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SWAB Barcelona Demonstrates Accessibility and Criticality aren’t Mutually Exclusive

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It is the balmiest autumn in Spain’s history, and it feels strangely appropriate to be wiping sweat from my brow as I’m queued-up to see (among many other things) excerpts from Hoesy Corona’s Climate Ponchos series at SWAB Barcelona. The series depicts migrants who might be fleeing drought, famine, wildfires, floods—or the political instability exacerbated by all of the above—here rendered in industrial processes and materials to create armor-like yet unwearable garments. The association with protection and territory feels equal parts feudal and futile—the laser-cut armor can neither effectively shield nor comfortably sit on a body, but questions what happens when the implied absent bodies can no longer belong to a place on an overheating planet. 

This year—SWAB’s 16th—the art fair finds itself at Fira Montjuïc, situated next to both Barcelona’s Oktoberfest and the reconstruction of Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s famed German Pavilion for the 1929 International Expo. It’s a fitting, surreal context for Corona’s work, between the greenhouse-like building that heralded the advent of modernity and the sight of lederhosen-clad partiers fanning themselves while sweltering in a heat once considered unseasonable. 

 

Hoesy Corona, Climate Ponchos," 2022, Laser cut powder coated stainless steel and Rosalía Banet, "Banquete rosa," 2023, acrylic resin
Hoesy Corona, "Climate Immigrants Tapestry," 2023, performance for the camera, digital collage, jacquard weaving, hand cut vinyl, thread
I so wish more art spaces from the Baltimore/DC region participated in smart, well-curated smaller fairs like this—putting local artists in dialogue with international peers and in front of international audiences and kingmakers.
Michael Anthony Farley

“Of course, I wanted to show Hoesy here!” exclaims Gabriela Rosso, the gallerist behind Maryland’s RoFa Projects. “This is his first art fair, and it’s one with a youthful energy—it attracts a younger collector base.” There’s a palpable playful vibe at SWAB that’s refreshing in an art fair calendar ever more jam-packed with events that feel more obligatory than celebratory. (Is anyone actually looking forward to braving the bedbug plague for Paris+ par Art Basel next week?) 

RoFa Projects, which has two locations in Montgomery County, specializes in showing Latinx artists in Maryland in dialogue with artists from the larger Spanish-speaking world. At SWAB, they’re presenting Corona’s work alongside Spanish artist Rosalía Banet and Peruvian artist Natalia Revilla. Banet’s mixed-media “Banquete” installations present food objects of desire in inedible materials, referencing the noxious chemical additives that make food more “appealing.” But it’s her 2D works that really steal the show. They more subtly reference the body and its relation to industrialization through collaged forms undulating between voluptuous pink blobs and silhouettes evocative of factory rooflines or machinery. They’re gorgeous. 

 

Rosalía Banet, "Suite Japonesa," 2023, collage on wood, and "Banquete dorado," 2023, acrylic resin
Natalia Revilla, "Fue otro lugar," (It was another place), 2023, Laser cut wood and natural dyes
SWAB is a great fair because there’s always something new to see. 
Omar López-Chahoud

On the other side of the booth, Natalia Revilla’s small wooden assemblages bear the index of a variety of techniques ranging from laser-cutting to drawing and dyeing using natural pigments from South American jungles. They are based on untranslatable expressions or words that only exist in one language—a personal obsession of mine—and the violence inflicted on their indigenous speakers and the landscapes they inhabit. They’re a sober reminder of colonialism’s lasting impacts and continuing processes in an otherwise largely cheery, technicolor art fair. 

RoFa is just one of dozens of fantastic booths at the fair, but I am using it as an example of what’s great about SWAB and the opportunity it represents for galleries both local and abroad. I so wish more art spaces from the Baltimore/DC region participated in smart, well-curated smaller fairs like this—putting local artists in dialogue with international peers and in front of international audiences and kingmakers. For example, I bump into Omar López-Chahoud at the opening—a jet-setting curator and friend of BmoreArt, who serves on both SWAB’s advisory committee and as the Artistic Director of UNTITLED, one of our favorite big art fairs. He tells me SWAB is a great fair because there’s always something new to see. 

