Spring Art Fair Highlights: Scope Art Fair

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the ADAA Art Show, the Armory Show, and Spring/Break.

Scope Art Fair

I can be a nerd for art theory. The most common of these philosophical head-scratchers is the question of whether there is good art or bad art. Who are the arbiters of taste? That is, who decides what art is good, and what is bad? Isn’t beauty in the eyes of the beholder, one might ask?

Here are my short answers: yes, there’s good art and bad art. The people who decide what’s good and bad are the experts. What makes them experts? They spend a lot of time studying that thing. This goes for a variety of fields: I can’t tell the difference between a real 1961 250 GT California Ferrari and the fiberglass prop they used in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but I bet Jerry Seinfeld can. Ergo, those with limited exposure to art may not appreciate the difference between a splashy abstract giclée painting sold at Ikea, vs. a genuine mid-century abstract painting from an avant-gardist of the New York School.

But in the end, that is OK. Because art should be accessible—both intellectually and financially. A broad range from the decorative copyists up to the museum-quality masterpieces means there is always something for everyone. And art experts should do well to remember that, because we have a reputation for being—what’s the word?—ah yes, pretentious and elitist assholes. As an art advisor, I love educating clients, and getting them excited about good art (so yes, I think taste can be learned through exposure). But ultimately, if they’re unconvinced, I’d rather see a Thomas Kinkade on their wall than nothing at all.

That’s all to say that, in this expert’s opinion, much of the offerings at Scope Art Fair this year were schlock. A fair amount of work struck me as ornamental, without much to say. In our era of social media, there has been a rise in Instagram art—works that reproduce well on your 2 x 4-inch screen, but don’t have much substance behind them. But hey, if that’s what works for you, that’s OK. To borrow from the lexicon of addiction, Scope is like a “gateway” art fair; it’s a novice’s dosage of art to which you will eventually develop an immunity. And that’s when you’ll be ready to pack your bowl with a Spring/Break or an Armory show. And if we continue with the extended metaphor, as an art advisor, I want to get everyone high! So I’d rather the Scope audience get excited about this art than be bewildered by the more experimental fare at Spring/Break and write off the arts altogether.

That said, there were some diamonds in the rough (or buds in the oregano? Nope, I’m done with drug metaphors). Below is a tasting. Bon appétit!

Serwan Baran‘s solo presentation at XOL Gallery’s booth was the cream of the crop at Scope. Baran will be representing Iraq at the 2019 Venice Biennale.

Serwan Baran Hounds of War
Serwan Baran, Hounds of War, 2017, acrylic on canvas. XOL Gallery, Baltimore and Amman. Photo by Emily Casden.
Serwan Baran Fifth Column
Serwan Baran, Fifth Column, 2019, acrylic on canvas. XOL Gallery, Baltimore and Amman. Photo by Emily Casden.

Fifth generation quilter Phyllis Stephens updates the African-American tradition of quilt-making with fresh but nostalgic urban subject matter.

Phyllis Stephens Back in the Days
Phyllis Stephens, Back in the Days, 2019, quilt with sustainable fabric, Richard Beavers Gallery, Brooklyn. Photo by Emily Casden.

Dutch artist Hans van Bentem revives glass and porcelain traditions from around the world, merging pop and antique imagery into imaginative new creations. The pieces are interchangeable, allowing for an ever-interactive and evolving sculpture.

Hans van Bentem sculptures
Hans van Bentem, Group of sculptures with interchangeable pieces, 2019, porcelain. NL=US Gallery, Rotterdam. Photo by Emily Casden.
Hans van Bentem Rocket 2019
Hans van Bentem, Rocket, 2019, in the style of Chinese celadon porcelain NL=US Gallery, Rotterdam. Photo by Emily Casden.

Mike Stilkey‘s clever repurposing of unwanted books creates artworks that interact dynamically with our lived space. According to his gallerist, Stilkey has become a favorite commissioned artist for libraries.

Mike Stilkey Suds in Your Eyes
Mike Stilkey, Suds in Your Eyes, 2019, acrylic on repurposed books. bG Gallery, Santa Monica. Photo by Emily Casden.

Trevor Guthrie‘s beautiful charcoal drawings hint at eerie and unsettling narratives.

