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Art Utopia: Material Art Fair CDMX

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Michael Anthony Farley: Material Art Fair moved to Frontón México, a quirky Art Deco jai-alai venue in the city center, in 2018. Ever since, it feels like the young fair has grown up both figuratively and literally. Local architecture firm APRDELESP designed an ingenious (if not vaguely panic-inducing, when Mexico City’s seismic instability is considered) proprietary fair lay-out that creates a singular art-viewing experience. Comprising a 3-D labyrinth of scaffolding, the vertical scheme makes everything in the fair seem visible, social, and in dialogue.

The first two years in this new venue, I have found myself thinking of the Borg cubes of “Star Trek” lore—massive machine ships where individuals from diverse societies are abducted and subsumed into a cybernetic collective consciousness. And at Material, I always think, “This is the collective I want to be assimilated into!” This is one of the few art fairs that actually makes me like art fairs and restores my faith in the art world and all its weirdness. (For example, any time I reference this very nerdy association to a complete stranger I meet at Material they exclaim, “OMG you’re so right!” and high-five me instead of giving me side-eye and discretely chortling as one likely would at the Armory, Basel, or most definitely FNAC).

But this year, looking out over the fair from an upper level, I thought instead of the Situationist artist/amateur architect Constant Nieuwenhuys and his vision for New Babylon—an international city built for creative play. Nieuwenhuys imagined an elevated human Habitrail that respectfully inserted itself above and around existing historic cities, spanning borders and offering a place where the free exchange of ideas and culture took precedence over sheer market forces. 

I think both aesthetically and in spirit Material realizes a bit of that utopian ambition. Hanging out in a three-dimensional art playground delicately slotted into an old Art Deco jai alai court with artists and writers and all manner of creative weirdos from 37 cities across 21 countries sure felt like a Situationist dream. It was an association driven home by Italian/Austrian gallery Emanuel Layr’s booth, which was showing these mixed-media works by Tillman Kaiser, combining photographic techniques with oil paint (a strategy that’s popping up all over this week!) that really seem to channel the Situationist architectural aesthetic and spirit of experimentation. They’re also showing these disembodied breasts by Lena Henke, which might be the most vulnerable-seeming of all the breast art we’ve seen these past few days?

Cara: I will admit that I have seen a ton of breast and nipple sculptures in the past few days and I’m not sure what it all means? A zeitgeist of beautiful comfort perhaps?

 

Lena Henke

 

Cara Ober: This was my first time visiting Material and it was the perfect fair for bringing friends who had never art fair-ed before. From the size which is manageable to the architecture which invites playful responses to the quality of artwork which is young, diverse geographically, and ambitious—it’s a fantastic starter fair. We bought a few affordably priced things from some of the presses and artist book areas, prints and totes mostly, and exchanged contact info with galleries we were interested in and have already gotten follow-up emails. This fair is friendly, fun, and artist-centric, more than market-centric, and the clothing here worn by patrons was as interesting as the art.

Michael: It’s worth mentioning that most gallerists I’ve talked to in the past say they do this fair for networking and the fun/social aspect rather than to make money. But this year I definitely overheard lots of excited chatter about a ton of work selling before the fair even opened to the public. It’s a great example of an accessible fair succeeding at all kinds of price points. A lot of the biggest names in the Mexico City gallery world participate in both the more established blue-chip Zona MACO and risk-taking, artist-centric Material, and I imagine it’s because they understand how important events like this are to Mexico’s thriving art ecosystem.

I wish Baltimore had something like this! If the few commercially viable galleries in Baltimore participated in events like the small Artist Run Art Fair—exposing their client base to the city’s fresh blood and younger arts spaces—it could be so transformative. Anyway, it’s not hard to see why sales were strong this year. There was literally so much good work we could probably spend a month writing glowing reviews of booths. Below, here’s just a fraction of what was noteworthy:

 

Michael: Mexico City gallery Labor is winning with both their booths at Material and Zona MACO this year. Here, they’re showing “Nada más que la verdad” (Nothing but the truth) from Mexico City native Erick Beltrán. Visitors can leave lies in a notebook and then hired signmakers fabricate vinyl letters or hand-painted signs. I guess this is what relational aesthetics looks like in the era of post-truth and alternative facts.