 

New York's Secret Project Robot showing paintings by Rachel Nelson (L) and Kristen Schiele (R) along with ceramics by Erik Zajaceskowski, which he calls "Beautiful Uglies"
Raphaël-Bachir Osman at DS Galerie of Paris
Haunting paintings by Anna Ruth (L) with mixed-media sculptures by Kateřina Komm and augmented reality paintings by Radka Bodzewicz (background, right) that interact with visitors' smartphones in a booth from Prague-based Bold Gallery
Chilean painter Paulina Silva Chala at Grenada's Espacio La Raíz

The more I run into artist friends, the more a recurring theme comes up: SWAB is accessible, in every meaning of the word. General admission tickets are only €15—cheaper than most European museums—with discounts for students and seniors, and free for children under 14. No one gave me a number, but booth rentals here are apparently much more economical than other fairs (of lesser curatorial caliber). And importantly, probably because of its affordability to emerging gallerists, there’s work on view at a variety of price points. The fair reserves spaces for galleries at different stages in their career—specifically welcoming young out-of-town galleries who have never shown at an international art fair before, galleries with less than 5 years in operation, solo projects, and emerging galleries from Latin America, respectively. The result is a fair that’s diverse, fun, and full of surprises. There’s even a curated selection of video artists from Southeast Asia—a clever way to represent artists from a distant region without the logistical hurdles of object-based art shipping or travel for performers. 

 

Genís de Diego, at Barcelona's Espai 19 in the SOLO section of the fair
Luca Bjørnsten at JPS Gallery of Barcelona/Paris/Hong Kong/Tokyo (curiously, Barcelona is the only city I've ever lived in that doesn't have 7-11s)
There’s a running joke with my Barcelona friends that this is a city of artists in studios but none in the galleries...
Michael Anthony Farley

But perhaps more importantly, SWAB makes Barcelona’s often abstruse local art world feel accessible. There’s even a whole section of the fair sponsored by Fundació Vila Casas featuring independent, artist-run spaces from Catalunya presenting solo projects with the aim of highlighting regional trends in the art scene. With art spaces largely scattered across the city and its suburbs in former industrial zones or small clusters of storefronts, it often feels difficult to know what to see. Here, the cream of the crop is mostly under one roof, with actual crowd-pleasing works, to boot.

There’s a running joke with my Barcelona friends that this is a city of artists in studios but none in the galleries—so many of the lovely art objects of desire churned out by the legions of skilled ceramicists and classically-trained painters or experimental weavers who call this city home mostly end up getting exported by Barcelona galleries to international art fairs in other cities. Meanwhile, their brick-and-mortar spaces tend to favor a kind of esoteric conceptualism so dry and impenetrable it takes a Catalan-language doctorate in critical theory to even know what you’re looking at. (This is a broad, perhaps unfair generalization, but one that’s largely true: think galleries mostly empty save for a handful of found objects or abstract sound installations dwarfed by monoliths of curatorial text or manifesto-like artist statements. There’s a reason nearly every art opening in this town has thirty people outside on the sidewalk nursing their vermouth and cigarettes for every viewer inside actually looking at the show). 

The local intelligentsia’s resistance to displaying commodifiable art objects in their own spaces is probably rooted in a well-intentioned anti-capitalist discourse, but damn, it’s nice to actually look at a painting sometimes! I suspect the curatorial impulse toward heady object privation also tends to unintentionally class-segregate art audiences—walking around SWAB, I find myself wishing so many lovely-but-critically relevant photos, sculptures, drawings, and paintings were in the storefronts everyday people pass by, not tucked away in a convention center, reserved for a deliberate art audience. 

As a relatively recent newcomer to Barcelona, I appreciate SWAB as an approachable, welcoming entry point to this city’s art scene and beyond. And as a part-time/native Baltimorean, I so wish we had something like this—international, smart, fun, and so very accessible. 

 

Below, some more highlights:

Cotton and silk embroideries by Mariam Alcantara at Los Angeles' AWOL Gallery
Jim Ovelmen, “Dissonantia II," and "Dissonantia, Carnations," 2023, Oil on linen at Los Angeles' AWOL Gallery

AWOL is a gallery whose booths we’ve enjoyed at many an art fair over the years. At SWAB, they’ve swung for the fences with works ranging in scale from Mariam Alcantara’s intimate, 6″ embroideries of trash and mundane street scenes of urban sprawl to Jim Ovelmen’s sprawling, epic postapocalyptic painting/installation. But it feels totally cohesive. “We didn’t realize we’d curated such an ‘LA show’ until we saw it up!” gallerist Nicole Wang tells me with air quotes, laughing about the city’s dystopian reputation and looming, myriad threats of disasters. But some near-future apocalypse never looked so good. I’m sure there’s some very LA adage about a city dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse? As any longtime BmoreArt readers may recall, I for one think reports of LA’s near-future demise have been greatly exaggerated, at least as far as it’s apocalypse-obsessed art scene is concerned.