Trevor-Guthrie-Wald-Taxi.-Drawing-95x65cm.-a-space-gallery
Trevor Guthrie, Wald Taxi, 2017, charcoal on paper. a-space gallery, Basel. Photo courtesy of the artist/a-space gallery.
Trevor Guthrie Crash III
Trevor Guthrie, Crash III, 2017, charcoal on paper. a-space gallery, Basel. Photo by Emily Casden.

For me, the thing that saves Laurence de Valmy‘s Impressionist Instagram works from being gimmicky is the real art historical dialogue happening in the comments.

Laurence de Valmy instagram paintings
Laurence de Valmy, Marys Joins the Impressionists, and Edgar’s Resting Dancer, 2019, acrylics on canvas. Kahn Gallery, London. Photo by Emily Casden.

Very impressive photorealistic snapshots of New York life by Yigal Ozeri. Hard to believe it’s painted.

Yigal Ozeri New York Story
Yigal Ozeri, Untitled: A New York Story, 2019, oil on paper mounted on wood. Rutger Brandt Gallery, Amsterdam. Photo by Emily Casden.

Fair-goers had a great time trying on Sarah Sitkin‘s highly realistic body suits. It was remarkable how transformative it was to those who tried on a suit, but the pieces also remind us that our sense of self is not defined by our skin.

Sarah Sitkin Body Suits
Sarah Sitkin, Body Suits, 2018. Superchief Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo by Emily Casden.

According to Laura Jane Petelko‘s website, her series “Soft Stories” was inspired by retreats in the Canadian wilderness for the “furries” subculture. With artist and designer Sara Wood providing the costumes, Petelko’s images convey a longing for connection and intimacy in a bleak and indifferent landscape.

Laura Jane Petelko Soft Series
Laura Jane Petelko, The First Time You Were in My Dream, from the Soft Series, 2018. Contemporary Art Projects, USA, Miami. Photo by Emily Casden

Spring Art Fair Highlights: Spring/Break

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the ADAA Art Show, the Armory Show, and Scope.

Spring/Break

For most people “spring break” might conjure images of drunk frat boys and sorority girls at Daytona Beach, but for the art world it is one of the fresher and more experimental art fairs you’ll experience during Armory week. The talent tends to be more emergent to mid-career, with all its positive and negative connotations: some works still have the undercooked whiff of a recent MFA degree, but many also show greater ingenuity than some of the commercial crap you’ll find at the grander fairs. The best part of Spring/Break, though, is that many artists are onsite to discuss the work, which is my absolute favorite thing to do. And to boot, the art of emerging artists tends to be very affordable! So many wins all around. (Note that unfortunately, I did not have time to get through the whole fair—especially when I stop to talk to each artist for a half an hour—so there is surely more great work that I don’t cover below.)

Meng Okubo installation shot
Lulu Meng and Naomi Okubo, Real Fairy Tale, installation shot at Spring/Break art show. Photo by Samuel Morgan Photography, courtesy of Lulu Meng.

The theme of this year’s fair was Fact and Fiction. In the case of Lulu Meng and Naomi Okubo, they explored the fantasies and falsities of fairytales in a joint installation of their respective work. In Meng’s work, dome-shaped cases have two-way mirrors, which, when a migrating interior light switches on, reveal an image inside each case. The images within allude to fairytale narratives, but the fragmented display disrupts the narrative, and draws attention to the imperfection of memory (the series of little display pods and wires itself mimics brain cells). Hanging from the ceiling, Okubo’s double-sided paintings feature the artist in classic fairytale stories, with mirrors on the reverse side bearing quotes. But these enchanted fables are not what they seem: the paintings have sinister overtones, and the quotes on the back are unsettling variants of fairytale excerpts (Mirror mirror on the wall, please tell me who I am…). As I discussed with Lulu, both artists feel—and I wholeheartedly agree—that fairytale narratives disenfranchise and delude girls, compromising our identities well into womanhood.

Emily Casden - Lulu Weng install
Me (Emily Casden), viewing one of Lulu Meng’s sculptures for her “Fairy Tale” installation at Spring/Break. Photo courtesy of Lulu Meng.
Naomi Okubo Fairy Tale
Naomi Okubo, from the series “Fairy Tale,” painting on canvas. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Naomi Okubo.
Naomi Okubo Fairy Tale Mirror Mirror
Naomi Okubo, from the Series “Fairy Tale,” etched mirror (on reverse of painting). Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Naomi Okubo.

