What to See in Madrid: Highlights, Trends, and Notes from the Art Fairs

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I’ve been in Madrid for most of the past week, trying to see as much art as possible between ARCO and its numerous satellite fairs. All of them close on Sunday, March 10, so I’ve assembled my top picks you can reasonably cram into two days. 

ARCO, now celebrating its 43rd edition, has become one of the most important events on the European art calendar. It’s such a big deal the king and queen of Spain were there to inaugurate the fair, and I’m kinda kicking myself for not snapping a photo, since I was there at the time for the preview! But in general I tend to let myself forget that Spain still has a monarchy… or rather, went back to having a monarchy in the 1970s. It’s a long story people don’t really like to talk about. 

But, on the topic of touchy subjects (no pun intended) part of ARCO’s enduring appeal is a focus on bringing together galleries from Spain’s former colonies and neighbors in the global north under one roof. Last year, I was worried that role might be becoming redundant with the meteoric rise of fairs in Miami, Mexico City, and now Los Angeles. I realized, however, that strong local support from institutions, collectors, and the state (hell, even the fricking king!) keeps the momentum going. It’s hard to imagine Charles and Camilla cutting the ribbon at Frieze London… but I bet Harry and Megan would be down for the photo op at its California spin-off for the right price!


Berlin-based gallery Hua International has a strong booth at ARCO with innovative mixed-media works by Alfredo Aceto, Vivian Caccuri, Rafael Domenech, Fanny Gicquel, Gordon Hall, Dorothea Reese-Heim, Tong Kunniao, and Lea von Wintzingerode
I probably spent about half my time at ARCO browsing their huge publications section, which is jam-packed with great books, magazines, and artist editions.

At any rate, the fair, much like its international boomtown host city, keeps growing—this current edition boasts 206 galleries from 36 countries. Even before the main fair opened to the general public it was packed with VIPs from around the world, and over the past few days I’ve seen throngs of crowds and strong sales at nearly all the other shows as well. 

That might be partially attributed to the successful strategy of booths with works at a variety of price points and sizes in nearly all the fairs. Sure, many a gallery at ARCO brought one or two monumental blockbuster pieces (some larger than most Madrid apartments) with the hopes of landing a sale to a mega-collector or museum, but bets were often hedged with an assortment of more accessible (and manageably sized) paintings, prints and multiples, or ceramics. 

The vast majority of the art on display around town this year leans heavily into the crowd-pleaser variety. That’s not necessarily always a bad thing—I often say I don’t expect commercial art fairs to fulfill the function of kunsthallen or biennials, to challenge viewers—but the glaring lack of political work at most venues was a bit shocking considering, well, literally everything going on in the world. (Hybrid Art Fair, with its queer/feminist focus, Palestinian solidarity messages, and artist-centric ethos was a welcome exception). 

I even noticed that many institutional acquisitions were disappointingly safe. Of the untold hundreds of sold paintings I’ve seen at various fairs in the past few days—kinda goofy “street art inspired” pop, Basquiat knockoffs, or perfectly inoffensive abstraction that could’ve been generated by an AI prompted to make something that looks like it was painted by Grace Hartigan or Philip Guston five or six decades ago—a confusing number were sold to museums or foundations. I’m not naming names, but come on! Shouldn’t institutions be supporting the artists the market usually doesn’t? Buy some weird, innovative, inscrutable shit! Any old rich person can purchase a derivative oil painting. The curators whose salaries their endowments fund should know better and support something fresh. 

I, for one, could’ve spent a small fortune on interesting art this week. And this weekend, you can too. Here are my picks (as well as a few general observations about trends and outliers): 


Gregor Hildebrandt at Galería Casado Santapau
Gregor Hildebrandt at Perrotin

The first piece that caught my eye at ARCO was this Gregor Hildebrandt in Galería Casado Santapau‘s booth. At first I thought it was a replica of a mosaic from some subway station I’ve been in somewhere and racked my brain trying to place my visual déjà vu. But when I got up close to read the title card, realized it was actually assembled from cut vinyl records. Almost immediately across the aisle, Perrotin is showing another Hildebrandt, this one composed of stacked cassette tape cases. At first I didn’t even notice they were by the same artist. But they’re perhaps the best examples of a trend that’s everywhere this week: grids, often comprising found/upcycled objects.


