The latest fair to arrive to Canada’s growing art market was named Feature, but could have been titled Focus. With only twenty-three galleries, and tucked into a historic, 10,000-square-foot space, the fair felt, yes, intimate (a word used so often by gallerists and journalists, in the past few days, it’s beginning to lose meaning), but also concentrated. The attention this art fair brought to its object allowed for the art to be seen, engaged with, and for ideas about what our contemporary moment looks like to be bandied about in conversations with colleagues that, for all their affability, communicated something deep.
Much as they do with their Montreal-based, media-focused Papier, the Association des galeries d’art contemporain (AGAC) presented Feature with a measure of integrity that we don’t often associate with the art-fair circuit. Their commitment to quality begets a clear picture of contemporary art in Canada, particularly because of the high standard of its participating galleries. What’s risked, though, is a kind of uniformity.
I’m cautious to apply the word “curated” to an art fair, though it’s certainly what gets said when a single person (like Omar López-Chahoud, of Miami’s Untitled, last year) or an organization (AGAC) juries the selection process for the booths, and even directs the selection of artists from within their various galleries’ rosters. I think what happens instead is simply a promotion of quality, where the choice of leading gallerists (such as Jessica Bradley or Macaulay & Co. Fine Art) allows for these dealers to form a kind of ecosystem for good art. The links that get made between these rosters are telling.
The conversations that circulate around the dominant aesthetic of neo-modernism in contemporary art found renewed relevance at Feature, and perhaps generally, reminded us that it’s a major force at play in Canadian art. The rough-hewn and process-based articulation of that neo-modernism is simply a response to its own citation. As emerging curator Rui Mateus Amaral said on a Feature panel that I moderated on October 24 (Momus was the main media partner for the fair), the return to modernism is an indication that we’re hungry for forms that communicate meaning, and a time when meaning was still singular. Leaving the maker’s mark on what used to be polished is less a nod to another movement (Constructivism) than a comment from our contemporaries that singularity isn’t possible anymore, and subjectivity needs admitting. We saw this marriage of modernist form and materialism at work in Feature gallerists Erin Stump Projects (Jessica Groome), Battat Contemporary (Jen Aitken), Galerie Hugues Charbonneau (Tammi Campbell), Birch (Martin Bennett), Galerie Nicolas Robert (Simone Rochon), Galerie René Blouin (Nicolas Lachance), Clint Roenisch (Niall McLelland), and more.
We also saw pop aesthetics embracing politics. Georgia Scherman presented a strong booth that focused on the unlikely intersections between Divya Mehra, Spring Hurlbut, and Ulysses Castellanos. What emerged from their pairing was a plane of texture (Hurlbut’s ashes; Castellanos’s polychrome globules), a wash of color (Merha’s racially charged literalism in various shades of fun; Castellanos’s nail-polish-flecked black-and-white photographs), and gravitas (mortality, racism, identity, and the archive). Jon Rafman was presented at galerie antoine ertaskiran, but not with his typically-showcased and salable photographs (The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, Brand New Paint Job), rather showing a difficult new video work (Still Life, Betamale) that collages images mined from the deep web and emanates a seedy melancholia while commenting on the anachronistic legibility of our new visual literacy. Equinox showed master painter Etienne Zack, whose large-scale oil-on-canvas works are at once pleasing (their Escher-like patterning, their cabin-like palette) while framing a Borgesian nightmare of censored texts, unspooled recording tape, and fluorescent lights beating down on all our redacted archives.
Romance and figuration came through in strides. At Monte Clark, a series of finely-rendered “nocturnes” by Tim Gardner recalled Whistler’s Venice palette while positioning themselves firmly in the present through their portraiture of contemporary men doing contemporary things. Donald Browne’s exhibition of Valérie Kolakis was a commitment to form, the artist working in sculpture (cement-coated rugs rolled tight; a marble shelf holding a sterling-silver set of keys) with a weighty but winking touch. Galerie Simon Blais’s Yann Pocreau lends a kind of saturated but restrained nostalgia with his Polaroid color abstractions of uninterrupted skies. And Raphaëlle de Groot continues to move me with her presentation of The Burden of Objects (begun in 2009, and shown at Graff Galerie), a Sophie Calle-like collection of narratives, and their grief-inflected detritus.
Feature Fair’s presentation in the unique setting of the Canadian Opera Company’s century-old rehearsal hall (its towering walls an alluring conté-red above the white, splayed booths; its shuttered windows like blinkered eyes to our goings-on) made for a historically-inflected contemporary moment. I passed through the booths thinking not of commerce, but the currents in art that come, and fade, and come again. Gallerists frequently commented on their relief to be talking about the art with people who were not rushed to convey themselves forward, as on an assembly line paved with money; their attitude remained, throughout the fair, appealing and buoyant.
For an art fair conceived six months ago, and, incredibly, borne-out this past weekend with great confidence and grace, the happy measure of its success is the focus it allowed for its object. Yes, there were, inevitably, permeating conversations regarding the competition Feature struck with Art Toronto. But, by and large, eyes were drawn to the walls (and the floors), and to the currents that remind us what’s at stake in contemporary art.