Another delightful installation was the room curated by artists Jennifer McCoy, Kevin McCoy and Jennifer Dalton. The “TV Guide” theme of the room was somewhat tenuous for some works, but the living room arrangement was curated with choice art nonetheless. The crowd pleaser of the room was Dalton’s Hello, I’m (2015), a series of ten sticker dispensers, bestowing visitors with various custom-made phrases to match their mood, such as “wearing the wrong shoes,” “enjoying proximity to wealth,” and the one I chose—”in my element”! I enjoyed a lovely conversation with Jennifer McCoy about the glass sculptures she constructs with her husband Kevin, casting glass from broken shards of fancy stemware and crystal. The sculptures could be read as either the detritus of a wild, decadent party, or they can be interpreted more darkly, as artifacts of an as-yet-to-happen sociopolitical revolution. I can’t but help to see the latter.

Jennifer Dalton Hello I'm
Jennifer Dalton, Hello, I’m, 2015, custom-printed stickers and stickers dispensers. Detail image below. Photos by Emily Casden, courtesy of Jennifer Dalton.

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McCoy - Adeline 2016
Jennifer & Kevin McCoy, Adeline, from the Broker Glass Series, 2016, cast glass. Installation shot from a previous exhibition. Photo courtesy of Jennifer & Kevin McCoy.

I had an interesting conversation with artist Melissa Maddonni Haims about her knit-wrapped trophies. Melissa has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a disorder that she feels is not adequately discussed in our society. With her two-sided trophy sculptures, Haims celebrates our complex psychology, embracing the idea that anyone can hit highs and lows and come out the other side. The front side of the yellow trophy awards the owner as “super sunshiney”; when the top ornament is showing you her rear, the trophy is for “most miserable.” The sculptures are very affordable–and she takes commissions!

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I spoke with artist Chris Cohen about his highly personal work, exploring the fact and fiction of family narratives, history and memory. Working from his own family albums, the artist remakes portraits and candid shots of relatives to mine his own fraught relationship to his highly religious family. Aptly titled “White Noise,” curator John Ros installed the work in an intimate living room setting.

Chris Cohen installation
Chris Cohen, White Noise, partial view of Spring/Break installation. Photo by Joanna Gmuender, courtesy of Chris Cohen.

The last piece I’ll address at length is an ambitious and beautiful project by Irish artist and animator David O’Reilly. When I looked up O’Reilly, I learned that he has an expansive studio practice that covers works in the entertainment industry, music industry, television and gaming (the most recognizable project to me was that O’Reilly created the animation sequences in Spike Jonze’s Her, with that little punky marshmallow puff). For Spring/Break, curator Yve Yang showed a trailer for O’Reilly’s Everything, a “video game” that isn’t really played so much as lived and experienced. In the ultimate effort to bestow and spread concepts of cosmic empathy, in Everything you can literally be anything: a speck of pollen, a lion, a plant, a universe. You can create universes within universes. In our era of tribal politics, ravaged Mother Nature, and all around dark times, the karmic message at the heart of this game/art is deeply moving. Suffice it to say it’s better to experience the trailer than have me explain it to you (click image below). In fact, you can buy it or download for your computer or Nintendo Switch for the low cost of $15! Worth every penny.

Everything_KeyArt
Click the image to be redirected to a 10 minute “trailer” for the “Everything” game by David O’Reilly.

Below are a few other works I enjoyed from the fair.

Yelena Yemchuk Lady in the Lake
Yelena Yemchuk, The Lady in the Lake. Room curated by Sara Vanderbeek. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Yelena Yemchuk.
Arghavan Khosravi She Had a Dream
Arghavan Khosravi, She Had a Dream, 2018, acrylic on found wood block printed fabric, acrylic on cotton canvas mounted on two separate wood panels. Room curated by Kristen Smoragiewicz. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Arghavan Khosravi.

Some of the more political art at the fair…

Margaret Roleke Weapons of Mass Destruction
Margaret Roleke, Weapons of Mass Destruction, 2019, light box with video (video not pictured). Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Margaret Roleke.

The translucency of this large painting by Anthony Goicolea makes for a luminous effect.

Anthony Goicolea Reverse Repoussoir
Anthony Goicolea, Reverse Repoussoir, 2018, oil paint on double-sided mylar film. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Anthony Goicolea.

I spoke with Chris Walla about this series of colorful bandanas, embroidered with models from gay magazines. Connecting to the quilting roots of the AIDS crisis, Walla crafted these in response to conservative political discourse during the Bush Jr. administration. Walla’s sculptures on view–phrases made from dangling ball-chains–are poignant and deliciously tactile. Check out my video of its beautiful movement.

