Get out the tube at Regents Park station where I spot a small crowd of what appears to be a smartly-dressed, well-behaved cross-section of citizens from among the upper socio-economic decile of the capital’s ever-widening demographic spread. It seems to me that I’ve stumbled upon an exemplary tranche of that recently identified sociological subset, the so-called metropolitan elite. It looks like they’re out on a day trip and, since they appear to know where they’re going, I decide to tag along, trying to act inconspicuously and hoping that my M&S slacks and jacket don’t make it too obvious that I lack some of the requisite qualifications needed for inclusion within the confines of their narrow sectarian groupuscle. Anyway, the traffic lights change and off we go across the road and into the Park but where are we all headed? Is it a rally to berate the appalling behaviour of the dreadfully misguided Little England Brexiteers; or maybe an al fresco group therapy session that involves exercises in sneering at the less well informed members of the general public; or could it be some form of self-righteous nimbyistic direct action protest?
No, it’s none of the above. This happy band of brothers and sisters, this excited cosmopolitan crowd of young, multi-cultural hipsters and hipstesses, media-savvy dilettantes, boulevardiers, flaneurs and wizened old art buffs are on the annual jaunt to the fabulous Frieze Art Fair. Yes, it’s that time of the year again when the whole of the international art world caravan settles for a few fleeting days in a park in north London, erects a pair of enormous temporary tents and displays its wares for the edification of those who wish to marvel at the latest mysteries emanating from the swirling miasma of the ever-changing cultural firmament.
And I suppose I tend to include myself within that group of people who try to keep up with what’s happening in the artworld and its surroundings although, I confess, some years I manage to resist the hype and hoopla and avoid going to the fair altogether, an act of self-denial made easier by the fact that a full price ticket to the extravaganza is a staggeringly expensive £52! Even with the 25% discount I get for having an Art Fund card, it still cost me nearly £40 which is practically equivalent to my entire winter wardrobe budget. So, is it worth the indignity of suffering that slip in sartorial standards engendered by having to wear last year’s togs once again, in exchange for entertaining the somewhat naive hope of keeping up-to-date with today’s current cultural fashions? Well, there’s no denying that there’s an awful lot of art to see here, with about 140 booths in Frieze London (which covers contemporary and recent Modern Art) and another 120 displays in the Frieze Masters section (which includes everything else, from the art and artefacts of ancient Babylonian and Egyptian civilisations right up to examples of works from among the ranks of the late 20th century A-listers superstar artists). And I guess I must have spent a couple of hours in both of the venues although, on each occasions, the last thirty or so minutes would have been merged into something of a blur as these days, no matter how good or bad the art, it doesn’t take all that long before I find my back begins to ache, my feet start to tire and concentration declines to subliminal levels.
About three-quarters of the galleries in Frieze London come from abroad but such is the nature of the artworld today that the idea of any country having a specific, individual national aesthetic to promote is almost completely absent. And I think it’s fair to say that just about all the galleries here are showing work that broadly fits into the category of what might be described as a sort of soft Conceptual Transglobalism. At least that’s very much the style favoured and promoted by the Frieze organisers who freize out any galleries with artists who are at all interested in using paint as a medium to make figurative representations of actual realistic objects, people or events. Consequently there’s a bit of abstraction, quite a lot of photography and video and a whole lot of collage, bricolage and assemblage; in short, an accumulation of an awful lot of stuff that maybe doesn’t really amount to very much more than a small hill of beans. But rather than have a general moan about the plethora of unexciting duds and duffers that fills so much of the exhibition spaces here perhaps it makes more sense to just be grateful for some of the more successful examples that make all the trudging around just about worthwhile. So, bouquets to Cornelia Parker’s Prison Wall photographic prints from the Frith Street Gallery; Williams Kentridge’s stainless steel portrait reliefs from Lia Rumma; and the Peter Halley geometric abstract from Stuart Shave/Modern Art.
Over at Frieze Masters things are generally a little easier on the eye, although it does require the viewer to keep constantly resetting the chronological goggles in order to try to fully appreciate the charms of cultural artefacts whose origins are separated by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And it’s not at all untypical to find that within the space of a few square metres it’s possible to move between a display of late 20th century Paolozzi sculpted heads (Jonathan Clark); a selection of medieval reliquaries (Sam Fogg); and a fragment from an Egyptian sarcophagus (Sycamore Ancient Art). And again, picking out some of the other highlights that go some way to help justify the exorbitant entrance fee, I’d go for the wonderful selection of Paula Rego paintings at Marlborough Fine Art; the fascinating early Rosenquist collages at Thaddaeus Ropac; and the museum quality Surrealist paintings and curios that make the display at Dickinson’s my overall favourite.
And so on to something altogether different with the announcement a couple of days ago that the prestigious RIBA Stirling prize for the best building of the year has been awarded to the Caruso St John architectural practice for Damian Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery. According to the judges, the building is, amongst other things, ‘bold and confident, irreverent yet sensitive, and exquisitely detailed. Which prompts me to take a look back at a blog I wrote last year to mark the launch of the Gallery…
‘Finally more tube rides to get to Vauxhall and just manage the walk to Newport Street and enter Damian Hirst’s new gallery before the rain starts to descend. What’s the space like? Well, it’s another great big soulless, dispiriting, antiseptic, aircraft hangar warehouse building of the type made popular by the uxorious art dealer Charles Saatchi. Thirty years ago, an audience used to comfortable Cork Street sized galleries found the Saatchi supersize scale exciting and revolutionary but I don’t think it impresses anyone much these days and it would have been so much more interesting and adventurous had Hirst not tried to emulate his mentors and instead come up with something more intimate and considered.
The downside of having a warehouse sized gallery is apparent with the inaugural exhibition of John Hoyland paintings which are just not strong enough to fill the space. It’s not Hoyland’s fault, after all, he was painting them to fill a space like Waddingtons where there size and colour would have been impressive – here they look lost. They also all look remarkably similar as if Hirst again has copied his elders and gone on a bulk buying spree instead of carefully assembling a proper collection by buying the artist’s work over a period of time. Oh well, it’s the curse of having too much money and not enough taste. Let’s hope the next show will be better.’
The next show turned out to be the Jeff Koons mini-retrospective which opened in May this year and was, indeed, better suited to the Gallery although it left me…’as emotionally and intellectually unstirred as a vodka martini’.
And so finally, a bit of good news for all the many subscribers of this blog. I’m pleased to announce that by way of marking the Unvarnished first anniversary – yes, I started all this rambling and ranting way back in October last year – I’ve decided to respond to the desperate appeals of several readers who just can’t keep up with the torrents of periphrastic, logorrhoeal loquaciousness and reduce my output. Henceforth, I’ll be halving production and posting just one blog per week. I do, however, intend to continue using obscure words whenever I can shoehorn them in; write in long sentences which contain multiple clauses, subclauses and parentheses; and generally try to reach a word count for each posting that is far in excess of the recommended limits. And while I’m not sure that I always agree with Blake’s apothegmatic assertion that this road will necessary lead to the palace of wisdom I feel that I may as well give it a try.