ORGAN: Frieze is open but where’s the “wow” this year? And where was that elephant? Was the art any good on day one of Frieze London 2021? 

Deborah Roberts

You’re bombarded with it all, paintings to the left, paintings to the right, lines and lines of politely hung gallery booths, dozens and dozens of clean cut galleries from London, Tokyo, New York, Berlin, South Africa, India, Mexico, Margate, Glasgow, hours of them, days of them, no way can you see it all, an endless like of booths and all trying to grab your eye and then when they do giving you the eye and assessing your buying power, check out your shoes, before dismissing you and burying there noses in their laptops again. So much art, way too much art, It all meshes together as one big whole and the one big whole (hole?) Does this year feel even more conservative than last time?

There’s Gagosian flexing their muscle in their usual attention grabbing bigger-slot-than-everyone-else by the entry, in past years the gallery has stood out, last time with the wow of those glorious Sterling Ruby paintings, this year Gagosian aren’t really doing it. Actually, is there a “wow” anywhere? You expect at least four or five most years, not so much “wow” this year. There is good art, of course there is, how could thee not be? All these galleries, all these artists, of course there’s some really good art but this year, more than ever, it is all mashing together in to one big soup and that vital ingredient, that “wow” piece is missing, that one thing that ignites it all. Is the fair too big for those over-priced boots it parades in now?  As obscene as it all is, I do admit to liking Frieze, to secretly loving it, I’m expecting (demanding?) to see the very best from all over the globe, you surely have a right to expect the highest of standards here don’t you?


Josh Faught, Kendall Koppe Gallery, Glasgow

There are questions of course, can it still be right that this international circus of art fairs goes on? Is it really all just about the money? These a high-priced cosmetics stall over there, the snake oil salesman is attracting far more attention than most of the art, what does that tell us about Frieze? Would these (mostly) guys in their slick suits with their well-dressed assistants just as happy flogging Ferrari sports cars as the latest seen-most-of-it-before painting? It does feel very conservative in here, no one is taking that much of a risk with the art they’ve brought along this year, where’s the danger? I guess it is best to play it safe, do you know how  much these galleries pay to be here?

And then there’s the big question, the big big (very big) elephant that someone should have had the guts to put right in the middle of the room but nobody did, nobody even whispered it, the big elephant is climate change and well, the feeling in here from all these well-heeled globe-trotters is “not-my-problem”. There’s an undercurrent that verges on arrogance in here this year, something that I really haven’t noticed before.

OMR Galleria, Mexico City

There’s an artwork in here made up of football shirts, a piece by Hank Willis Thomas called Blue Nude (2021), a rather clever piece, I like it, fun piece, could be a different colour maybe, but I do like it, it is something different –  “is that a Chelsea kit?” asked the overdressed expensively-smelling woman standing right next to me, “well there are a couple of Chelsea shirts in there and that’s a Leicester City shirt and there’s an Arsenal away shirt and that looks like Madrid”, a fun piece actually, Jamie Vardy will probably buy it to put in his footballer’s mansion, “that’s all a bit last year, I’m following Newcastle now, what colour do they play in?” asks perfumed woman. Who does buy this art? Indeed who pays these ticket prices to get in here on the first day? Yeah, I’ve got a damn press pass, no, I can’t afford the entry price, I’m on a freebie, but who does buy in? Who are these people? 

Drive-by art, that’s what it feels like in here, you just see hundreds of people walking, shooting with their phones, very few are stood silently looking for more than a couple of seconds, I guess we’re all trying to see as much as we can? It is so so (so) big, it is impossible to see everything, there is a fear that you’re missing something, have I walked down this lane already? Have I gone around in another circle, how many hours have I been in here now? You’re bombarded with it all, you start to lose hope, where is the exit? Down here? I need water, will I ever get out of here? Most of us are pointing our phones at things, snap and that’s it, move on, no one appears to actually be looking. But there is so much and of course some of it is very very good, I dare say if were to have nothing more to do than just view these works in the individual galleries we’d be looking for hours at just those five paintings, or just that one collection, but in here it all meshes together and there’s no time to linger, no time to really appreciate any of it, in here you really ate bombarded by it all.