Emilia Azcárate
Quisqueya Henríquez

This year, ARCO has a special presentation of art from the Caribbean curated by Carla Acevedo-Yates and Sara Hermann Morera. I was immediately drawn to this Emilia Azcárate sculpture from 2003, which is constructed from scraps of costumes the artist found in the streets of her native Trinidad after street festivals. I recalled a similar piece Andrea Fraser showed at the Prospect Biennial in New Orleans back in 2014, which likewise comprised off-cast costumes shed during Brazilian Carnival. I love that glittery celebratory garb and its destruction is such a Pan-American thing it became a medium in the early 21st century.

Also in the exhibition, titled The shore, the tide, the current: an oceanic Caribbean, the Cuban artist Quisqueya Henríquez is serving ice cream the color of antifreeze made out of seawater from the region. It’s both visually seductive and kinda unpalatably salty. Is this a commentary on the allure of the Caribbean’s impossibly turquoise beaches but often bitter realities? An extracted resource sent in backhanded tribute to the former seat of imperial power? I’m not sure, but watching people at the VIP opening try it and then attempt to regulate their confused/disgusted facial expressions through their Botox was a highlight of the day.


Rogelio López Cuenca shown by Galería Moisés Pérez de Albéniz at ARCO
Assume Vivid Astro Focus in Marlborough's ARCO booth (the gallery's Madrid location also has an AVAF solo show on view this month)
Claudia Pagès shown by àngels barcelona at ARCO

I stood transfixed in àngels barcelona‘s booth watching this multi-channel video installation by Claudia Pagès for a good ten minutes. The video seems to be shot with a GoPro and documents the artist hiking around the hills of Montjuïc overlooking Barcelona’s extremely controversial cruise ship terminal (which basically everyone except a handful of annoying politicians wants either closed or relocated).

At one point I think she’s peeing in the bushes? I can relate. Anyone who’s lived in Barcelona has gone for a clandestine wee in Montjuïc at some point!

Notably, this was selected as a finalist for the Premio illy SustainArt. Although it didn’t win, it should have—what could be more on brand for a coffee company than having to take an unexpected bathroom break?


João Gabriel at Lehmann + Silva's ARCO booth
João Gabriel at Lehmann + Silva's ARCO booth

One of ARCO 2024’s mottos could be “What Happens in the Bushes does not Stay in the Bushes,” as also evidenced by these lovely, massive paintings from João Gabriel. It seems like large, painterly oil paintings of the gays cruising in beach dunes have been trending lately? I have mixed feelings about this.

If rich straight people know the queers are having sex in the bushes on the dunes by their beach houses they are going to demand that they take away the vegetation! And then the dunes will erode! And we’ll all die from storm surges! Seriously: fear of gay sex in bushes is why so many of the world’s great urban parks had so much of their plantings removed in the 1970s-1990s.


Manuel Solano at Peres Projects's ARCO booth

I was thrilled to see these two painting by Manuel Solano in Perez Projects‘ booth. Solano went blind from an HIV-related infection a few years ago (read our interview about their incredible process here) and paints, among other things, memories from their childhood and adolescence in the suburbs of Mexico City. These large paintings of a mall’s atrium are so charming and odd.

I can never get over Solano’s capacity to elevate the mundane things or places most of us take for granted.


Farida El Gazzar at Kalfayan Galleries
Farida El Gazzar at Kalfayan Galleries

Farida El Gazzar is another painter who lovingly elevates quotidian landscapes. Kalfayan Galleries is showing a whole booth-full of her paintings at ARCO, and I think it’s one of the best examples of a gallery offering a lot of smaller works at more accessible prices without the booth feeling crowded or “cheap.”

The Greek-Egyptian painter finds frames she thinks are interesting at thrift stores, and then makes her work to fit them. These are all scenes from her walks around her neighborhood during COVID, and really communicate the appreciation we all felt on our little excursions during lockdown.


Moisés Barrios at Extra Galería

Similarly, Moisés Barrios paints scenes from his walks along the coast in his hometown in Guatemala with a tenderness that captures a sense of time, place, and light that’s really moving. Thinking about my Theory as to Why Everything is Suddenly Periwinkle from the most recent Art Basel Miami Beach, I asked the artist if he worked from camera phone reference photos. He told me he’s actually been taking his reference photos with an analogue film camera for decades. I am impressed.

Setting the right exposure, aperture, etc. to capture the quality of light at dusk to get a truthful sunset sky and translucent glow through foliage is no easy feat. Replicating that in oil paint is even harder. Talk about talent, patience, and skill!


