For the most part, the artworks at this year’s Houston Fine Art Fair were not particularly different than in previous years. Indeed, more than a few leftovers from the 2013 HFAF reappeared. Despite exhibiting galleries coming from countries as divergent as South Korea and Holland, one could not help but be underwhelmed by the lack of diversity of tastes or imagination. The artworks on display were, on the whole, gimmicky, slick, superficially pop, decorative, shallow and utterly banal. To invoke the pejorative “derivative” in this instance would be a gross understatement. There was hardly an original idea, a provocative thought or a sincere sentiment to be found at what largely amounted to a third rate Kitsch Fest.
That being said, there were a few specimens of high quality artworks that emerged from the tsunami of schmaltz backwashing up the Houston ship channel.
On display were several splendid examples of the Optical Art of renowned Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz Diez.
The drawings, prints and paintings produced by Mexican artists exhibited by Houston’s Redbud Gallery were among the strongest art to be found anywhere at this year’s fair and featured impressive works on paper by Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Francisco Toledo, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, David Alfaro Siquieros, Lynette Saldana McDonald and Leonora Carrington. Among the most exciting artworks were the exuberantly expressive lithographs by Luis Jimenez.
The were a few notable works by the old guard Modernists on display including several significant paintings by Neil Williams from his 1965 Paris Series. Among other artworks in this idiom were a monotype and an acrylic on paper by Helen Frankenthaler, although frankly, these were not amongst her most successful efforts.
Perhaps the finest of the deceased Modernists’ works exhibited was shown by Houston’s Parkerson Gallery and was an impressive painting by Charmion Von Weigand entitled Region of Unstructured Sound in which the artist’s influences from Der Style and her time spent with Mondrian were clearly evident in her design and execution of the painting as well as her preoccupation with metaphysics and synesthesia.
For an art fair that purported to represent a globalist perspective, there was an almost oppressive Eurocentric aesthetic apparent even amongst a majority of the plethora of Asian artists represented. Evidently, regardless of one’s country of origin, it is currently all the rage to appropriate Damien Hirst’s Spots into the background of any pseudo-Pop pastiche a derivative schlock slinger seeks to proffer. Unless you personally slept with Norma Jean, then for the love of Pete, no more images of Marylyn please! Norma’s dead and so is Andy, just let them rest for awhile.
A notable exception to this 1980’s Eurotrash/Ameripop morbid nostalgic tendency came from the Australian artist Peter Mbitjana Palmer whose brilliant painting entitled Yaika (Blue Onion Dreaming) is an exquisite example of an artist drawing on Aboriginal metaphysical and pictorial traditions to create a strikingly contemporary artwork that remains authentic in its invocation of an indigenous aesthetic over 50,000 years in the making. This was one of the finest contemporary Aboriginal dot paintings that I have seen on display anywhere in North America in many years.
The painted bronze figurative sculptures of Daniele Matalon were striking for not only their verisimilitude but their unapologetic candor. Eva Hild’s stoneware sculpture entitled Stratum was lyrically composed and impressive for its technical mastery of the medium. The sculptural works of Gyorgy Gaspar and Peter Borkovics were beautifully designed and demonstrated these sculptors’ brilliance as contemporary masters of the glass maker’s art. Randall Mooers’ Papaya still life and Danny Heller’s automotive portrait entitled, DeSoto On Street, were both fine examples of the reemergence of skillful Neo-Realism.
Warwick Wilson Art showed David Lingare’s exquisitely painted image that elegantly combined the formats of still life with seascape in an architectonic setting. Lingare’s articulation of light and shadow lent a quiet drama to the Zen-like contemplation the subject seemed to viscerally invoke. Yet despite the painting’s laconic quality, one cannot help but wonder about the artist’s more subtle narrative and the possible implication of his depiction of a natural sponge resting atop a potentially ominous fascio. What first strikes the viewer as a viscerally benign image, upon further contemplation, tends to imply a more menacing, if subtle, social and political commentary.
