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Cigarettes, Ceramics, and Curatorial Chaos: We Went To SPRING/BREAK’s “Secret Show”

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What’s on view: A “homecoming” show of over 300 works by artists in the SPRING/BREAK orbit. Salon-style, primarily painting and ceramics with loose themes, including: cigarettes, beer, Bushwick nostalgia, neon patterns, floral ceramics, horse paintings, attempts to expose government and corporate corruption. Works are loosely grouped in four rooms and a hallway of a former orphan asylum turned parochial school turned residential building in New York’s NoLIta where SPRING/BREAK first exhibited.

Whitney: SO MANY CIGS. Wall-to-wall cigs. From candy-sized to pool noodle-scale, this show contained so many depictions of cigarettes that every tubular object started to resemble a cigarette. You are a cigarette. I am a cigarette. This is the show of one thousand cigarettes. 

Michael: I, for one, am extremely proud that neither of us (who were dedicated chain smokers as veteran ArtFCity art criticism coworkers in a past life) ducked out to bum a real cigarette from a passer-by. 

Whitney: I did vape in the bathroom, despite the “No Smoking or Vaping!!” sign. Sorry, but what do you expect me to do here?

 

Emily Marchand (L), Dasha Bazanova, and Mary Gagler (R)
Thomas Martinez-Pilnik
Thomas Martinez-Pilnik (top), Mary Gagler (L), and Dasha Bazanova
You are a cigarette. I am a cigarette. This is the show of one thousand cigarettes.
Whitney Kimball

We’ve got a lotttt to say about the quality of the work here, but up front: SPRING/BREAK might be the savviest business model on the art fair circuit. Rather than rent booth space to large commercial galleries, it operates as the gallery itself, selling work directly through its e-commerce platform for a commission. Similar to a fair, it also sells tickets (albeit at much more accessible prices than the big guys) and charges non-refundable $75-$150 application fees to curators and some nonprofits and small galleries for “special projects.”

This means it has an inexhaustible supply of product (work by emerging artists), generates income as both gallery and fair (application fees, tickets, and commission), and it can sell at a leisurely pace after the event to its collector pool. Meanwhile, The Art Newspaper is running ominous front page headlines about a cooling art market. 

“Everyone said we were crazy,” co-founder Ambre Kelly told us, about the decision, years ago, to post prices online in full view. Today, she is enviably relaxed. The show is by no means sold out, but it’s selling—and, in many cases, around the same or higher price points per square inch than those at NADA. Twenty minutes north, a building full of NADA dealers look like they’re about to have aneurysms. 

And one more thing (sorry Michael!), important to clarify that this isn’t a typical SPRING/BREAK fair—it’s a casual invite-only reunion show of over 300 works that happens to coincide with Frieze for a lower ticket price ($13) and no outside curator. They’ve heavily emphasized the last bit, that this is meant to be casual. 

As for what that looks like as an art exhibition… paging Michael…

Marianna Peragallo's resin-coated fabric planter that looks convincingly like an inconspicuous trash bag.
Deric Carner (L), Mariana Peragallo (Lamp), and Taylor Lee Nicholson (ceramics and astroturf... including ceramic cigarette butts.)

Michael: Well, let me start by saying SPRING/BREAK is one of those annual art destinations that’s always been close to my heart. It was the first big art event I attended when the world reopened post-COVID, and its accessibility and independent curator-driven ethos has historically been a breath of fresh air in the context of so much stuffy commercialism. So I think I might’ve set my expectations somewhat too high for this slightly-off-brand edition? I will say the Secret Show made me wax nostalgic for what sets a typical SPRING/BREAK apart: an emphasis on curators. 

Whitney: Yeah—as a disclaimer, again, this isn’t a SPRING/BREAK art fair. 

The result is every square inch of wall space covered in paintings and ceramics with no clear thesis… The only throughline is that they’re for sale. Which drove home for me that this is just as much a commercial enterprise as any other fair and always has been—it’s more inclusive, but it’s not democratic. It’s a business. 

Michael: I’m not sure that’s necessarily fair… I mean, SPRING/BREAK has historically prioritized putting on a good show and critical discourse just as much (if not more) than appeasing collectors.  

Whitney: That makes sense. I’m more so saying that “business” isn’t a bad word. Post-Occupy, SPRING/BREAK’s lower barrier to entry felt so exciting that socially conscious critics seemed to overlook the business side. Which turned out to be a really smart sales model to be reckoned with.

Kevin Dudley, “Docile 3” from the series “It’s a Beautiful World Filled with Perfect Things”

If anything, the haphazard pile-on in Secret Show also made me appreciate SPRING/BREAK’s typical focus on curation more. Look at this man-faced cat. This was my favorite piece in the show, and it’s shoved in a corner behind a radiator. Both of us nearly missed it. A lot of decisions like this.

Kevin Dudley, "Docile 3" from the series "It's a Beautiful World Filled with Perfect Things"

Michael: Oh my god! Kevin Dudley’s terrifying cat lurking in the corner was the best surprise!!

I did notice the show was somewhat organized around stylistic or thematic similarities, but mostly seemed curated around the individual tastes and networks of its founders. This strategy is a bit hit-or-miss. I don’t think putting a lot of cigarette butts rendered in different materials in the same gallery necessarily makes me like any of them any more. And when quite a bit of “on-the-nose” political works are crammed together and unevenly lit it starts to feel like a tedious group crit for an art school homework assignment. 

