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Notes from Madrid: Art Market Observations and the Best Booths at Every Fair

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BmoreArt’s Picks: February 28 – March 6

I’ll be the first to confess, totally unironically, that I actually love going to art fairs. Oddly, almost no one seems to admit this—even as art fairs proliferate globally like some invasive species whose seeds snuck through customs on the spongy sole of one of those weirdly comfortable Balenciaga sock-shoes art world people wear for long flights and lots of walking. Said seeds tend to sprout and propagate offspring wherever they touch fertile soil, adapting to new conditions with each mutated generation. That fertility is likely based on popularity.

Yet in polite society, we’re supposed to pretend art fairs and their spectacle are a chore, somehow vulgar for their blatantly transactional nature. Even though the art world—like the real world of which it likes to pretend it doesn’t pertain—runs on money and its politics just as much as the advertising or fertilizer or petroleum industries or the guy selling falafel on the corner.

I think there’s something refreshing about the transparent commercialism of buying and selling art objects out in the open, like you’d do at any other market, instead of the bizarre hushed-voice back-room esoteric deal brokering that so often defines art sales, as if gallerists and collectors were swapping unspeakable sexual favors for heroin.

Paintings by American Megan Gabrielle Harris shown by Sitges-based OOA Gallery at Art Madrid
Cristóbal Tabares in a juried show presented by the Spanish newspaper ABC Cultural in ARCO

Mostly, I just unabashedly like seeing lots of art and people from different places in new cities.

It’s surprising, then, that I had never indulged in my “guilty pleasure” of art-fair hopping in Madrid, one of my favorite sin cities, until this week. And in Madrid, the art fair ecosystem runs partially on the ambition of bringing together artists, galleries, and collectors from the Spanish capital’s former colonies as well as its European neighbors. I came to Madrid a bit worried that role is becoming increasingly redundant with the rise of art fairs in Miami, Mexico City, and now Los Angeles—where the art scenes of Latin America and the “Global North” have become cozy bedfellows. With an ever more crowded calendar, there’s only so many fairs even the most gainfully unemployed collecting leisure class can attend.

But Madrid’s flagship fair ARCO—as well as its satellites JUSTMAD, Art Madrid, UVNT, and Hybrid—seem to have firmly cemented their place on the circuit, even if competitors in North America sometimes get more attention. Notably, a lot of the big-name galleries from the anglophone’s blue-chip art meccas New York, London, and LA were absent here. Indeed, I’d say only roughly 30% of the conversations I’ve overheard these past few days have even been in “International Art English“—and almost always lightly peppered with accents from Lisboa or Ljubljana, Rotterdam or Riyadh.

It wasn’t until my last stop at UVNT fair that I met any native English speakers! And they were all either ex-New Yorkers or Brits who had relocated to Mexico or Spain (two of whom actually talked about how glad they were to not be in LA). I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good or bad thing, just an interesting observation in a field too often dominated by the language, currencies, and tastes of a handful of global financial centers.

Perhaps part of Madrid’s resilience as an art capital is due to institutional, public, and nonprofit support of the private market. Both Madrid’s regional and municipal governments acquired pieces for their collections from ARCO, as did many of Madrid’s best-known museums. Here, there seems to be an understanding that sometimes supporting artists and the cultural sector means nurturing a healthy arts economy, beyond just museums and individual artist grants. And many a fair booth was made possible with quasi-public or institutional backing, with governments and nonprofits subsidizing commercial exhibitions from universities, DIY spaces, or collectives to send their best and brightest to Madrid to show off art offerings from destinations as distant as Taiwan.

Madrid native Francisco Mayor Maestre shown by Asturian gallery Aurora Vigil-Escalera at Art Madrid
One of Spanish artist Sergio Frutos' lovely interior/cityscape drawings presented by Berlin gallery Raum E116 at Hybrid Art Fair

That’s not to say there’s not a distinct local flavor to Madrid’s art week. At some of the fairs, the vast majority of participating galleries are from Spain or its immediate neighbors Portugal and France. Perhaps that’s why I set my expectations a bit low, only to be extremely pleasantly surprised.