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Spring Art Fair Highlights: the Armory Show

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The spring art fairs are like Christmas for the art world—a belated and much-needed Christmas in March to pull us out of our winter blues. “Armory Week,” as it has come to be called, is a cultural smorgasbord of art fairs, parties, openings, panel talks, lectures, and performances that happen around the city. As you can imagine, there’s so much to pack in a few days that I do not have the time to write reviews in real-time (I can’t even get to all of the fairs and events I want to go to!), but I have, in a series of posts, covered some highlights and personal favorites that I saw at the venues I was able to cover. Check out my other posts for highlights from the ADAA Art Show, Spring/Break and Scope.

Armory Show

The Armory Show got off to a rocky start this year: one week prior to opening, the fair organizers discovered that Pier 92 was structurally unsound, causing a last-minute call to postpone the Volta satellite fair that would have been at Pier 90, and move one-third of the Armory exhibitors over to that space. Despite the snafu, the art was generally strong at the twenty-fifth presentation of the Armory Show. Once again, I didn’t get to see everything, and there are too many great works to address in one blog post, but I shall highlight a few personal favorites.

Gustavo Diaz
Gustavo Díaz, Variaciones sobre un bosque hipotético previo a la Gran Bifurcación – Modelo 002/ Era Prearbolítica,” 2019. Cut out paper. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Sicardi Ayers Bacino, Houston.
Gustavo Díaz Cut Out Sculpture
Gustavo Díaz, work displayed at 2018 Armory Show.

I was delighted to see again the work of Gustavo Díaz, the Argentine-born artist who constructs incredibly intricate and delicate worlds in cut-out paper. I became enamored with his work at the 2018 Armory show, in which his gallery Sicardi Ayers Bacino displayed some of his miniature sculptural cities. On view for the 2019 edition, SAB showed Díaz’s wall-hung works: webs of cut paper that magnificently toe the line of man-made construction and something topographical or organic, like an ancient, skeletal cross-section of an anthill. The scale and method of construction (hand-cut, I believe) is technically astounding.

Moving along through the show, I loved the monumental (and difficult to photograph in its entirety) 2018 lightbox installation by Rodney Graham, Vacuuming the Gallery, 1949, apparently inspired by a vintage photograph of art dealer Samuel Kootz smoking a pipe in his gallery. The artist upends the airs of the art world, as well as gender stereotypes, in the cheeky tableau. The classic mid-century vacuum also conjured the image of Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?

Rodney Graham Vacuuming
Rodney Graham, Vacuuming the Gallery, 1949, 2018, monumental lightbox installation. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York.

Like most visitors taking in the display of recycled plastic tapestries at Nicodim Gallery, my first thought was that El Anatsui was back in action (according to his own website, he hasn’t really had a group or solo show since 2016). But the gallerist informed us it was the work of newcomer Moffat Takadiwa, a young Zimbabwean artist. The themes of Takadiwa’s sculptures share many of the same concerns as Anatsui—reflections on consumerism, waste, colonialism and the environment—but are satisfying works in their own right, and surely more affordable than his well-established predecessor.

Moffat Takadiwa Sculpture
Moffat Takadiwa, Bottled Water, 2019, found blow molding pre-forms, plastic bottle caps, cuttings. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles and Bucharest.
Florine Démosthène installation shot
Florine Démosthène, installation view of her works on paper at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery at the Armory Show. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle.

I think I have a crush on Mariane Ibrahim. The young gallerist, who has been based in Seattle but will be relocating to Chicago in 2019, has been killing it at the art fairs, promoting the work of some excellent talent from Africa and the African Diaspora. Her monographic display of glittering works on paper by Florine Démosthène sold out on the first day at $7,000 a pop—a total steal in my opinion.

One of my favorite sculptures of the fair was Alan Rath’s Yet Again (2017) at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, a dynamic pair of swinging arms resembling something sentient, like birds or snakes, engaged in a mating ritual. The artist wrote a code for the kinetic sculpture in which the movements of each arm is random, making each movement and interaction between the two unique. Photographs do not do it justice—click on my short video clip below for a taste of this dancing, flirtatious piece.

Below are just a few more works that I enjoyed—some by established artists, some by emerging artists. I wish there was time and space enough to discuss them all—if you’d like to discuss anything, feel free to leave a comment or email me with questions!

