Feminism at Frieze: A Gendered Perspective on the Art Fair
Frieze New York: Randall’s Island, May 5 to 7, 2017
This year, in its press communications at least, Frieze New York touted a number of galleries showing feminist artists and under-appreciated women of various important movements. This is a newly fashionable area of connoisseurship and does indeed provide an Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth of a major international art fair
Part of the job of the gallery in this context is to educate the collector through convincing presentations of historic, lesser-known artists. In that sense I was happy to see Mary Corse (b. 1945) at Lehman Maupin. Corse was part of the male dominated Light and Space movement in California in the 1960s, and while I would have liked to experience some of those early works, I enjoyed her new freeway inspired paintings incorporating glass microspheres commonly used to brighten highway signs.
Another pioneer of past movements is the fabulous Kiki Kogelnik (1935-1997), an Austrian Pop artist shown by Gallery Simone Subal. She was a sophisticated colorist who made idiosyncratic imagery that sets her apart stylistically from more familiar male Pop Artists like Tom Wesselmann or Roy Lichtenstein. The gallery organized a great exhibition, managing to curate a representative overview of her work within the constraints of an fair space booth. Kogelnik’s yellow wall sculpture Untitled (Breast) (1986), next to an untitled black and yellow India ink drawing from 1965, is one of the sweetest moments in the fair. Nearby, the artist’s large oil and acrylic paintings (Untitled) Figures, 1972 and 1981, have a Vuillard-esque patterning that predicts some of the work being made by artists in New York right now.
I also learned of Yugoslav-born Hungarian performance artist Katalin Ladik, (b.1942) whose work from the 1970s was on display at Espaivisor. She overlaps with artists like Hannah Wilke and Yoko Ono and seeing a small amount of photographic documentation made me want to know more about her.
This year Frieze also offered plenty of booths with well-known women, for whom little introduction is needed.
Stephen Friedman, for instance, offered Huma Baba’s Castle of the Daughter (2016), a female fertility figure made of cork, styrofoam, wood, and paint. The piece has the totemic presence of Kara Walker’s A Subtlety (2014), though, of course, at a smaller scale. As an object it is experiential in that the burnt wood has a scent and the artist uses a surprising mix of disparate materials – all to amazing effect.
Sylvie Fleury at Salon 94 was another high point of the fair, in particular her life-sized Gold Cage PKW. Made of thick brass bars with a small opening just large enough to pass a food tray to an incarcerated human, it’s a frightening little space. It reminded me of recent protest slogans “Free Melania”, and though created in 2003, the reference to the proverbial kept woman is more pertinent than ever.
Also at Salon 94, male photographer Lyle Ashton Harris authored a self-portrait as Billy Holiday in Blue Billie (2003). Though small in size, it is especially powerful because Harris is able to mine the narrative of personal hardship linked to Holiday, while simultaneously enacting a double play on gender. We know Holiday’s familiar face, but Harris’s embodying of her actually deepens our understanding of the singer, because he gets at her pathos by way of empathic interpretation, just as any good actor can.
Lorna Simpson at Hauser & Wirth also employs blue, in a series of paintings made especially for the fair. By appropriating images from her collection of vintage Jet and Ebony magazines, she presents glamour as a failed project. Her painting Black & Ice appropriates the face of a young beauty holding a cocktail with a come-hither expression. It’s a mixed blessing being beautiful and vulnerable, the piece seems to say; the collaged text and painterly blurs of blue and violet get at the truly scary circumstances a young woman faces as an intoxicated sex object.
At Galerie Lelong Nancy Spero’s Sheela-Na-Gig At Home (1996), is an installation of ready-made bras, slips, and panties that hang on parallel clotheslines. Spero mixes realism with mysticism by interspersing small drawings of the goddess Sheela Na Gig among the clothes. This domestic theme in the work of such a well-known practitioner of feminist art in New York as Spero overlaps interestingly with younger English artist Tracy Emin, who has a number of strong pieces at the fair. Her subtle, sewn drawing on canvas at Loran O’Neill Roma is a seductive artwork both in subject (nude beauty in bed) and form. A small wall at White Cube is a place to pause and consider her abortion memorabilia from 1990. A glass case holds the artist’s hospital bracelet, medication, and bandages. Placed next to a related group of watercolors, the piece is confessional and personal, and in that sense it seems an act of generosity to her audience.
Another woman who blends art with life is Susan Cianciolo, at Bridget Donahue. A large group of her collaged works on paper hang salon style on two walls. But these are rather like souvenirs to the artist’s meatier work in fashion production and relational aesthetics and come across as less serious. A taste of her core practice is in the two floor based sculptures that look like grungy work desks and double as pedestals for fabric and bric-a-brac assemblages she calls “kits”. There is a reference to Cianciolo’s daughter Lilac, who may have been playing inside the boxes with the various pieces of clay, foam core, rhinestones, paper cups and other assorted objects. Though I’m not totally comfortable with Cianciolo being categorized as a feminist artist – her work lacks anger, which to me is an essential component of political art – I like that she presents fashion as high art, and I appreciate the radicality of leaving everything so unfinished.