Essay: Contemporary Art in Britain

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  • Contemporary Art in Britain
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For the average art viewer, the Frieze experience can be exhausting—a dizzying sensory overload. There is too much to take in, frenzies of people pushing past, startling art, and dealers trying to make a quick sale. Frieze exemplifies the grand, international, and money-driven art exhibitions that characterize contemporary art today. For less than a week, anyone who’s anyone in the international art world is crowed into the iconic bright white tent in Regent’s Park. Frieze is one of the leading international art fairs and features over 160 exhibitions. As an art fair, Frieze is as much an industry trade fair as it is a global showroom or even an art circus. The overarching theme of Frieze is centered around consumption and status.

Frieze demonstrates the importance of branding and commercialism for the contemporary art market. Indeed, even the name Frieze connotes a brand. It is recognized as a fair whose branding adds value to the art that it displays. Shows like Frieze are therefore able to be used by dealers as marketing tools to boost the value of their art. In “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark,” Don Thompson describes how many dealers attend renowned art fairs “just to be able to return home and tell their collectors ‘We showed at Miami Basel’” (193). It is a game that must be played to succeed in the art world, and in this game, fairs are essential to the marketing of contemporary art. Iwan Wirth of Hauser & Wirth says, “You’ve got to be smart and make your booth work for a fair where the attention span is so small” (The Independent). For the superstar dealers, the art fair is a trade fair for the international commerce of artists. It is the ultimate place to network for both buyers and sellers alike.

For smaller galleries and artists who are making a name for themselves in the art world, Frieze is one of the most important events of the year. It is a chance for their art to be seen by an immense global audience. It is about showing and being seen. Likewise, for the tens of thousands of people who attend Frieze each year, it is an opportunity to be exposed to new, exciting art from young emerging artists. As such, the value of Frieze also lies in its ability to showcase a massive, diverse amount of work to a truly international audience. Visitors are able to stay abreast of the latest trends in the art world as well as the work of the most distinguished artists of the moment. An example of such a gallery is New York based Jack Shainman’s debut at Frieze. The focus of the gallery has been to “represent artists from around the world, in particular artists from Africa, East Asia, and North America” (Shainman). Two works that stood out in particular to me were Titus Kaphar’s Shifting the Gaze (2017) and Kerry James Marshall’s Unititled (Bathers) (2017). The exhibition was curated to show artists creating a black aesthetic and finding a place for the black experience within a history that is frequently defined by the dominant, privileged white culture.

Titus Kaphar’s Shfting the Gaze (2017) Kerry James Marshall’s Unititled (Bathers) (2017)

Marshall’s piece had already sold prior to being seen by the masses for $845,000 to a private collector (Harris). Interestingly enough, the price of an artwork influences how a work is interpreted.

Thompson compares art fairs to a shopping-mall setting, saying that “collectors become shoppers who acquire impulsively” (187). The dominance of art fairs represents a change in the culture of art buying. This aligns with the trend driving contemporary art today towards consumerism. Art is now big, spectacular, and used to reflect status and wealth—just like clothing, cars, and accessories. It is all about the brand. An expensive brand lets the world know that the owner is wealthy and successful. As Thompson states, “the message is delivered by a Warhol silkscreen on the wall or a Brancusi sculpture in the entrance hall” (15). Frieze is about comfort and consumption—this is apparent from the Deutsche Bank sponsored VIP lounges to BMW courtesy cars.

However, what does the constant demand created by art fairs mean for artists? How much art can artists possibly produce in a short amount of time that is still new and fresh? Augustine of Luhring & Augustine points out that ‘With demand for new work every few months… how much of ‘turn out more this month’ can possibly be first rate?’” (Thompson, 193). The epidemic of art fairs and fair fatigue creates highly stressful environment for artists as well as dealers.

There are many psychological factors at play during Frieze. The phenomenon of herd psychology is always present at fairs such as Frieze. Thompson describes that “reassurance comes from the mimicking behavior of the herd” (187). In the fast-paced, quick sale environment of art fairs, dealers are reassured by sold stickers and sheer number of people interested in a particular piece. The structure and setup of Frieze is organized in blocks from A to E, color-coded, and with various booths separated by white walls. The top dealers such as Gagosian, White Cube, and David Zwirner receive the top spots because they are able to pay a premium price. These galleries are the first to be seen when entering, in section A. In addition, because visitors associate these superstar dealers with value, the art displayed at these booths automatically becomes more desirable. Don Thompson writes that “Frieze best illustrates the divide between art-industry outsiders and insiders (193).” Indeed, this is evident in everything from the fair’s structure, to its early access VIP passes, to the separate and exclusive Frieze Masters “where serious money changes hands” (The Independent).

Fairs such as Frieze have become essential events in the contemporary art world. They are significant settings for the circulation and distribution of art and are an important part in the cycle of selling and collecting. In its entirety, Frieze is also a global showroom and an art circus to the general public. Art fairs are driven by money as well as status and participation is crucial for the reputation of a gallery.

Works Cited

“About the Gallery.” About: JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, www.jackshainman.com/about/.

“Frieze Art Fair 2015: There’s a better chance of bagging a bargain this year.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 7 Oct. 2015, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/frieze-art-fair-returns-to-london-and-theres-a-better-chance-of-bagging-a-bargain-a6685031.html.