Love the vibrant palette of this Lee Mullican painting. It feels so much fresh and contemporary, but was painted over fifty years ago!

Lee Mullican Untitled 1965
Lee Mullican (1919-1998), Untitled, 1965, Oil on canvas. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York.

The artist Michael Sailstorfer cultivated a beehive inside the concrete base in the picture below; he then used the hive to create a mold to cast these delicate bronzes. He went through several attempts, and only saved a few as satisfactory for sale.

Sailstorfer bronze
Michael Sailstorfer, Kopf und Körper Marzahn 02, 2017, bronze and concrete. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Proyectos Monclova, Mexico City.

Brothers Jake & Dinos Chapman’s sardonic revision of Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, entitled The Disasters of Yoga, (an anagram of Goya), is wonderful. The violence that is obscured and denied by the glitter is, instead, present in the brothers’ bronze sculptures of suicide vests nearby (not pictured). Apologies I couldn’t get a clear shot of the whole installation together, but see some details from the Yoga series below.

Chapman Disasters of Yoga
Jake and Dinos Chapman, The Disasters of Yoga, 2017, set of 80 reworked Goya etchings from The Disaster of War series, with glitter. Below: two details. Photos by Emily Casden, courtesy of Blaine Southern Gallery, London.

IMG_5467  IMG_5468

Below, a few offerings from the excellent Yossi Milo gallery:

Pieter Hugo Hyena and Other Men
Pieter Hugo, From the series The Hyena and Other Men, Digital C-Print, from an edition of 9. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery.
Nathalie Boutte FH Hawpine
Nathalie Boutté, F.H. Hawpine, 2019, Collage of Japanese paper, ink. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.
Boutte Hawpine detail
Nathalie Boutté, F.H. Hawpine, 2019, detail. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

Nick Cave, dazzling as always, at Jack Shainman Gallery.

Nick Cave Hustle Coat
Nick Cave, Hustle Coat, 2018, mixed media including a trench coat, cast bronze hand, metal, costume jewelry, watches, chains, and vinyl. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Mel Bochner. Still got it.

Mel Bochner Out of Your Fucking Mind
Mel Bochner, Are You Out of Your Fucking Mind?, 2018, etched and silvered glass. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Two Palms, New York.

Hard to photograph, but beautiful assemblage by Lyle Ashton Harris at David Castillo Gallery.

Ashton Harris Black Hummingbird 1
Lyle Ashton Harris, Untitled (Black Hummingbird #1), 2019, unique assemblage (Ghanaian cloth, dye sublimation prints, ephemera). Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of David Castillo Gallery, Miami Beach.

And lastly, love supporting the “young” galleries and their emerging to mid-career artists, such as Massinissa Selmani at Selma Feriani Gallery (Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia). Selmani takes images from the media and recreates them in new, drawn arrangements. The vast negative space of the drawings opens up the narrative to questioning and interpretation.

Massinissa Selmani No Plan is Foolproof
Massinissa Selmani, Untitled No.11, from the No Plan is Foolproof series, graphite and color pencil on paper. Photo by Emily Casden, courtesy of Selma Feriani Gallery, Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia.

Censorship in Cuba: Decree 349 and the Future of the Havana Biennial

In May of 2015 I had the great privilege of visiting Cuba for the Havana Biennial, about a month before President Barack Obama announced a restitution of diplomacy with Cuba. Just a few months prior, in April 2015, Obama and Raúl Castro had made history when the U.S. and Cuban leaders met for the first time in fifty years; just a few weeks later, I was eager to see what Cubans made of this historic moment.

lidzie-alvisa-revolucion.jpg
Lidzie Alvisa, Revolucion at the 2015 Havana Biennial. Image courtesy of in-cubadora.org

We were greeted at José Martí International Airport by our government-assigned tour guide, Mirelys. On the bus to our hotel she expressed joy at the thawing relations, and noted that Cubans were eager to embrace Americans. But while our bus idled at a stoplight, I looked out the window to a billboard with a morbid picture of a noose, and text that read in Spanish, “the American embargo is the noose around Cuba’s neck.” I pointed at the sign and asked Mirelys if indeed Cuba was warming up to the U.S.; she provided a nonsensical and almost certainly government-fed response that Cuban-American businessmen in Miami had paid for that billboard. Such Cold War emblems were at odds with the generally warm reception we received as tourists; I could tell this place would be rich with fascinating contradictions.