"Some Books" by Wood&Harrison at Polígrafa Obra Gráfica, a gallery that specializes in limited-edition artist prints. My favorite of their fake book titles is "Tax evasion for the self-employed."
Nora Baron at The Ryder Projects
Sahatsa Jauregi at ATM Galería

Ever since 2018, I have had a fun game I play at art fairs where I try to find artwork made out of pants. There’s always art made out of pants! These two are my favs from ARCO, although technically Nora Baron’s assemblage in The Ryder Projects’ booth is a windbreaker with a foot dangling out of an arm hole… which I think I might like better than a straight-up pant leg.


Marc Badia at L21
Jordi Ribes (L) and Beth Letain at L21

I always love L21‘s installs at art fairs. This one might be there most cohesive and ambitious yet. They’ve built out their booth with interior arched partition walls—a form that repeats in the otherwise very different works from the painters they’re showing. Marc Badia‘s painting seems to show the booth in a future state of ruin, with some of the temporary walls toppled, the convention center roof collapsed, and vines reclaiming the space.


Mar Ramon Soriano at Nordés
Paloma Navares presented by Fundación ENAIRE

I first saw Paloma Navares‘ uncanny, vaguely cyberpunk sculpture comprising transparent photos of babies in plastic containers during her well-earned retrospective at Centre de Carme in Valencia last summer. It was one of those exhibitions that really stuck with me.

Here at ARCO, I’m thrilled to see she won the Premio Trayectoria, presented by Fundación ENAIRE. Mostly, I couldn’t help but think of the absurd Alabama Supreme Court ruling declaring frozen embryos are full-blown people, placing the reproductive rights of thousands of IVF patients at risk. I laughed a little bit, wondering if this is what Republicans really think fertility clinics look like.

I also did a full on LOL in front of Mar Ramon Soriano‘s piece at Nordés, titled “Popular Ceramics,” which features the iconic erotic pottery wheel scene from Ghost rolled up and shoved into a pot.


Art Madrid
Nicolas De Maya at Galería La Aurora at Art Madrid

After ARCO, I swung by Art Madrid. I hate to say this, but honestly if you’re absolutely really stretched for time this weekend, it’s the one art fair I’d have to recommend snipping from the “must-see” list, just because it felt a little thin this year. (Although its totally gorgeous setting in the Galería de Cristal del Palacio de Cibeles, this article’s feature image, is worth a visit in and of itself.)

Maybe I was just a bit art burnt-out after covering what felt like several airplane hangars worth of art at the convention center, but I felt like most of the work on view was something I had seen before and didn’t love.

However, if you’re in the area for museums or other exhibitions, it’s worth a visit for some of the really great highlights that are the kind of art you need to see in person. Photos don’t do justice to the washy, dreamy, illustration-like oil paintings of Costa Gorel. Every one is a decadent scavenger hunt of details, with androgynous figures lounging and frolicking in baroque settings that give the fair’s building a run for its money.

The Taipei gallery Yiri Arts is showing in almost every fair this year, and all their booths are great, with totally different work that’s equal parts skilled and innovative. At Art Madrid, they’re showing these acrylic on linen paintings by Huang Shun-Ting, out of which forms or details appear to have been manually excised, perhaps with latex interference fluid or another masking technique. The result are surfaces that alternate between impossibly refined and raw. Again, works that really need to be seen in person.


Costa Gorel at Dr. Robot Gallery
Huang Shun-Ting at Yiri Arts' Art Madrid booth
Matadero Madrid, home to UVNT
Federico Luger at Wizard Gallery's UVNT booth

UVNT Art Fair moved this year and has set up shop in a tent on the campus of Matadero Madrid—a former slaughterhouse that’s been converted to cultural spaces including artist studios and theaters. It’s one of my favorite places in the city, but I wonder if that’s why crowds seemed a little thinner at the fair this year—I get the impression that a lot of rich people in Madrid don’t venture that far south very often, which is probably good news for all my friends enjoying relatively cheaper rent just across the river in the very gentrification-prone capital.

Content-wise, the fair also seemed a little more lighthearted than I remember. This painting of a banana saying “SAVE THE PLANET” is pretty much the closest thing to anything “political” on view, which in even slightly less apocalyptic times probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much as I have been letting it all week.

The upside of this is that humor and play abound at UVNT. One of the first things I saw was Daniel Núñez‘a enormous, very charming, very simple painting of a butt in a thong. It’s great. There’s also lot’s of unexpected material experimentation. Kongkee’s paintings on metal at Whitestone Gallery have a really strange quality of light that—again—has to be experienced in person.

