ARTSpeak Special: Craig Drennen and Ben Steele Reflect on Art Basel 2012

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Rafael Soldi: A body in transit is now on view at the Frost Museum, Miami through December 4

Bonus: Click the player above to listen to the interview (14 minutes), or download the MP3.

Episode 64: Jeremy Abernathy interviews two Atlanta-based artists, Craig Drennen and Ben Steele, to capture their reactions following the conclusion of this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach. Both guests happen to be teachers, and they have much to say regarding the state of painting today, in light of local practice as well as the positive presence of modern masters “haunting” the art fair.

See below for a full transcript of the conversation.

Rafael Soldi: A body in transit is now on view at the Frost Museum, Miami through December 4

Jeremy Abernathy: Welcome to ARTSpeak with BURNAWAY, an online magazine dedicated to contemporary art. Each week we engage in dialogue with artists, critics, curators, and scholars to bring context to current and upcoming events in the arts in Atlanta.

Hi, welcome to a special edition of ARTSpeak. This is Jeremy Abernathy with BURNAWAY, and my guests today are Ben Steele and Craig Drennen, and we’re going to be discussing the Miami Art Fairs, Art Basel Miami Beach 2012, and other fairs in the context of painting.

And we have two painters with us today. Craig Drennen is an artist and a professor at Georgia State University and the dean at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Ben Steele is also a painter and teacher. He is the chair of the visual arts department at The Westminster Schools, and he is a cofounder of SEEK ATL.

Craig Dennen: Of course the art fair is the place where a lot of young artists are showing, but I really liked how the old-timers were sort of keeping it honest. And I really did like the Picabia and Sigmar Polke combination that was at Michael Werner’s space. That really was like museum-level comparison. I thought it was well curated. But across the board, I mean, I liked Lichtenstein at Gagosian. I liked the Fontanas that you could stumble across. I feel like the older artists—their presence—was sort of haunting the art fairs in painting in a positive way, sort of asserting, “All right, here’s where the standards are.”

Ben Steele: The [art] fair is such a strange environment in some ways to really try to see painting. To me, one of the most powerful things is when a work really punches out of that environment and you can have an authentic experience with it. And one of the things that did that for me was a series of monotypes by Chris Ofili in [the] Two Palms Gallery booth. And I found myself in the middle of the convention center having just this real experience with that series of work. Ofili is an artist who continually surprises me, and I found that almost none of the things I loved him for originally were present in that series of work. It became something that was something so ungraphic and about nuance and about seriality—work of his like I’d never really seen before, and I responded to it for that reason.

JA: You’re talking about The Bird in the Windfall, two series of what looks to be sequential paintings almost. They’re monotypes [using] watercolor, pastel, charcoal, and colored pencil. They’re faces that, as you move from left to right, drift in and out of different levels of detail and different color compositions and sort of morph. If you imagine a bed of colored sand and then the sand is shifting—it’s that kind of effect.

The downstairs area of the Rubell Collection featured massive paintings by Oscar Murillo and other contemporary painters. Photo by Ben Steele.

CD: I will say that, since we’re here talking about paintings at the art fairs in 2012, there’s a lot of, I guess, activity on blogs and so forth about painting in particular at Miami, and I thought that was really interesting. And a friend of mine, Tatiana Berg, posted a list of her favorites, and it’s almost identical to mine. So if anybody wants to check that out, I think it’s worth looking at. And Tatiana’s a painter, too, of increasing renown. But I think that the fact that there’s a lot of interest in painting—as separate from other disciplines—is just interesting to me. I’m not completely sure why that’s the case, but it seems to be for some reason.

BS: I think that painting seems to have a privileged status still, in the marketplace at least, and that the fair environment—it’s as if these works that have the aura of originality still come across as easily marketable, in that an artist is creating a line of work at every size [and] scale, and [in every medium] for whatever price point you want to jump in at. And that may come across as super-cynical, but I think that for me that’s what takes away in some respects from some of the viewing pleasure of it. [As for] the fairs that are more marketed, I’m really interested in comparing how certain fairs were laid out differently.

