Art Fairs and the Painter
A view of this years FIAC 2015
By: Kate Hiley
My first Art Fair experience was FIAC 2008, when I had just moved to Paris as an art student. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect, the commercial art scene was a foreign world to me then. Perhaps I thought I would find some inspiration, some competition or at the very least some information about galleries and what kind of artists they were interested in. I felt it might give me some guidance in the art world I was preparing myself for. Since that October 7 years ago I have spent countless exhausting hours dragging myself around art fair after art fair. It’s only in the last year that I began to realise what a waste of time it was and frankly, I’m surprised I didn’t work it out sooner. I’m not saying that Art Fairs as a rule are a waste of time, for the gallerists and commercial buyers in our midst it is a haven. A perfectly arranged selection of the most sellable items in the market. However for the artists, and more specifically the painters among us, it can be simultaneously misleading and demoralising.
After my first two or three visits to Frieze London, FIAC and Art Paris, I started to notice a pattern. Every year the same works seemed to be punctuating the standardized layout of each fair. It became harder and harder to differentiate not just between galleries but between the fairs themselves. The only discerningly different feature being the host buildings; from the glass panelled atrium of the Grand Palais to the temporary white tents of Frieze and the cold industrial framework of Artissima Turin, and you only notice these alternating surroundings if you have the time and space a midst the heaving crowd to look upwards.
In the last couple of years I set a challenge for myself; out of the plethora of galleries on show at these fairs, how many really good and honest art works can I find? And even more challenging… how many good paintings? Even though painting is supposedly “making a comeback”, one would struggle to see that this is the case after a quick turn around FIAC in Paris.
This year, as I made my way through the imposing glass doors of the Grand Palais, I was greeted by a sight all too familiar. A buzz of people glancing through glossy magazines at a large purpose built desk. Behind them a corridor of booths stretching into the distance, each filled to the brim with their latest best sellers. I noticed in particular this year that only 3 or 4 galleries had taken the brave move of hanging a solo show by one select artist.
You would think that this is the most effective way to attract potential buyers. An outright statement of confidence in your chosen artists, saying “we know what is worth buying and we are willing to take that risk”. Perhaps because of the financial situation of the art world, with most galleries struggling to keep up their overheads and rent, most galleries nowadays hang a pick and mix of their greatest hits hoping it will raise their chances of a bigger sale. They pander to the needs of the undiscerning buyer, and FIAC is no exception. Rarely have I seen so many imitations of Jeff Koons thoughtlessly placed in front of national geographic style photography and “zombie formalist” painting, and it seems to be getting worse each year.
Upon gathering images for this article, I went back through the photographs I had taken over the last few years at each fair. Normally when I attend an art fair I take quick snaps of paintings or art works that are interesting to me, along with their gallery name, to research when I get home at the end of the day. As I began amalgamating all of these images into one folder I noticed that 80% of them were of the same group of around 15 – 20 artists. Some might say this is due to my personal taste, however I can confidently say that this is not the case. I remember visiting Frieze London in 2012 with a friend of mine and we noticed a beautifully structured painting in vibrant pinks and purples standing out from the monotonous crowds of surrounding works. It was a medium sized painting by American born artist John McAllister. I had never seen his work before and I felt that I had found a gem, something really exciting to inspire my works to come. As I walked around Frieze the following year, I noticed another colourful John McAllister and then again at FIAC two weeks later. As the next couple of years passed I noticed his works at almost every Art Fair I went to and it seemed that whilst good paintings can be found dotted around
the never ending corridors of art fairs, you can bet than 9 times out of 10 the artist is already internationally famous or just a safe bet, so you won’t be seeing anything new. It feels as though the only painters that any gallery is willing to show at an art fair nowadays have to be either dead, have a retrospective under their belt or stuck in the era of Saatchi’s “Sensations”. Obviously as a painter I am bias, but the lack of new and exciting painting in art fairs only serves to show how little risk taking is happening in the commercial art world as a whole. And let it be said that selling paintings is still a risk in this climate, although a part of me would like to think that the “comeback of painting” is just around the corner. For all these reasons I think this year’s FIAC will be my last. As a painter I want to focus on making art work, so I’ll leave the art fairs to the gallerists and buyers. It’s their arena after all, not mine.