In my admittedly limited experience with Madrid’s commercial gallery scene, I’ve often found the offerings a bit dry, skewing towards the overly-heady or else purely decorative. I wonder how much of that has to do with how bitterly politically divided so much of Madrid is—it’s one of the few cities in which I’ve spent any significant amount of time where one might encounter a card-carrying “tankie” communist and self-professed fascist (yes, really) living in the same seemingly middle-class housing subdivision. So perhaps inoffensive abstraction is a safe bet?

This week I did notice, however, that a lot of the work on view touches on the built environment—from the domestic to public space—one of the most polarized battlefields, both rhetorically and literally, in Spanish politics. I arrived in Madrid, for example, shortly after a public transit boss resigned over a scandal involving the purchase of incorrectly sized commuter trains. A few days later, heated protests erupted over an unrelated plan to fell hundreds of trees to relocate a metro station in the interest of not inconveniencing car traffic. Housing, gentrification, and refugee resettlement are constant points of debate.

Metropolitan politics in Spain often pit leftist mayors with plans to reclaim public space from private automobiles against reactionary right-wing politicians who sell suburban voters on the idea that it’s their God-given right to pilot several cubic meters of “luxurious” carcinogen-spewing property around stressful gridlocked city streets at local taxpayers’ expense instead of being whisked to their destinations on one of the world’s nicest transport systems while reading a book or people-watching, for reasons I personally will never understand.

Argentinian artist Nicolás Guagnini presented by Dusseldorf's Galerie Max Mayer as part of ARCO's "Never the Same. Latin American Art" section
Argentinian artist Diego Bianchi at Parisian Galerie Jocelyn Wolff in ARCO's general section

Another notable trend, from both local and international artists, is a proliferation of anatomically-influenced, crafty sculpture. There’s a veritable organ bank of lumpy references to the body’s insides scattered around Madrid this week like the world’s cutest game of “Operation.”

There are all manner of abstracted hearts, lungs, guts, and circulatory systems rendered in ceramic, felt, embroidery, as well as industrial materials. I wonder if this could be, on some level, indicative of a sort of fatigue with skin-deep identity politics? In 2023, how does one make reference to the body without obsessing over the pigmentation of its epidermis? Maybe what the world needs now is a reminder we’re all squishy and gross on the inside.

There are also too many great paintings everywhere to even scratch the surface here—from gorgeous, buttery figuration to innovative considerations of texture and support, remixing canvasses, and unexpected plays of mark-making and material. Drippy ceramics are going nowhere soon, and I’m not complaining. There seems to be noticeably less video and photography at these fairs, which makes sense, given that they’re not the most salable media.

In terms of content, there are perhaps too many artists leaning on the crutch of art historical references that aren’t saying anything beyond a wink. Maybe worse, in more than two booths at different fairs artists attempted to comment on the refugee crisis and horrors of war with obtuse references to Picasso’s “Guernica,” arguably the biggest tourist-trap in Madrid. It comes across as a bit trivializing, especially when one considers all the more thoughtful work about migration, displacement, and conflict on view.

All things considered; this is one hell of a great art week. Each of the five fairs I attended is well worth a visit. Below are my picks from each.

 

Art Madrid
Galería de Cristal de CentroCentro Cibeles. Calle Montalbán 1
Through Feb 26

Art Madrid, now in its 18th edition, might just be the most location-privilleged art fair on the planet, thanks to its home in a gorgeous crystal atrium just minutes on foot from world-famous museums such as the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza. The art on display can be a bit hit-or-miss, but even some of the more standard “art fair” fare has its charms. Take, for example, Francisco Mayor Maestre’s massive oil paintings at Asturian gallery Aurora Vigil-Escalera’s booth (pictured earlier in the article).

From certain vantages, they can come across as the kinda “made-you-look” trompe-l’œil work I’m not usually a fan of. But up-close, his apartment building façades are a loving riot of paint application techniques and attention to detail. The drapes in one window might be a carefully-mixed smear of pigments, next door to photorealistically rendered hanging laundry, or a blunt smudge of pallete knife that reads convincingly like an awning. Every time I passed the booth, people were literally “watching” these for minutes on end like nosy neighbors.

RYASKARTSTYLE at Dr Robot Gallery from Valencia

Perhaps it’s the influence of the fair’s stunning setting, but almost all of my favorite work at Art Madrid was architecturally influenced. Valencian gallery Dr. Robot is showing dreamy modernist interiors by the young Turkish painter RYASKARTSTYLE, whose super flat renderings of… well, super flats, are so very seductive in their clean lines and calm palettes.