And whereas I felt that to be the case in a lot of the main fair, Basel, there was another fair new this year called Untitled which was located on the beach [and] curated by Omar Lopez-Chahoud. [I found it] interesting that in the mission statement of that fair, they were really trying to create experiences for viewers. It felt much more to me like [they were] trying to create a strong impression in a viewer or in a potential collector and inspiring them with the work itself rather than … saying, ”Here is this price point you could enter at, and maybe here’s this lesser work of this famous artist who you’ve probably heard of already.” But it provided really strong experiences for viewing, and I think very intentionally so. At [the booth by] Federico Luger Gallery, there was a presentation of one artist, Franklin Evans, who works a lot with tape and graphic abstraction. But the way that the entire booth was set up was that it almost felt as if it could have been a work space, but the work space itself was the show. So it was an installation still very engaged with painting—fine ideas of painting. It was offering an experience for viewers to really become heavily invested in someone who they may not have known previously. I’d be interested to know whether that ended up being marketable or successful in a way or if those galleries were able to accomplish the goal that a gallery has when [it comes] to a fair. … It felt in some ways like more of an honest viewing experience and still potentially compatible with the goals of marketing in such fairs.

CD: I’m reminded of an essay that Thomas Lawson wrote in the ’80s called “Last Exit Painting,” [which] in some ways—I mean, I always read it as a call to arms that said, “Okay, everybody involved in fringe practices, the spotlight is always shining on paintings, you can always take whatever content from performance, from earthworks, from video art, and you can stay on the fringe if you want or—and I’m trying to paraphrase Lawson—or you can introduce it into painting which is present in the marketplace, where it can do more damage. So I think the notion that painting is a perfectly suitable vehicle for any manner of content or practice that may have previously only existed in other forms—I feel like some of the younger artists are treating that as the default setting now, like “Of course that’s the case.” So my read isn’t quite as cynical as my pal Ben’s [interpretation]. Because I think that there’s still a place for painting to be provocative, and I think this is why I was interested in the older works. Because I think the Picabia is still provocative, and I think the Polke is still provocative, and Fontana still is challenging. And all of them delivered that within the confines of painting.

JA: Did you have a chance to view the Rubell collection this year?

CD: I thought it was a great show. I love the Colombian artist who they were showing who made all those works in, I think, five weeks—some insanely short amount of time to generate that much work. And all the rest of the folks. I mean, the Raoul De Keyser piece that was up was great.

BS: Yeah. I agree. I’m always amazed by the fact that they usually show work that I may not be familiar with yet, but I find … to be incredibly engaging. Then I all of a sudden see that work everywhere and feel like it’s real, like it’s not just publicity. What I loved about both those shows there [was] that I think they both succeeded as paintings, but were incredibly provocative conceptually at the same time. And I think [they’re] perfect examples of how painting can be successful and provocative and contemporary and go as counter to all the things I was saying about the way that painting can feel in a marketplace setting. In particular, the Xu Xin paintings and engaging with the idea of oil paint and being so expensive as a material and becoming almost sculptural the way that they were sitting on the surface and how that kind of referenced this value that is placed on the money. And that almost felt to me like a very deliberate sort of commentary on the fair and the entire other way that I was seeing painting at that time. Oscar Murillo’s work—coming through performance and almost entering into … what I would call [an] anti-visual realm—parts of [his] paintings felt incidental and due to things that weren’t considered and then, at the same time, having the ability to bring that [quality] back in and make decisions that felt absolutely aesthetic and seductive at the same time. So I felt like both of those [artists’] works really played off each other in a nice way, kind of having what traditionally we require from painting and at the same time having this other kind of more conceptual grit.