arles-del-rio-snorkles.jpg
Arlés del Río’s installation at the 2015 Havana Biennial. Image courtesy of the New York Times

Such paradoxes were only magnified on the grounds of the Havana Biennial. I was impressed and surprised by the volume of politically loaded art in a state-authorized art fair. Artist Lidzie Alvisa, a Havana native, departed from her photographic explorations of the body to install a green chalkboard with the word “Revolucion,” erased and rewritten several times. Cuban artist Arlés del Río hung colorful, elongated snorkel tubes from the ceiling, like plastic stalactites; the snorkels a symbol of leisure, but also tools for swimming underwater, undetected by those policing the shores. Another artist (whose name, sadly, I did not record and cannot locate in Google searches) presented a simple photograph of the ocean, with a black light dangling nearby. When a viewer raised the black light to the image, the ghostly letters of at least a hundred names appeared—the names of those who had died trying to flee the island in times of crisis. Perhaps the biggest illogicality of all was learning that the artist Kcho, whose frequent use of boats conjures both Cuba’s fishing economy and the desperate exodus of its citizens, was one of Fidel Castro’s favorite artists. (As a symbol of the island’s physical and socio-political isolation, the ocean is an important and consistent theme for Cuban artists.)

Kcho at 2012 Biennial.png
Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado), The Conversation, installation at the 2012 Havana Biennial. Image courtesy of the New York Times

But not all dissident art was tolerated. Performance artist Tania Bruguera has frequently been harassed and arrested in the past twenty years, and her “artivism” was under careful watch of the Cuban government. For the first half of 2015, Bruguera had been forbidden to leave Cuba for “disturbing the public order,” and so naturally, she opened the biennial with a public reading of Hannah Arendt’s 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism, which landed her another arrest. (Unsurprisingly, the itinerary of my government-approved guided tour kept us away from Bruguera’s performances.)

Despite such unsettling instances of censorship, and despite the fact that Mirelys’s rosy assessment of Cuban life didn’t always line up with what we observed around us, I would say that in 2015 there was hope among young Cubans that real change was coming to Cuban society. For artists, an influx of curious (and well-heeled) American collectors was a good thing. In fact, Cuban artists were already benefiting from the global art market: they were exhibiting abroad at international galleries and art fairs; they were permitted to travel more freely than the average citizen; and they were making real money beyond the modest income afforded to them in the closed and tightly regulated economy of their native country. Arlés del Río, for instance, has gallery representation in Florida, and exhibited an installation in Times Square in 2014, among other international shows. But recent developments seem to have halted this progress for the creative community in Cuba.

Arles del Rio - Times Square
Arlés del Río with his Times Square installation Fly Away in 2014. Image courtesy of Times Square Arts

First, there was the issue of the cancellation of the 2018 Havana Biennial (since 1994 the event has in fact been triennial). News outlets reported that the biennial was postponed due to severe damage caused by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, which did indeed have a serious impact on the country’s already fragile infrastructure. But as some astutely noted, the 2018 Biennial was also scheduled to follow on the heels of Cuba’s biggest political event in nearly half a century: a transfer of power to a non-Castro family member, Miguel Diaz-Canel, who was handpicked by eighty-five-year-old Raúl Castro to take over as president. In such a delicate time of political transition, the last thing the government needed was a Tania Bruguera performance to disrupt the state’s broadcasted socio-political “unity.”

In light of the cancellation of the 2018 Biennial, a group of artists decided to put together an independent art festival—the “Alternative 00 Havana Biennial,” the first artistic event organized without the involvement of the state, which ran in May of 2018. The various artistic events took place in artists’ homes, studios, and other found spaces. Hyperallergic reported that the Alternative Biennial was approved by the Cuban government, but several artists reported harassment and, later, fines and other penalties for participating. The Havana Times published the following dismissive response from state-led artistic organizations:

“Very few people have joined this abomination of a Biennial, without any important works mostly, who, maliciously or confused, are after the fame that this mercenary platform and overexposure on social media can give them. They have announced that it will be held at non-important venues and is only a failed attempt to attack the government’s cultural policy, where quite a few of them are skirting with the law. They want to mislead artists so that they use their studios, which have institutional support, so as to provoke the government.”