Nicolás Lisardo at Galería Manuel Ojeda
Nicolás Lisardo at Galería Manuel Ojeda

At the opposite end of the urban aesthetic spectrum, Galería Manuel Ojeda is showing these hyper-textured, detail-rich dioramas by Nicolás Lisardo. Maybe amongst all the pristine white marble of central Madrid I’m just feeling homesick for my grimy Baltimore neighborhood, but his realistic models of postindustrial buildings and vernacular Mid Atlantic streetscapes are some of my favorite pieces in Art Madrid. I can just imagine shrinking down and walking into that bodega and buying a loosie Newport 100 cigarette from under the bulletproof plexiglass counter divider. Home sweet home.

Collaborative installation by Pilar del Puerto. Almaro, and Manuel Garcia Cruz, presented by Ras de Terra

JUSTMAD
Palacio Neptuno, Calle Cervantes, 42
Through Feb 26

American audiences might remember JUSTMAD, now in its 14th edition, for its short-lived Miami spinoff a few years back. But its home base in the neoclassical Palacio Neptuno is the must-see, beneath a cobalt stained-glass skylight and so much marble. There’s a lot of strong work scattered among some not-so-great booths, so a bit of curatorial cleanup might be in order, but all in all, it’s a strong fair.

Juan Manuel Rodríguez at Domo Arte Contemporáneo
Juan Manuel Rodríguez at Domo Arte Contemporáneo

Sevilla-based gallery Domo Arte Contemporáneo has a solo booth with oil paintings by Juan Manuel Rodríguez, each demonstrating different techniques for handling paint, all equally skilled. My eyes could’ve drifted from one midsized, buttery surfaced canvas to a tiny, washy-dreamy scene that seemed plucked from a sketchbook, to a large landscape and back again for hours without getting bored.

Giana De Dier at Krystel Ann Art

The two collages above, by Panamanian artist Giana De Dier, aren’t even my favorites on view at Krystel Ann Art, a Lisbon-based gallery that specializes in artists from the Caribbean.  But they were the only two I could snag a photo of, because the booth was constantly packed at the fair’s opening.

De Dier’s work mixes black and white photos, lush greenery, and a sensibility somewhere between modernism and classical compositions to create illusionary spaces inspired by stories of migration and the Afro-Caribbean experience. They suggest narratives and a sense that the figures are beckoning the viewer in to hear a great story we can’t quite grasp from an image alone.

Universidad Francisco de Vitoria's booth featuring work by Atalanta, Paula Cremades, Galoguin Cristina García, Bernabeu Leco, Leyre Pérez (Leyvel), Yolanda del Pino, and Belén Somoza
Paula Cremades, "Donde me habito" ("Where I inhabit myself")

Curator Daniel Silvo has assembled a great group show of work from art students at the Universidad Francisco de Vitoria, with an appropriately post-apocalyptic Gen-Z vibe. Here, too, concerns about the built environment are addressed. Using images from the news media as source material, Cristina G. Labarga paints urban landscapes in flames as the result of protests, uprisings, and riots.

I immediately recognized the infamous image of an under-construction affordable housing building ablaze in Minneapolis, burned during the unrest following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. Conversely, Madrid native Paula Cremades’ tiny plaster reliefs of interiors seem at first calm and welcoming. But the domestic spaces they depict take on an unsettling quality with their surreal perspectives and unstable geometry. Or perhaps their skewed wonkiness is a declaration of independence and refuge—she has literally carved out a space for herself, uninhabitable to the uninvited.

Ana Segovia at Karen Huber
Maximilien Pellet at Double V Gallery

ARCO
IFEMA, Avda. del Partenón 5
Through Feb 26

ARCO, now with a whopping 42 editions under its belt, is the mother of all Madrid art fairs. It’s held in the massive IFEMA conference center, which is one of those non-places that looks like it could’ve been thrown up in the course of a few months in the middle of the desert in a B-list Emirate to house a race car tradeshow or something and then promptly forgotten. But thankfully for IFEMA, it’s conveniently located on a metro line equidistant between one of the world’s nicest international airports and most interesting, fun cities. So it’s actually the perfect place to have a giant art fair.