JA: This is a huge yearly event, I mean, it’s international. The brand came over from Europe, [but] it’s sort of grown into [its] own thing. Each year there are new fairs, there are new developments. The Aqua Fair, where a lot of Atlantans were showing, was purchased this year so it’ll be under new ownership next year. We had a lot of Atlantans in Miami this year. For anyone who [has] never been, imagine Collins, which is a beachside boulevard with huge hotels and clubs and pizzerias—if you just imagine an urban density but tropical along the beachfront and then on the mainland. At least a dozen large-sized fairs each exhibiting fifty or more galleries and each gallery exhibiting possibly five to ten artists. So it’s a major event. There are videos on the beach, dance performances. This year gloATL performed at the Aqua Fair. A lot of fun to be had and a lot of great artwork to see. A lot of artists who go to Art Basel for the first time are dismayed at seeing so much work displayed in a thoughtless commercial [fashion]. It’s basically a bunch of oversized cubicles with really expensive paintings inside of them. You know, it gets better and like we said there are genuine aesthetic experiences to be had and genuine things to be learned and garnered from that. But I say all these things as a way to introduce [a] question: How do you think going to the fairs as an artist might be different than going as a collector? What are you looking for from these fairs, and why do you think artists might want to continue going to Miami in December?

CD: Atlanta should be present in the fairs in a big way every year. I think this is the biggest presence that anyone has seen, maybe the biggest presence ever in terms of number of galleries, but that should be the case. Like, we’re very close to Miami. We’re closer than any of the other urban areas or art centers. The real question is, why hasn’t Atlanta been more present in the past rather than acknowledging how great it is to see everybody there now—which I’m very thankful for. And by the way, the paintings in the Saltworks booth were particularly good.

[Note: Craig Drennen’s comment about Saltworks above is a joke. We wanted to be sure we disclosed that since, as many readers will know, he is an artist represented by Saltworks Gallery and had his work on display during the fair. The humor is easier to detect in the audio.]

So that’s part one is that, you know, we should be there. We should be the biggest presence. Second, the idea of seeing artwork in a big display like this, squeezed next to other artwork and cubicles and so on—it’s easy to forget that that’s the way it used to be. When Courbet was upset in the 1850 exposition—the international exposition—he was upset because he suddenly had the dawning recognition of his own work and labor being a commodity beside other commodities. I think this isn’t anything new. It goes back at least to the middle of the 19th century, probably a little earlier. As an artist going to see, it’s like having this big squirming, changing library of art from all over the world…. I think … a harder question [to ask is] why wouldn’t you want to see that? …. I mean, there’s every reason an artist should want to see it. I think it’s difficult to explain why you would not want to see it.

BS: Well I think artists are definitely looking for inspiration whenever [we’re] looking at art, and I think that in an environment that’s more market driven [finding inspiration] can be harder. Certainly not a reason not to go. I think that my biggest question is that if art fairs become more and more [predominantly] the way that people see work, I see that as potentially dangerous. And that’s because—and people say validly—well, now you don’t have to go to Paris, you don’t have to go to New York, you don’t have to go to Rome. All you have to do is go to Miami in December, and then you see this stuff. But context does matter, and the way that you’re seeing work and—the experience of seeing it—I think determines value in people’s minds, and … the value that’s being created there is market driven and not the same as many people going to those cities and seeing the museum shows, for example. And if a larger percentage of the art-going public, whether they be collectors or artists, are going to experiences like that, that can ultimately have an effect on the whole picture. And that’s why I keep going back to context and how different fairs were created differently, and again, mentioning Untitled. It’s like … the spaces were curated [so that, walking through there,] you felt almost as if [you] could have been … walking into a museum and seeing, “Oh, well, here’s this one show over here, here’s another show over here.” The walkways felt considered as a part of an experience and an aesthetic experience [themselves]. I’m not saying that all fairs would have to be that, but I think it’s just an interesting question that I left with, which was to what degree is the context really affecting how these things will be remembered?

CD: Well, I think the museum is not a neutral context either. And certainly I enjoy generally what museums do. I’ve worked in museums. I’ve been a part of that culture. But, yes, I think that maybe there’s a spectrum where you have certain art fairs or just any kind of open art market on one end of the spectrum and the quiet stasis of a museum, with its promise of eternal relevance, on the other. I think, as an artist, you have to wrestle with your comfort level within all parts of that spectrum.