Ceramics are everywhere this year, and there are a lot of works that push the boundaries of the medium—stacking, deconstructing, assembling, and reaching proportions that must make kiln operators nervous.


Javier Carro (foreground) and Alberto Ardid at Arniches 26's UVNT booth
Julio Galindo at VETA by Fer Francés
Daniel Núñez at Galería Yusto/Giner
Kongkee at Whitestone Gallery
Beate Höing at Victor Lope Arte Contemporáneo
Rorro Berjano at Delimbo
Cesc Abad at GÄRNA Gallery
Renée Estée at Galería Herrero de Tejada
Martin Lukáč at Tönnheim Gallery
Maggie Groat and Jimmy Limit, "The Feeling is Dusk," curated by Tarin Dehod, featuring collages and collages digitally printed on fabric for AKA Artist-run at Hybrid Art Fair
CousinSister: Cathy Álvarez, Carnita Álvarez, and Reme Remedios

Just when I thought I was totally burned-out from spending too much time looking at art, I checked out Hybrid Art Fair, which is again being held at Hotel Petit Palace Santa Bárbara. There’s something about hotel fairs that always feels accessible and intimate—you basically have to talk to artists and gallerists if you walk into a hotel room rather than a booth, right?

That almost always makes for a more rewarding art-viewing experience, in addition to the fun curatorial strategies people employ turning transient, quasi-domestic spaces into exhibition spaces. Take for example, the project Cousin Sister, from Cathy Álvarez, Carnita Álvarez, and Reme Remedios. The Álvarez sisters are both artists, and when visiting the village their family migrated from decades ago, discovered they had a cousin they had never met, Reme Remedios, who also turned out to be an artist. The three women have been collaborating on mixed media works blending their respective disciplines since.


Aya Sawada, presented by the Japan Foundation, curated by Alejandra Rodríguez Cunchillos
Aya Sawada, presented by the Japan Foundation, curated by Alejandra Rodríguez Cunchillos
Chen Sheng-Wen at Yiri Arts
Chen Sheng-Wen at Yiri Arts

Yiri Arts is also showing at Hybrid, with a solo show of the Taiwanese artist Chen Sheng-Wen, who collects litter and embroiders hyper-detailed animals incorporating the trash into their bodies. The gallery also produced a really lovely publication of the artist’s work, each of which is slightly different due to the inclusion of litter.

I thought immediately of the book BmoreArt’s own Raquel Castedo designed for Post-Consumption Benediction, a two-person exhibit featuring Adam Stab and Jordan Tierney at BmoreArt’s Connect + Collect Gallery!


Rafael Arocha "The Boss is Here" presented by Margullo Books
Backbeatbolaget Konst

Another clever publication design comes from Rafael Arocha at Margullo Books. “The Boss is Here” is bound with screws, so that when it’s easily unbound it can be hung as a photo mural depicting the uncomfortable, submissive body language of employees at a multinational corporation’s offices in China the day their CEO visits. Like most of the gorgeous black-and-white photography on view here it feels weirdly kinky and voyeuristic.

Swedish gallery Backbeatbolaget KONST, meanwhile, has totally transformed their room into something like a disco, and artists from the collective—Backa Carin Ivarsdotter, Jon Perman, Karin Bäckström, and Jonas Westlund—all collaborated on elements of the installation, as well as a long scroll they’re making exquisite-corpse-style throughout the course of the fair.


Irina Drozd presented by Dom Art Residency
Irina Drozd presented by Dom Art Residency
Irina Drozd presented by Dom Art Residency

The total show-stopper, however, is Irina Drozd’s work, presented by Dom Art Residency. The ceramicist spent four years experimenting with pigments and glazes to develop a freakishly flesh-like finish for her pieces.

The results are uncanny tiny ceramic figures who seem like they’re about to consummate the world’s creepiest marriage on the hotel bed at any minute, and a buffet of mutant seafood that looks straight out of the gross-out restaurant scene in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.
And I’ll end on this note: Fundación Pro Arte, of Guayaquil, Ecuador, is showing two of my favorite mixed-media butt paintings of a week surprisingly full of mixed-media butt paintings, by Marcella Silvestre. The note under the car tire reads a veces esperamos más de lo que tenemos que esperar, or “Sometimes we wait more than we have to wait.”

I’m not really sure what that means, but I think it’s probably a good adage for an art fair week?


Marcela Silvestre at Fundación ProArte
Marcela Silvestre at Fundación ProArte
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