What ARCO’s setting lacks in charm compared to other Madrid venues, it more than makes up for with quality. There’s so much good art here I am going back for another visit before the fair closes. This year, there’s an emphasis on Mediterranean and Latin American artists and galleries, which makes for an interesting mix of new and familiar faces and unexpected dialogues. Take, for example, the two works above by Ana Segovia (shown by one of my favorite Mexico City galleries, Karen Huber) and Maximilien Pellet (presented by Double V Gallery of Marseille).

For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated/mystified by the amount of contemporary art about pants that’s #trending right now. Ana Segovia has been painting pants for a long time in her investigations of machismo and identity, and here they’re displayed in a cool pinwheel formation that forms an animation as you walk around it. Pellet’s gorgeous, illustration-like mosaics also evoke a kind of architectural “site specificity” (even though both pieces are obviously technically moveable objects) that contrast with the idea of garments as an inherently un-static thing.

Huanchaco at Espacio Valverde

There’s a similar (although a bit more on-the-nose) association in Huanchaco’s installation at Madrid gallery Espacio Valverde’s booth. Here, a replica of a pre-Columbian bas relief lays prone in a therapy session. We hear the voice of a psychoanalyst explaining the rock carving’s identity crisis—a piece of art for a defunct religion, rendered imponent by colonialism and divorced from its architectural context in a conquered city.

Gereon Krebber and Sinta Werner at Berlin's Alexander Levy Gallery
Gereon Krebber and Sinta Werner at Berlin's Alexander Levy Gallery

The immutability of architecture is also called in to question in the work of Gereon Krebber and Sinta Werner at Berlin’s Alexander Levy Gallery. Werner modifies or obscures photos of modernist architecture with processes such as sanding or layering of glass panes—disrupting both anonymous buildings or symbols of corporate power such as Paul Rudolph’s Lippo Center in Hong Kong. Krebber’s massive ceramic models are “damaged” pre-bisquing, and then fired with drippy glazes. The result is a dystopian cityscape in ruins, disturbingly evocative of recent scenes from the Ukraine or Syria.

Eva Koťátková at Prague's Hunt Kastner Gallery
Anna Hulačová at Pedro Cera
Eva Fàbregas at Bombon Projects
Josep Maynou (pants and chanclas) and Eva Fàbregas at Bombon Projects

The organ-referencing trend is in full swing all over IFEMA, with effects ranging from “cute” to full-on body horror to something in between. I was pleasantly surprised to see Barcelona’s Bombon projects with an installation from Eva Fàbregas, similar to their interactive booth at the last Basel Liste, which I also loved. And, bonus, they paired Fàbregas with Josep Maynou’s silver chanclas and pants! The pants cheekily (no pun intended) feature a phone with a lit flash in their butt pocket.

Grace Weaver paintings and sculptures by Rachel Youn at Soy Capitán of Berlin

Berlin gallery Soy Capitán has a booth with another moment of curatorial alchemy that seemed to touch on something I had been thinking about before entering the fair. In Grace Weaver’s painting, figures power-walk around a bleak parking lot. In Rachel Youn’s kinetic sculptures, artificial flowers are attached to the kind of machines that are supposed to jiggle fat and simulate exercise, or here, a synthetic meadow blowing in the breeze.

Seen together, they speak to the strange idea that physical activity is no longer the natural default. In paved paradise—the topic of debate in so much of Spanish urban politics—the existence of human bodies doing what they do (walk) or plants (existing) isn’t a given, it’s a controversy. The word “pedestrian” has somehow sneakily entered our vocabulary to describe the existence of the human body without a prosthesis (vehicle) and its right to exist and move freely through space is something that we can regulate and restrict now that it has been named.

Jessica Kairé at Proyectos Ultravioleta

In Jessica Kairé’s work at Proyectos Ultravioleta, the superstar gallery of Guatemalan art, urban landmarks associated with power are rendered in soft materials. Her delicately cut and folded cardstock silhouettes are lovely—simultaneously defining a skyline while “toppling” the monuments or buildings they depict.

 

Nikita Kadan paintings and plaster sculptures by Mykola Ridny at Voloshyn

Kyiv gallery Voloshyn made their debut this year at ARCO, marking the first time a Ukrainian gallery has shown at the fair. Here, too, the built environment is treated with uncertainty. Mykola Ridny created these black plaster sculptures of Ukrainian landmarks after escaping the war to Berlin. Nikita Kadan’s posters are heartbreaking—each evocative of a protest placard, scribbled repeatedly to the point that many become nearly illegible.