But for me, the highlight of the Houston Fine Arts Fair was the discovery of the painter Jorge Santos exhibited by the Evan Lurie Gallery. Santos’ large canvas, entitled Sunday Afternoon, allowed him to invoke the Grande Jatte as well as the convention of the leisurely beach scape in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek manner. His less than idealized figures create a humorous visual contrast with the superfluity of naval and aeronautical architecture on display. The artist mischievously peeks out from the lower right hand corner of the frame in this indulgently playful work. The painting doesn’t take itself too seriously but its nostalgia and sentimentality are forgivable for their sincerity and for the virtuosity with which they are rendered.
Jorge Santos’ other tour de force was his painting entitled Love Birds, in which a contemporary young Narcissus gazes into a pond to commune with a Koi. The young lover in the foreground is grasping romantic correspondence while behind him a winged nude female crouches over the love letters she has authored. Behind her, another nude cherub swings from a tree in the direction of a romantic missive flying just out of her reach but evidently bearing the imprint of her lipstick. The enigmatic ménage is set in an immaculately rendered pastoral landscape. In this work, Santos implies a mythical reference that may be entirely idiosyncratic and imaginary. The narrative offers clues but leaves much to the imagination of the viewer offering as much ambiguity as clarity in its available meaning. Santos’ painting reflects recent trends in Neorealism in which ambiguous references to mythology or history are offered in contemporary contexts in which they conceal as much meaning as they reveal. The paintings tend to imply a hermetic quality but the viewer is never really certain if they have sufficient information to confidently derive the intended narrative reference.
It is almost obligatory to lambast the ostentatious display of mediocrity that was featured at the Houston Fine Art Fair last week. One cannot help but be appalled at the shameless commercialism that currently passes for aesthetics. Indeed, the vast majority of work on display in Houston’s NRG Center was obviously, and evidently unapologetically, just so much tacky “product.” Hence, I have declined to offer it any more undeserved exposure in this review.
But even amongst all the decorative pomposity there were moments when artistic integrity rose to the forefront. Unfortunately, at least half of those moments were produced by artists who were either deceased or well-advanced in years. There does indeed seem to be a crisis of creativity, at least for the vast majority of the global mid-career artists who found themselves exhibited in this relatively mediocre venue.
Nevertheless, there is evidently an emerging movement of representational painters whose works are now standing well above the undeniably noxious sludge currently spilling throughout the majority of the contemporary art market. These Neo-Realist artworks are unmistakably contemporary in tone and outlook despite their unapologetic homage to 19th Century craft. Many of these Neo-Representationalist paintings and sculptures are refreshing and intriguing as well as psychologically and epistemologically complex. There is intrinsic delight available for the viewer despite these emerging artists’ proclivities for esotericism and enigma.
After the last few decades, one should not be surprised if most of what one finds at a fine art fair anywhere in the world, let alone in Houston, leaves you more than a little put off your appetite. But once you get over the initial nausea, one would do well to remember that great art has always been relatively rare and that sometimes the greatest beauty blooms from what is euphemistically called “fertilizer.”
Forget what the decorators and art advisors tell you. Ignore the pretentious rhetoric rationalizing the derivative ideas passing for justification of unimaginative unskilled art. When one is confronted by the tidal wave of excretory effluent that is typically encountered at a contemporary fine art fair, simply clear your mind, pull up your waders and just perambulate until you stumble upon the rare artworks that demonstrate sincerity, integrity, profundity, innovation, craft and just enough enigma to keep you coming back to discover their revelations for years to come. Those artworks are still being made as beautifully and artfully as ever. They are not old fashioned or anachronistic but reflect the transcendent qualities of the human condition as filtered through the priorities of our current cultural context. You will know them when you see them and they will sing to you in a siren’s song that is impossible to ignore. If you manage to keep your lunch down and your eyes peeled long enough, you just might find them in the most unlikely of places, including the 2014 Houston Fine Art Fair.