elevated, however, raises them above many other rather tortured attempts to develop a “look” that is both appropriate to the internet age and applicable to real—rather than virtual—objects.

The determination to find an aesthetic that enshrines the tropes of immaterial culture—Facebook, Skype, Instagram, etc.—in the resolutely material (and thus sellable) is a recurring feature of this fair. While it’s hardly a new concern, it’s quickly apparent that many major galleries have made a nod to the vogue for anything that might fit the infuriatingly loose “post-internet” moniker (which isn’t to criticize the work typically categorized as such, but rather to object to the category). Among the most successful of these is Paul Chan´s short, two-channel film Teh Cat n Teh Owl (2014) at Greene Naftali, with its reference to the great French filmmaker Chris Marker dressed up in the visual language of virtual communication.   

A more glancing, modest treatment of the means by which the digital revolution has changed the way that we think and act is apparent in Camille Henrot´s solo presentation at kamel mennour, Paris. Henrot has executed a series of large-scale line drawings, blushed with watercolor, depicting a series of elegantly rendered figures enduring the day-to-day embarrassments that blight our lives. Chief among these “minor concerns” are internet pornography and the cringing awkwardness of virtual sex, and this booth (the center of which is dominated by an extraordinary bronze sculpture reminiscent of Henry Moore) reminds us that it is possible to deal with contemporary issues using established techniques without any negative effect on the artist’s credibility. The light pastel colors, elegant lines, and sensitive organization of the work also provides a welcome relief from the blaze of color that is another defining characteristic of this year’s fair. Among the most visually arresting examples of that particular trend are the brightly colored clay bowls by Adrian Villar Rojas on view at Marian Goodman, paired with pastel (more pastel!) paintings by Ettore Spalletti.

Having stolen last year’s show with Mark Wallinger´s brilliantly conceived, cleverly curated reimagining of Sigmund Freud’s study (complete with Christoph Büchel´s Sleeping Guard (2009), surely the most Instagrammed work of Frieze London 2014), Hauser & Wirth burnish their reputation for fair strategies that are both innovative and effective, witty without being insufferable. Their stand this year has been divested of dividing walls and filled with a grid of plinths, each of which supports a domestic-size sculpture by an artist in the gallery’s extensive stable. These small sculptures benefit immediately from being exposed to an open space rather than hemmed in by temporary walls, and it is a great pleasure to meander through the checkerboard of works by Phyllida Barlow, Louise Bourgeois, Martin Creed, Subodh Gupta, Mary Heilmann, Richard Jackson, Takesada Matsutani, and Djordje Ozbolt, among others. The display is successful because it fosters intimate connections between the visitor and each work—no mean feat in the cacophony of an art fair. Recalling the simultaneously precise and motley nature of a wunderkammer, it also plays neatly into another staple of recent artistic and curatorial discussion, the archival impulse.

A more traditional approach at Sprüth Magers is enlivened by clever, illuminating connections between Thomas Scheibitz´s  paintings, an LED light work by Jenny Holzer, and a new site-specific sculpture by Thea Djordjadze. Victoria Miro’s three-person presentation of Conrad Shawcross, Secundino Hernández, and Do Ho Suh also demonstrates that, sometimes, a good booth requires nothing more flashy than the sensitive, sympathetic correlation of a modest number of artists.

Farther out from the bustling center of the fair are some unexpected delights, chief among them Rachel Rose’s extraordinary miniature recreation of Frieze, the contribution of artist Asad Raza to the Frieze Projects, and Samara Scott at Peckham’s The Sunday Painter— perhaps the strangest and most alluring installation at the fair, a shallow trough filled with water, on the curiously stiff epidermis of which float splashes of color, like scum. Beneath the surface is visible, as if fixed in amber, a bizarre concoction of discarded clothing, fabric softener, nail polish, bits of food, sand, rope, rice, noodles, tights, and wine. Sunk into the floor, Lonely Planet is alone in the booth, a puddle into which one might fall. In its miscellaneous composition and its prevailing sense of hysterical contingency is a neat metaphor for Frieze London 2015, brilliantly defined by its diversity of styles.