Apparently, some of these were created while she and the gallerists sought refuge in the gallery for days during Russian bombing last year. They bring to mind a frantic cry for help, but also the sense that slogans become powerless with repetition. Are we numb to calls to action? The last one reads “STOP BUYING GAS FROM FASCISTS,” and I can’t help but think that the world never will—after all, we all know fossil fuels fund almost exclusively oppressive regimes from Russia to Brunei and Saudi Arabia to proxy-warlords in Darfur and Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but few are willing to live without them.

Ella Lynch at Ye Collective
Sally Hewett "The Milkmaid's Tale" at Ye Collective

HYBRID Art Fair
Hotel Petit Palace Santa Bárbara, Plaza de Sta. Bárbara, 10
Through Feb 26

HYBRID Art Fair is probably the smallest fair in Madrid, but arguably the most fun. I love a hotel fair on the fringe of a gayborhood.

There’s a ton of worthwhile art here that takes full advantage of its context—think sexually-charged paintings laying on hotel beds and sound installations in stairwells, along with loads of interactive programming. One of the standout booths comes from London-based Ye Collective (above).

Gert Resinger at Vienna-based Dessous

Every object and image in the Vienna-based gallery Dessous’ room was fantastic, but I only managed to get a decent photo of this Versace-underwear-clad lamp by Gert Resinger, who upcycles mannequins into usable sculptures. This is a close tie for favorite artwork in the fair with his flowerpot, made from a mannequin leg extended to absurd proportions to bring a tiny parlor palm eye-level with the viewer.

Naomi Middelmann at The Woman Art Gallery of Bern

I was also pleasantly surprised to come across these small, delicate drawings by Johns Hopkins alumna Naomi Middelmann in The Woman Art Gallery’s room. From her Migration series, the pointillist mark-making evokes statistical data visualization, while depicting the kind of ruin someone would be forced to migrate from.

UVNT
Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos Madrid, Calle Hortaleza 63
Through Feb 26

A quick, pleasant stroll from HYBRID’s hotel digs, UVNT offers another manageably sized art fair in an architecture school—a must-see for fans of modernism. Again, it’s hard to pick highlights here because there was so much good work. It’s also one of those art fairs with a jovial kind of vibe, where everyone seems actually excited to be there. Usually after doing a circuit of five fairs in under 48 hours, I’d be too drained to engage with any more art. But that was definitely not a problem here—a testament to the quality of Madrid’s myriad art fair offerings.

Pepe Moreno (L) and Luca Bjørnsten (R) at GÄRNA Gallery

Madrid-based GÄRNA Gallery is showing a fun, tight group show called Social Landscapes, featuring meme-like paintings from Pepe Moreno (L) and Luca Bjørnsten (R). The latter is a Danish painter who cheerily documents the banal (although likely “exotic” to the eyes of a Copenhagen native) ways late capitalism and its infrastructure destroy the planet, from Los Angeles freeways and gas stations to plastic bags.

Cesc Abad at Curators Room
Ana Sting (photos) paintings by Angel de Leon and sculptures by Agnes Questionmark at Plataforma 2

But I’m happy to report that the strongest booths in the fair come from Barcelona galleries (my adopted hometown for the past year). The Curators Room is showing playful/grotesque paintings and ceramics by Cesc Abad, whose clunky, cartoonish aesthetic belies really well-crafted objects. Plataforma 2 has a total show-stopper of a group booth, smartly curating a mix of wildly different artists who share an irreverent je ne sais quoi.

Ana Sting’s photographic self-portraits see the artist inhabit different feminine archetypes she sees within herself. Some of the drag-like transformations are so extreme I didn’t even realize they were all pictures of the same person until I met the artist and did a double take. Agnes Questionmark, for her part, has some of the strangest sculptures in the “freaky crafty anatomy” category. Her translucent blobs evoke larger-than-life human fetuses, crystalized and hard like a kidney stone, with colorful nebulae that might be nascent organs forming.

I’m still not sure exactly what’s behind this zeitgeist towards abstracting internal anatomy, but I do know Madrid has won my heart.

Photos by the author

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