By Chloe Stead
“Sometimes, I want to ask, just how rich are you?” It’s four days into Frieze Week and a friend is explaining her theory about why wealthy people insist on draping their coats over their shoulders. According to her, this unconventional method of jacket-wearing is an indicator of affluence because – much like the way that wearing high heels suggests that you don’t have to walk anywhere – the impracticality of not being able to raise your arms above a 45% angle suggests rarely having to do any labour more strenuous than swiping a credit card.
None of the blue suit brigade had managed to make it to the Camden Arts Centre for Amy Silman’s opening, though, so we could finally enjoy our free drinks in peace. I say this because, although people routinely complain about art fairs, there seems to be something particularly anxiety-inducing about Frieze. (Full disclosure: I write for the magazine). For this edition, my VIP card came as a PDF, but when I offered to send it to friends most of them looked panicked and mumbled excuses about having too much to do over the weekend. That’s because it’s not just the monied class who are on hand to make you feel bad about yourself. It’s also the beautiful weirdos with shaved eyebrows and leather bum bags who stalk the aisles hoping to have their picture taken. In 2018, it seems like the low-level PDSD that comes from spending time with these people – under neon lights no less – just isn’t worth it. Despite the talks, the sculpture park and the performance program, Frieze is just another art fair. Don’t get me wrong; the quality of what’s on display still far exceeds many other similar events, but sometimes it can be forgotten that the tent isn’t a temporary public institution; it’s a marketplace.
That feeling was particularly acute this year because the enjoyably splashy, attention-grabbing booths for which Frieze is well known were few and far between; replaced by pick and mix group exhibitions and solo presentations by painters. One of the more striking of the latter booths, Jim Shaw at Simon Lee Gallery, showed a series of figurative paintings which continued the American artist’s use of the surrealist technique of “superimposing” found images. In Hush Money (2018), for example, the face of one of Trump’s lawyers is collaged onto a basset hound along with a sign reading “hush money”. Ok, so it wasn’t subtle, but covering the booth in guided wallpaper was a nice touch, and it was one of the few attempts at explicitly political work to be found this year, so I’ll take it.
Even the Focus Section, which features “emerging” artists, felt sedate, with the notable exceptions of Emalin and Union Pacific, who showed installations by Athena Papadopoulos and Zadie Xa. Both contributions were fun and fresh: Papadopoulous painted the floor of her booth the sickly green of doctor’s scrubs, placing her resin sculptures of uteruses atop cocktail trolleys reminiscent of old-school hospital beds, whilst Xa’s deep purple space was populated by appliqué fabric pieces, two of which were (deservingly) snapped up by the CAS Collections Fund.
Elsewhere, I liked paintings by Julie Curtiss and Robin F. Williams at Various Small Fires, and drawings by Vanessa Conte at Ginerva Gambino. In what felt like a welcome antidote to the STRONG WOMEN™ stereotype that marketers have latched onto in the past few years, the works all depicted women as complex, mercurial beings, with proclivities that go beyond the pale. Conte’s titillating comic book style illustrations, for instance, depict girl-on-girl sexual violence; in them, nipples are roughly grabbed and ample behinds are kicked with heavy boots. They’re not conventionally empowering, but they do highlight the complexity of navigating between our politics and, to paraphrase queer theorist Jane Ward, the “shape” of our desires, which might not always be as politically correct as we’d like them to be.
Women were also at the forefront of Social Work, an invitation-only section dedicated to female artists “who challenged the status quo and explored the possibilities of political activism in their art making during the 1980s and ‘90s.” There were some great works here; I particularly liked Helen Chadwick’s humorous ‘In the Kitchen’ series, which depicted her literally standing inside replicas of various kitchen appliances, and the backlit cibachrome photograph Loop my Loop (1991) featuring a lock of blonde hair entwined with a pig’s intestine. While the former work feels (thankfully) a little dated by now – although I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that women are still doing the bulk of domestic chores – it was easy to see how the wit and directness of Loop… might inspire a new generation of young women to create their own updated versions of Chadwick’s “monstrous feminine”.
The initiative was a transparent effort to push the market visibility of the included artists – other booths were by Berni Searle, Mary Kelly and Sonia Boyce – and it appeared to be, at least partly, working. Artnet reported that by the end of preview day, ‘In the Kitchen’ had almost sold out, and Boyce’s photo installation The Audition (1997) had been acquired by Tate. The section was by no way perfect, though. Elephant Magazine’s Holly Black put it best when she posted this pithy review on her Instagram: “One long row, by the toilets, at the back of Focus? Last year Sex Work and The Nineties formed a dynamic hub in the middle of the action. This year the action had be[en] pushed to the edge – Literally marginalized. Wtf?” It was a good reminder that visibility doesn’t automatically amount to structural change.