Cara: From a distance this reads like a Barbara Kruger project, and I don’t know how I feel about Beltrán using her aesthetic. It’s a smart project and the sense of humor is immediate, so in that way it’s not Kruger-like, and it functions like a bellwether or Twitter feed, where one person’s truth can sit next to another that contradicts it.

Michael: Similarly, Galería OMR has scored major wins with booths at both of the major fairs and a great Pia Camil solo show at their Roma Norte digs. Like Labor, they’ve totally transformed their Material booth with a floor-to-ceiling installation of tapestries, playful soft sculpture, and paintings by Yann Gerstberger. 

Cara: Not a surprise but I adored this booth. It reminded me of Magic Flying Carpets which typically filled a booth with rugs at NADA, which is fine. It’s a warm, fuzzy blast of immersive color and it’s attention-grabbing in such a comforting way. The paintings displayed on the ground were beautiful and managed to stand up and hold space in the riot of pattern.

 

Cara: Giant ceramic urns with dainty pop cultural references by Edourdo Sarabia at JoséGarcía. Also giant boxes. I loved the scale and use of common symbols and even people, and appreciated the labor and beauty that went into these.

Cara: Recent MICA grad Maria Fragoso’s paintings fill the Thierry Goldberg booth. Her work continues to evolve, with a few larger and multi-figure pieces, but maintains the fiery intensity that uniquely animates her sensual figures in semi-magical realistic environments.

Buenos Aires-based artist Emilio Bianchic at Tijuana's Deslave gallery booth

Buenos Aires-based artist Emilio Bianchic poses with his video in a lovable booth by Tijuana’s Deslave gallery. “MACHO” video by Mauricio Muñoz and neons by Alan Sierra

Cara: This booth was one of our favorites. It was all about queerness and transformation and a smart but campy sensibility that elevated mundane aspects of pop culture to celebrate the beauty found there. I loved the pink neon map with high heels by Alan Sierra and Muñoz’s video as well as a closeup of a penis transformed by butterfly wings (by Emilio Bianchic). These are images that will stay with me because they were poignant, but also beautiful and funny.

Michael: Definitely one of the fair’s highlights. Bianchic’s video documents the artist trying to paint their nails on a roller coaster. It reminded me of the familiar sight of office workers somehow managing to do their makeup on the subway in the morning rush hour. Another highlight: these small paintings by Mauricio Muñoz. They’re based on video stills of internet “celebrity” Jeffree Star and ex-reality TV personality Donald Trump forcing crocodile tears in ridiculous circumstances for the camera.

Material's co-founder/co-director and gallerist Brett W. Schultz

Michael: Every year, New York art space/bar Beverly’s transforms a somewhat vestigial or forgotten architectural space in the fair into a smart exhibition. This year, it was one of the access ramps climbing the fair. Basically everything they are showing this year is great, but I’d like to point out these resin casts of found objects arranged into painting-like assemblages by Jack Henry. If “flesh is the reason oil paint was invented,” there’s been a lot of interest in translating those peachy, white-people-fleshy tones into other materials this year. 

Cara: I always appreciate an art fair joke taken to extremes. Of course there had to be a banana joke. This giant hammock was part of Beverly’s multi-artist installation going up three stories of ramps. Guess what’s inside this hammock?? 🍌🍌🍌 Of course it was.

Michael:  AA|LA, based in Los Angeles, is showing Aria McManus’ “Relieviation Works,” a sterile parody of an office cubicle with desktop monitors playing an infomercial for office “wellness” solutions such as an edible vitamin calendar and Bluetooth headset with built-in crystals to align one’s chakras.

Ed Video

Michael: Canadian gallery Ed Video always has a fun, pleasantly jam-packed booth. This year they’re showing Robert Dayton, Amy Lockhart, and Beth Frey—three artists who bring a disconcertingly cutesy sense of whimsy to work that should evoke pure and utter body horror. Mexico City-based Beth Frey has recently been making totally unsettling and hilarious face-swap videos, in which she and her artwork merge in references to memes (and maybe nightmares). I was talking to her at the opening and mentioned that she’s one of the few artists I always recommend people follow on Instagram, because her use of the platform feels like a “sketchbook” extension of her studio practice rather than a vanity account.