 

Velizar Dimchev, "BELCANTO," at CU29
Velizar Dimchev, "BELCANTO," at CU29

The curated sections of art fairs highlighting specific projects are always my favorite, and this year SWAB Seed does not disappoint. CU29a gallery from Plovdiv, Bulgaria—probably has one of the single weirdest booths I have ever seen in an art fair, and that is a real accomplishment. They’re showing Velizar Dimchev’s operatic “BELCANTO,” and fortunately I get the story straight from the artist’s mouth at the vernissage. “BELCANTO” is apparently an infamous Bulgarian scrap yard/recycling center, with rumored links to—uh, let’s say… unsavory elements. Inspired by the junk yard’s unlikely name, a reference to classical Italian singing, Dimchev filmed a friend of his performing opera amongst the mangled ruins of cars, refrigerators, and various other pieces of detritus in situ. The result is hilarious and absurd, as are the artist’s assemblages, which mash-up pop culture depictions of opera with upcycled car parts salvaged from the namesake scrap yard. 

 

Venuca Evanan Vivanco at Espacio Enhorabuena
Venuca Evanan Vivanco at Espacio Enhorabuena

Espacio Enhorabuena, a Madrid-based gallery dedicated to showcasing Latin American artists at the heart of the former imperial capital, is one of my favorite art spaces in Spain. By either a stroke of luck or a very clever curatorial sleight of hand, their booth wall featuring Venuca Evanan Vivanco’s tiny paintings faces the bar line—the only guaranteed spot for the undivided attention of a captive audience at an art fair! Which is perfect, because these small but potent works deserve every lumen of the spotlight they’re getting. There’s something really endearing about Evanan Vivanco’s hand, and she lovingly documents Southern Peruvian women in their fights for visibility and civil rights. The series was named best in the Emerging LATAM section, and was acquired by José Luis Lorenzo—joining one of the most esteemed collections in Argentina. 

 

Alán Carrasco, "Mi Primer Millón de Dólares" at Barcelona's ADN Galeria
Alán Carrasco, "Mi Primer Millón de Dólares" at Barcelona's ADN Galeria

Alán Carrasco’s “My First Million Dollars” takes a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the history of the Global North’s interventions in South America. The artist tells me he was shocked to discover that in the year he was born 16,800,000 Intis—the now-defunct currency Peru used to attempt to counter inflation in the 1980s—was equivalent to one million US dollars but could fit in his hand. The piece is a commentary on both the subjective, fluctuating value of money, and also the legacies of financial exploitation in the Global South—Peru’s economy during its “Lost Decade” was tanked by escalating foreign debt world powers saddled the country with in what was very likely a grab for its land and natural resources.

 

Nina Kovenksy, "REALIDAD DISMINUIDA" at Quimera Galería of Buenos Aires
Nina Kovensky, "REALIDAD DISMINUIDA" at Quimera Galería of Buenos Aires
Ruben Raven at Josilda da Conceição Gallery of Amsterdam
Paintings by Winnie Seifert with Marcel Walldorf's installation "Mephisto's Lounge" at Kunsthalle Ost, of Leipzig
Adrián Gómez Ramírez at MMUNDO NYC
Adrián Gómez Ramírez at MMUNDO NYC
There's something reassuring about seeing work from artists that have built a decades-spanning career on foundations of craft traditions, but manage to use them to ends that feel contemporary. Or maybe, like I suspect a lot of the emerging artists here will prove to be, he was just ahead of his time.
Michael Anthony Farley

I’m ending on the note that I am overjoyed to see Adrián Gómez Ramírez at MMUNDO NYC’s booth. In a fair that’s very much characterized by youthfulness, it’s nice to see a septuagenarian artist getting a well-deserved solo show. Gómez Ramírez studied printmaking and traditional textile design in his native Oaxaca as well as Mexico City, and has kept up a practice spanning half a century learning different weaving and natural dye techniques from artisan masters, as well as experimenting with materials ranging from jewelry to ceramics. His small, comic-like weavings have a sort of punk/pop aesthetic and a combination of earnestness and humor that wouldn’t be out of place at a millennial DIY warehouse art space.

There’s something reassuring about seeing work from artists that have built a decades-spanning career on foundations of craft traditions, but manage to use them to ends that feel contemporary. Or maybe, like I suspect a lot of the emerging artists here will prove to be, he was just ahead of his time.

 

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