Deborah Roberts

I don’t know, I don’t know, I’ve been coming to Frieze for a good few years, a good dozen now? it seems to get more conservative every year in terms of the actual art, and they surely did have a big chance to reset after the year off for the pandemic? To stop and rethink and maybe consider that with the climate emergency, to consider the whole business of so many things? That the new normal should not be exactly like the old one? This probably is the last time for me. We have in previous years run a best of Frieze piece rounding up just that, the best of, not sure if we will this year? If we do it certainly would not include the dreadfully dull Damien Hirst pieces – a hang presented by some washing machine company or something like that, pretty much sums the man and his art up, actually the hang itself was kind of good but jeesss, that hang can’t disguise things, those paintings suck a big one, what a stinker! I know the dealers, the investment banker and the collectors need to keep his prices up and keep the value of what they’ve already invested in healthy and no way can they allow the prices drop, the hype must go on, all about the price ticket now  that’s how the market works but come on, surely the actual art must count a tiny little bit? 

There are good things though, of course there is, Deborah Roberts stood out in a massive way, brilliant, she really was a merciful relief at the start of the third hour, actually if I wasn’t aware of her pieces already, if I wasn’t expecting to see these excellent works then yes, she would have been that much needed “wow!”, those are powerfully exciting pieces. 

Yes, of course there’s good art, )there’s some bad art as well, I mean, a circle of old training shoes, didn’t we all do that in the first few weeks of art school and then cringe a couple of months later?) There are pieces that are worth your time, those Shirley Villavicencio Pizango paintings presented by Ginsberg Galleria (Lima, Peru), those Josh Faught textile pieces shown Kendall Koppe Gallery, Glasgow, rather liked Leanne Ross and that Me Time piece from the same gallery, and that big Hend Samir painting – Gypsum Gallery (Cairo), Liverpool sculptor Jonathan Owen was fun, Awol Erizku‘s Déjà Vu just needed a Tox 21 or a 10 Foot adding to it, some of those Pippy Houldsworth Gallery paintings and no, I’m pretty sure I didn’t see everything – yes I did see some very good art, yes, there was (more than) one or two exciting pieces, that very big Justin Caguiat piece, those Sabine Moritz paintings, nothing revolutionary, but I did enjoy them and those pieces from Mexico City’s OMR Galleria did make me think of Julia Maddison’s work – I do need to say it again, I never really see anything in here that’s better than what I find in the back street spaces of East London or Peckham or the artist-led shows that are getting harder and harder to put on.   

Awol Erizku – Déjà Vu, 2017 – Ben Brown Fine Arts, London.

Fours hours in an stuck in the corner being mostly ignored and lacking any kind of visual stimulation to entice you over is a Platform Earth booth, apparently Frieze have given them some free space so they can tell us the art world is addressing the climate change crisis and that most of the galleries here have signed some offsetting agreement that means their conscious is clear, if feel like very quiet tokenism and artwashing the issue away, it feels like bulshit frankly – “Climate crisis tops agenda as Frieze returns” trumpets The Art Newspaper – crap, there’s not a single piece of work or a single gallery aside from this not very engaging visually underwhelming booth tucked to the side and being ignored my most people. Where is the art? Where is the challenge? Where are the visual statements? Why aren’t the galleries questioning themselves? Where are the pieces that question these globe-trotting galleries and these collectors who fly around the world to these giant fairs? Why the fuck is the elephant not in the room? No Arts Newspaper, the Climate crisis clearly does not top the agenda in here! At best there’s a tiny bit of polite tokenism tucked out of the way in the corner. “oh but things are slowly getting better” says the woman on the stall thrusting another copy of The Arts Newspaper at me as some kind of proof, no it damn well isn’t! But hey, I’m alright Jack, my my million dollar dotty spotty Hirst piss-take is holding up well in the market and my art investor says I should try and but another if I’m allowed to, if the gallery will let me. Nah, none of this is right – but we already knew that, we’ve known that for years, less right then ever now though. Yes, there is some good art in here, one or two really great pieces, Deborah Roberts was the “wow”, but no, this does not feel right, it is so easy to get carried away with the excitement, the fun of the fair, and I do love art, I do adore a good painting, I’m a painter, it does excite and I do like to think that art, on the whole is a force for good, is a positive thing, but but but…  (sw)   

Frieze London 13-17 October 2021 The Regent’s Park

do click on an image to enlarge or to run the fractured slide show

One thought on “ORGAN: Frieze is open but where’s the “wow” this year? And where was that elephant? Was the art any good on day one of Frieze London 2021? 

  1. Pingback: ORGAN: The Ten Best Things we saw during 2021’s Frieze Week… | THE ORGAN

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