Caroline Pequita-Kern

Cara: Small presses are where it’s at! Material had a few tables full of prints, zines, cards, shirts, and totes and in true PMF spirit, my gang of art fair newbies bought affordable art here. It’s a great way to include even more artists and buying an original screen printed tote—or these beautiful digitally printed hankies by Caroline Pequita-Kern.

Caroline Achaintre’s tufted wool tapestry and Liv Schullman’s video at Parisian gallery Art: Concept

Miami-based artist Farley Aguilar (no relation!) at New York's Lyle's & King
Syndicate (Los Angeles) showing Débora Delmar

Michael: Almost every February in Mexico, I find myself in front of an uncannily striking artwork that plays with consumer aesthetics, different fabrication processes, and general vibes of dystopia. And then I realize it’s by Débora Delmar—a Mexico City artist I hadn’t met until yesterday. This year, she’s walled-off Syndicate’s booth with a gate that references how minimalist aesthetics trickled down from Sol Lewitt to vernacular modernism—namely, the ubiquitous gates that cut up the driveways and front lawns of Mexico’s creepy suburbs. She worked with sign painters to recreate a midcentury advertisement for a then-new development on the fringes of the sprawl: “Your country house,” it reads, pitching a little slice of capitalist paradise called “Lomas del Rio” (“Hills of the River” …it’s so funny how the nonsensical pastoral romanticism of suburban names are the same in basically any culture). It’s a smart move that plays with the subtle or not-so-subtle division of public/private in social spaces like art fairs or streets, as well as the class aspirations of generations past.

Michael: This might be one of my favorite figurative oil paintings I’ve seen this week. Characters from Pieter Brueghel paintings join the artist’s friends in a street scene that might be the giant Women’s March in Los Angeles, perhaps a commentary on the surreal, seemingly anachronistic political climate?

Salón Silicón

Michael: Salón Silicón is a fantastic artist-run project space in Mexico City. I highly recommend checking out their brick-and-mortar location. And their group show at Material is sure to go down in history as one of the most memorable. Apparently a disgusted collector at the preview left Salón Silicón’s booth early after reading graffiti that read “fart in my mouth I want to die stinky.” That’s as good an introduction as any to an art fair booth inspired by a gay dive bar bathroom. There are at least half-a-dozen artists who are represented here, but all of their work is a bit jumbled together and hidden in the installation like a scavenger hunt—which is my way of apologizing for not having anyone’s names. Literally everything in this booth is loveable and gross and often interactive. Next to the toilet, there are “Polly Pocket”-like playsets that viewers can open and play with. They’re modeled on porn performers’ genitals. On the other side of the stall, I was offered a shot from bottles labeled as different celebrities’ pee. I opted to try “Shakira’s,” which tasted (thankfully) a lot like a decent tequila. 

Gabriel Orozco at Kurimanzutto

Cara: This entire booth was devoted to Gabriel Orozco at Kurimanzutto and filled the walls with currency. After accidentally getting a fake (literally a color print-out) $200 pesos bill and feeling embarrassed for attempting to buy something with it, I was fascinated by the colors and textures, the actual art of currency design and how specialized and intricate it is.

Cara: Vivid landscape quilts by Roman artist Mateo Nasini at Clima Gallery from Milan were beautifully constructed. I was shocked to learn that he also made the geometric white ceramic pieces through a quasi-scientific process where he electronically monitors the dreams of various volunteers and translates the feedback into these gorgeous crystalline vase forms.

Caroline Wells Chandler at Field Projects, NY

Cara: It was satisfying to see artist-run galleries participating at Material and these crocheted figures by Caroline Wells Chandler were about gender fluidity and transformation, but the materials make them adorable.

Michael: I am sometimes so shocked at how prolific and seemingly ubiquitous Wells Chandler is! I find myself wondering… A) How does someone have enough time to crochet this much? B) How are there enough people in the world buying giant wonky genital figures to keep this neon crochet assembly line rolling? C) Is it weird that I totally want one too!?
But speaking more broadly, I love that fibers works are doing so well at both Material and MACO! After a decade or so of shiny, sterile sculpture and sleekness dominating art fairs, I am all about how cozy and tactile the work has been the past few years.

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