Takashi Horisaki's #InstaBonsai ceramic series
Ceramics by Megan Bogonovich with diptych by Lizzie Gill in background
SPRING/BREAK might be the savviest business model on the art fair circuit. Rather than rent booth space to large commercial galleries, it operates as the gallery itself, selling work directly through its e-commerce platform for a commission.
Whitney Kimball

That being said, the first room we saw—albeit a bit overhung and uneven—had some really lovely moments of dialog between 2D and 3D work. Megan Bogonovich’s veritable botanical garden of surreal ceramic flowers made me love Lizzie Gill’s paintings of floral arrangements in ceramic vessels even more than I would have on their own, and vice-versa. Both artists stand out for a level of craftsmanship I was more than a little disappointed to find lacking in a lot of what was on view.

There were a ton of great paintings and ceramics, actually—as well as maybe a few too-many not-great paintings—but quality variances bothered me less in this space than the others, perhaps because most things were pretty. Is that a superficial judgment call on my part? Maybe. But collectors seemed to agree; I noticed a lot of the first-floor works had sold by Saturday afternoon. 

Whitney: Yep, many sales of ceramics at the nonprofit Vermont gallery Kishka. After a couple days working a booth at NADA, this checklist was the “breath of fresh air” that SPRING/BREAK is known for…

…if not necessarily the art in many other cases. 

 

Peter Dudek
Johannah Herr

Michael: Across the hall, we encountered a small gallery that seemed organized around dispelling Americana mythology—think lots of paintings of “American Dream” suburban houses. At its strongest, this impulse led to Peter Dudek’s cute diptych prints of Le Corbusier’s Domino House dreaming of a “vernacular” abode, and vice-versa. I appreciated the irony of this. Basically, since the end of WWII, more self-built (truly vernacular) housing globally has been more-or-less based on trickle-down variations of Corbusier’s plans, while the giant soulless corporate developers have paved North America to crank-out assembly-line vinyl-sided imitations of “traditional” houses sold on some imaginary pastoral romanticism. A “machine for living” indeed… until all the pollinators are dead under asphalt cul-de-sacs and TruGreen Chemlawns. 

And, at its weirdest, this was reflected in a curious #cancelNASA piece by Johannah Herr—part of a didactic series about conspiracies ranging from the FDA’s complicity in industrializing nutritionally bankrupt carbohydrates to Nazi scientist involvement in the Cold War space race. Think deceptively cheery mid-century-inspired collages and rotating architectural models of Illuminati-esque food pyramids and a tiny space agency complete with a felt swastika on the roof. 

Whitney: We stared at the swastika roof spinning for a long time. Neither of us spoke for like, five minutes… I think we were trying to decipher whether there was more to this… which brings us to this room:

Installation view, various artists

Michael: Never have I ever felt more like Thora Birch’s character in Ghost World rolling her eyes in mandatory summer school art class than in gallery number 3: “Now, last week I asked you to try to create an artwork that responds to something you have strong feelings about…” 

Nuclear fallout! Chemical warfare! Newport 100s! Is Cracker-Barrel-dining America as addicted to guns as you and I and every other big-city coastal neurotic are to nicotine? Or are cigarettes as deadly as bullets? There are so many (two) interpretations to some truly transgressive works here…. 

Noah Kloster, “Cigarette Gun”

Whitney: This is now the “Mirror Father Mirror” room (see above YouTube link for reference). 

If it’s not evident, the American flag depicted above is collaged from Newport packs. 

Michael: I think it’s a testament to SPRING/BREAK’s user-friendly collecting format that both of these aforementioned works by Noah Kloster sold for a total in excess of $14,000!

Whitney: On a lighter note, these creations made me appreciate simple earnestness more. Upstairs, we were delighted to find Russian ceramicist Dasha Bazanova’s miniature hot tubs. An abundance of surrounding cigarette sculptures gave these the feel of worlds within ashtrays. Tiny horny mermaids wearing trucker caps, hanging out naked with their pets eating Takis and swigging Malibu and liters of Coke, are molded and painted with loving detail.

Dasha Bazanova
Dasha Bazanova

In the process of making these, Bazanova discovered that shards of glass, fired with the clay, melted and formed pools of water. She was there to tell us this, which always helps endear the viewer to an artist’s work, but we would have stopped to hang out in this universe anyway. The joy of creating is always a pleasure to look at.

Michael: Dasha Bazanova is totally the breakout star of this SPRING/BREAK… I hope. I also think she is a really good example of an artist who was done a disservice by lack of more rigorous curatorial consideration. Some of her minuscule pieces get a bit lost in the melee of one-liner art objects, and I couldn’t help but think how deserving she is of a solo booth or inclusion in a smaller, tighter group show, like the tried-and-tested SPRING/BREAK format we know and love from editions past.

Whitney: Agreed! The legion of surrounding cigarette butts led me to first ask what these meant in the context of cigarettes. I’d similarly first scanned artist Qin Tan’s yellow cylindrical figure on the opposite wall as a cigarette man… ceci n’est pas une cigarette.

 

Qin Tan

Michael: Back to Bazanova: there’s an incredible amount of detail, craftsmanship, and pathos in her miniature mise-en-scènes. And there’s something familiar and yet alienating and simultaneously, humorously charming here. I also respect her willingness to experiment and take risks. Considering the amount of labor that goes into her process, it’s pretty ballsy to put unpredictable found materials into the kiln and risk disaster. But I think that also speaks to one of her strengths: she seemingly effortlessly walks a fine line avoiding something being overly “precious” and something being overly quotidian or forgettable. 

I’d love to see a curator tackle all of the above with more focus. In the past, one of SPRING/BREAK’s strengths has always been finding curators who can balance accessibility, craft, concept, heart, and context. Let’s choose to look forward to better editions of the main fair to come! 

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