Monday, September 22nd, 2008

First Annual Governor’s Island Art Fair, Organized by 4heads Collective

Governor’s Island, Building 114
Through October 12,
Fridays 10 am–5 pm,
Saturdays and Sundays, 10 am–7 pm

Obaidullah Mamoon Bangladesh: River, Boats & Life 2005 photograph, 18 x 24 inches  Courtesy of the Artist
Obaidullah Mamoon, Bangladesh: River, Boats & Life 2005 photograph, 18 x 24 inches Courtesy of the Artist

Two days after I’d visited the 1st Annual Governor’s Island Art Fair, the New York Times reported that the island was experiencing a “rebirth” as a weekend destination for jaded New Yorkers–and so it is, with lawns for picnics, avenues for strolling, bicycle paths, concerts, etc. it’s also very easy to get to: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, the free ferry leaves every half hour from the terminal right next to for the Staten Island Ferry. terminal. The ride is only seven minutes across New York Harbor, and already you can admire the magnificent views of the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline and so on..

The art fair is billed as “organized entirely by artists, for artists—and the public’s enjoyment.” What a pleasant change of pace from most of our big art fairs, especially the various Armory Shows, which are organized by dealers and have nothing but booths named for dealers. Some of the artists on view at Governor’s Island are represented by dealers, and some aren’t, but nothing is made of this: the spirit here is not to make distinctions based upon commercial appeal. Inevitably, some of the work is pretty amateurish, but the best of it is extremely refreshing, because it manifests a sensibility one doesn’t find too often in Chelsea. Chelsea is into “edginess.” With some exceptions, of course, the art there is apt to have bite. By contrast, the best art on view at Governor’s Island is gentler, less aggressive, more idealistic. There is much humor here, but it’s innocent, not tendentious (to use Sigmund Freud’s distinction): art that is funny in and of itself, not art with a target.

Building 114 at Governor’s Island, a neo-Georgian structure erected in 1934 and formerly a nurses’ residence, is ideal for this art fair, since it includes many little rooms and hallways . The official list of forty-six artists with exhibitions in Building 114 shows that the emphasis is on painting, with thirty-one painters listed, eight installation artists, four photographers and one show each of sculpture, sound, and scanograph (a special kind of photography). The installations are the weakest part of the show—possibly because installations are so popular in Chelsea that most installation artists don’t need an additional outlet. The only installation that came off for me was “Ocean Biography,” by Caroline Cox, a roomful of delicate pale-blue and white weblike bundles made of horsehair tubing, produce packing net and other materials, hung from the ceiling.

The fair has been organized by an artists’ collective known as 4heads, and the four in question are all painters: Antony Zito, Ernie Sandidge, Nicole Laemmle and Preet Srivastava. To judge from their exhibits, Zito and Sandidge are experienced figure painters, the former focusing on the female face, the latter on the female nude. In Sandidge’s group of paintings, a nude wears a blue, rubbery-looking garment that cloaks her legs and ends in a pair of tail fins, turning her into a mermaid. He also exhibits a comical 56-inch high terra cotta sculpture of this subject: the lady looks as though she were just climbing into her garment and pulling it up around her.

Laemmle is one of the few abstract painters, exhibiting small panels covered with very narrow vertical stripes. I was reminded of the vertical stripe paintings that Gene Davis, the Washington color field painter, made his reputation with in the ‘60s, but Laemmle’s stripes seem narrower and the colors, more harmonious than Davis’s. Srivastava is a representational painter; her brushwork is very loose, excitingly feathery. Subjects range from landscape to fantasy to the straightforward portraiture of “Bharat,” a guitarist. The lower left-hand corner of “Bharat” looks white, therefore unfinished, but it balances off against the almost equally white space of the upper right-hand corner, dramatizing the diagonal thrust of Bharat’s body.

At least four other participants in the art fair stood out for me. Obaidullah Mamoon exhibits a haunting black-and-white sequence of photographs of “Bangladesh: River, Boats & Life.” Stefania Zamparelli’s show is dominated by her color photos of “the great game of buzkashi.” Buzkashi is an ancient, very distant relation of polo that uses the corpse of a goat stuffed with sand instead of a ball, and is played throughout Central Asia (Zamparelli’s photos were taken in Afghanistan in 2004-2005). The colorful milling crowds of horses and riders look to me like some grand academic painting—by a Soviet realist perhaps, or a battle scene by Meissonier, but because it’s photography and not painting, it’s less mannered, more truthful. Two more paintings that I liked were Helen Quinn’s “The Annunciation,” a wicked little gouache done on a field of gold leaf, and James Peterson”s “August, the Devil’s Playground” a strangely cheerful oil dominated by reds. Peterson’s vigorous Halloween-style epic features diabolical figures on either side of a female nude with angel wings. Quinn’s image impishly depicts a circus fat girl being impregnated through long rays of light from an elephant and is subtitled “a tribute to Fra Angelico and in vitro fertilization.”.

Ann Walsh Blush 2008  vinyl, plexiglas, 8-1/2 X 11 X 2 inches Courtesy the Artist
Ann Walsh, Blush 2008 vinyl, plexiglas, 8-1/2 X 11 X 2 inches Courtesy the Artist

The best work in this show is by Ann Walsh, who hasn’t received the recognition she deserves.. Although she’s no spring chicken, she didn’t receive her M.A. from Syracuse University until the late ‘70s, and didn’t begin to exhibit in Manhattan until the ‘80s, when modernist artists were facing increasing difficulty in getting exposure (unless they’d already been exhibiting since the ‘60s). Walsh would undoubtedly choose Kenneth Noland as one of her artistic ancestors, but another might well be ‘60s minimalism, often equated to modernism but in my opinion a critique of it, taking abstraction to a logical, therefore absurd extreme. Walsh’s “paintings” are made of horizontal bands of vinyl bound onto Plexiglas or board. They’re not big, and they look simple, but they have an effervescent lightness, balance and proportion that have to be seen in the flesh to be fully appreciated. “Blush” is a typing-paper-sized study in pinks and purples whose middle band is semi-transparent. It’s been photographed at an angle so the viewer can see that it’s two inches thick (one also sees the opaque end to the semi-transparent band). The two-inch thickness enables “Blush” to stand upright by itself, technologically speaking—though esthetically speaking, it stands by itself as well.