Harris, Gareth. “Early sales at Frieze London.” The Art Newspaper, The Art Newspaper, 5 Oct. 2017, theartnewspaper.com/news/early-sales-at-frieze-london.

Thompson, Donald N. The $12 million stuffed shark: the curious economics of contemporary art and auction houses. Aurum, 2012.

Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

Larry Neal describes The Black Arts Movement as the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept” (Neal). The Black Arts Movement is one that evolved in conjunction with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement. Artists of the era responded to the politically-charged times by creating art that reflected its turbulence, all the while striving to embody its emerging nationalism. They asked the questions about what it meant to be black, and what it meant to be black during a time when institutionalized racism was prevalent in every aspect of life. Artists and activists worked to define a black identity and find a place within the dominant white culture. Artists displayed in Soul of A Nation used a variety of media to convey hope, power, anger in response to the racial violence and injustices that crippled black communities.

Faith Ringgold’s Die (1967) is a large oil on canvas that portrays the frenzy of race riots which consumed the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. The abstract style of the piece is “reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937)—the artist’s response to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War” (MoMA). A dying white man is held by a black man on the left side of the painting and on the right, the same white man appears to be shooting a gun. Blood is splattered everywhere and no one is safe—not white, nor black, man or woman, even children are caught in the horrifying battle. The painting evokes feelings of pain, sorrow, and chaos, representing the tense, violent race relations of the time.

Melvin Edwards’ Curtain (for William and Peter) (1969) alludes to the history of slavery and discriminatory incarceration. The enormous barbed wire and chain installation evokes a sense of violence and imprisonment. However, Edwards points out that most slaves were never physically chained—it was too expensive to craft a set of chains for each one (Thrasher). But rather, the chains refer to the other symbolic ways in which slaves were restrained, such as the institutionalized racism that prevented African Americans from gaining equality in American society. Edwards’ powerful engagement with the Civil Rights movement reveals the long and agonizing struggle of African Americans for equality even long before the 1970s.

The term “Black Power” was first coined by Stokely Carmichael, a prominent figure in the Civil Rights era. He led black activists with the goal of black empowerment and African American pride. Larry Neal described the link between Black Art and the Black Power movement, saying that “Black Arts and the Black Power concept both relate broadly to the Afro-American’s desire for self- determination and nationhood.” Indeed, these messages are prevalent in the works of many artists displayed at Soul of a Nation. Artists also engaged with the Black Power movement by creating works that constructed a black aesthetic. Neal expressed that “a main tenet of Black Power is the necessity for Black people to define the world in their own terms.” Black artists expressed themselves by discovering and exploring their racial identity in art and creating their own black aesthetic.

Superman Never Saved any Black People—Bobby Seale (1969) by Barkley Hendricks portrays himself, the black artist, as the subject. Hendricks appropriates American culture by ironically depicting himself in a Superman T-shirt, along with an afro and sunglasses against an aluminum and American flag backdrop. He criticizes the American culture by revealing the satire of a black man in a traditionally white man’s costume. His painting evokes emotions of the power and pride that characterized the Black Power movement, while appropriating American culture by depicting himself as a hero and an icon. He emphasizes his dark skin color and contrasts it with symbols of mainstream America. By doing so, he creates a style of painting that is unique to him and the black community and creates a positive embrace of black culture.

The black aesthetic was also embodied by Roy DeCarava’s black-and-white photographs. DeCarava was a pioneer of his time and is known for relating the black aesthetic and his own racial identity to photography. He uses his photographs as vehicles for self-expression and said that “You should be able to look at me and see my work. You should be able to look at my work and see me” (Tate). His depiction of a dark, sometimes almost entirely black and gray photographs is his own brand of black aesthetic. His purpose was to force people to look closer and slow down in order to really see his photos. DeCarava plays with the contrast between black and white to reveal life’s ordinary moments, day-to-day struggles, and the experience of being black. He connects his art to the jazz scene of Harlem by depicting the powerful music of musicians such as John Coltrane.

Other artists engaged with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements by creating works that address the contemporary and historical events of the time. Many of the works served as memorials for activists who sacrificed their lives in the fight to end segregation. Dana Chandler’s Fred Hampton’s Door 2 (1975) commemorates the death of a young Black Panther activist, Fred Hampton, who was shot in his Chicago apartment in 1969. The color palette of the bright green and red door symbolizes the Pan-African flag. The green door, marred by bullet holes, represents the natural richness of the African continent. The red molding is a symbol of “the blood uniting the African dispora” (Tate). Chandler’s use of the stamp showing “US APPROVED” critiques American morals and treatment of African Americans. It is a strong statement that denounces police brutality during the Civil Rights era.

At first glance, Sam Gilliam’s abstract April 4, (1969) does not seem political. However, on closer inspection, the politically-charged roots of the work become clear, drawing light to the anniversary death of Martin Luther King. Gillam created the large sprawling piece by pouring and splattering acrylic paint onto a canvas, and then experimenting with folding and tying the cloth. By doing so, he created abstract mirror images. The dark purple blotches that soak into the canvas evoke emotions of suffering and mourning. The magisterial color is also representative of Martin Luther King and his vision of an equal world. The red marks might suggest bloodstains and King’s violent assassination. The artists during the turbulent era of the Civil Rights movement responded to these times by creating art that was able to engage and criticize these events, all the while connecting with their self-identity and developing a black aesthetic.

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