Walfrido Valera - 00 Biennial
Exhibition in the studio of Walfrido Valera during the 2018 Alternative 00 Biennial in Havana. Image courtesy of Hyperallergic

Now, at the close of 2018, the Cuban government put into effect a more direct and antagonistic assault on artistic freedom of expression: Decree 349, a law that regulates the subject matter and display of art in Cuba. The law requires that artists must obtain government approval before performing or displaying their art, and certain taboo subjects—such as sexually explicit language or addressing racial discrimination—are forbidden. Government authorities are empowered to cancel shows and confiscate property, and revoke artists’ license if they deem it necessary.

The law has elicited an outpouring of rage and remonstration: 250 artists signed a letter in protest, and met with cultural officials to address the danger of such censorship. Tania Bruguera has reported that she is under constant surveillance by the state, and other artists have organized demonstrations against the new draconian measures. But few have any faith that their concerns will be addressed in a meaningful way. One exiled Cuban artist told the Wall Street Journal that the decree was in direct response to the new freedom and wealth that artists were enjoying: “The purpose of the decree is to regulate a new world: private businesses, art galleries, people working from their homes. The alarm went off because it is a sector that is not under state control.”

What will the 2019 Havana Biennial look like under Decree 349? Will it apply to just Cuban artists, or international artists as well? If the latter, surely most international artists will not tolerate such cultural regulation, and will pull out of the biennial altogether. This new crackdown on the arts is, in a word, awful. The world must do its part to pressure the Cuban government to lift this restrictive law.

To learn more about the decree, as well as a brief history of censorship in Cuba, read this New York Times piece.

Tania Bruguera
Artist and activist Tania Bruguera, performing Self-Sabotage in 2009. Image courtesy of W Magazine

Siu Wong Camac & The Prince Street Gallery (in Chelsea)

“You can’t have a golden age without gold,” someone quips in the recent HBO documentary on the billion-dollar art industry, The Price of Everything. To this, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott comments, “by that standard we are currently in the epoch of platinum.”

Between the headline-grabbing sales of hundred-million Basquiats and Hockneys and da Vincis; the closure of small and midsize galleries, competing in the shadow of powerhouse galleries; and a collecting class that just seems to keep accumulating more wealth, the reputation of the art world has become one of bloat and excess. In this current atmosphere, one would be forgiven for assuming that one needs to be a millionaire to afford to buy art. But as I often remind people, there is good art in this town at far more affordable prices. And while we can always celebrate the success of artists who deserve critical and popular acclaim, it is also an important to support emerging artists, so the art market can stay strong from the ground up.

Camac - So I Changed My Name

That is why I am taking a moment today to introduce you to the Prince Street Gallery and its current solo show, Lost and Found, works by Siu Wong Camac. The Prince Street Gallery began in 1970 as an artists’ collective called the Alliance of Figurative Artists; over the years they expanded their mission to include abstract as well as figurative art, and in 2001 the collective moved to their Chelsea location at 530 West 25th Street (but maintained their downtown roots by keeping the Prince Street name). In addition to shows of their represented artists, the gallery hosts juried exhibitions with some past notable jurors, including artists Philip Pearlstein, Yvonne Jacquette, and Susanna Coffey.

Camac - Who Needs Ken

Siu Wong Camac, a member of the collective, currently has a solo show of her recent work on view at the Chelsea space through February 23. I happened upon the show while checking out some other gallery openings in the same building, and I was immediately drawn to the work for its vibrant palette, deft brushwork, and palpable and evocative moods. Finding inspiration from printed matter, found photos, films and stories, Wong Camac explores concepts of nostalgia and memory, capturing “recollections lost, then found:” the tone of the paintings range from warm innocence, to dreamy whimsy, to occasional unease and apprehension. Wong Camac’s facile ability to capture a spectrum of narration, sensation and emotion is a testament to her empathetic skills as an artist.

And now for the icing on the cake: all the works in the show range in value from $800–$3,400. Well worth the value, in my opinion! Support emerging artists and check out Lost & Foundon view at Prince Street Gallery now through February 23 (530 West 25th Street, 4th floor).

Works by Siu Wong Camac: So I Changed My Name, oil on wood, 2018; Who Needs Ken, oil on canvas, 2018; The Skaters, mixed media on wood panel, 2018; The Fields, mixed media on canvas, 2015; Three’s a Crowd, oil on canvas, 2018

Camac - Skaters    Camac - The FieldsCamac - Three's a Crowd