JA: I really appreciate that you brought up the 19th century, right? And then in particular the Parisian origins of this kind of art fair culture and also museum culture. I’m not an expert on the history, but I know that there was a relationship between revolutionary thinking and the birth of the museum. For the 19th century, artworks were primarily experienced by patrons or in public places—so, in churches or in residences, and things like that. And then at the same time people were digging up stuff in Greece and digging up stuff in Egypt, and the way that stuff was displayed in the room, on the walls, set at every angle, in three dimensions. When we think of salon style, it comes out of that kind of experience, not the same thing as a museum experience. And then our first museum institutions came after the beginning of the practice of having public exhibitions of contemporary art, and it just sort of … was a natural evolution—at least in the sense that somebody had to decide, well we don’t want to celebrate that this is private property, we want to celebrate that it belongs to everyone. And the way to do that is to put it into an institution like a library. The public can enjoy it. It’s a complicated time that we live in. There are aspects of that [past] that still survive and still condition the way we think and experience art.

CD: All times are complicated, I think. I mean, I’m sure people said that after the Peloponnesian War just as much as they say it now. I support whatever this activity is that’s morphed into this new form of the art fair. Way back in the beginnings I actually worked at one of the very first ones—maybe the first one—at the Gramercy Hotel in New York back in the late ’90s. And I remember galleries who were anchoring the Gramercy Art Fair, and I remember them talking to each other and then to us, you know, the artists who were there, about what’s this going to do. Like, is this idea going to take off or not? … Is this going to stick? And it’s been interesting just watching the degree to which it has. I’m sure there are many folks talking about this, but I happened to … be in the room when Matthew Marks was talking about it. And everything he said seemed very prophetic. What he imagined could happen seems like it’s happened—and more—because he did think there was a place for it, and he did think it could take. Because this was kind of a crazy idea, and the art market had tanked and hadn’t really come up out of the recession after the stock market crash and the art market crash. I was living in Brooklyn, and things were sort of bottomed out. So it’s been interesting just seeing that trajectory, maybe … from the very beginning up until now, and the naysayers back in the beginning said, “I don’t know if this is going to last or not. We’ll do this one or two years and that will be it.” But clearly it’s still providing something. Maybe partly marketplace, but I think maybe it’s something else. It’s just another energetic form. I’m talking about the art fair as a form of performance almost. As an energized form that people are attracted to.

BS: Well, I’m interested in the organization of a fair, and the running of a fair to some degree could be a creative form in and of itself—in the sense of how do you organize yourself among others, and who with, and how do you present yourself? Not to say that that’s an artwork, but there are a lot of decisions that go into it that affect viewing, and I think that some people are very deliberately cordoning themselves off in a way and distinguishing themselves from a mass in a way that I find interesting. In certainly not just Untitled, but a place like Seven just seems like a really bold statement of standing apart from what could be seen as a mainstream. I also think that, in terms of viewing experience, I really value a good balance between fair and then [something] more like a museum experience. If I’m going to go to a city—for example, going to New York in March, I think is always an amazing experience because you go to the Armory, but then there’s also MOMA. You can see one next to the other, and it’s not quite as market driven, [whereas] I think the percentage is a little bit different when you go down to Miami. I guess I would close with a question for my compatriot: Is there really nothing that makes you mad about what we’re talking about?

CD: Oh, I save my anger for other topics. I even like the layout of [the art fair]. It’s like Mesopotamia. It’s like Çatalhöyük. It’s sort of walking from one chamber to the next, like a horizonless space where it’s just one onslaught after another. I find it thrilling.

JA: This is Jeremy Abernathy with BurnAway. Thank you very much for listening to this special edition of ARTSpeak. I want to thank our guests again, Craig Drennen and Ben Steele, for participating. I hope you have a wonderful New Year, and we’ll see you all next time. Bye.

Special thanks to AM1690, The Voice of the Arts, our partners in producing ARTSpeak with BURNAWAY. The radio program broadcasts over the airwaves every Tuesday in two rotations, 8-8:30AM and 6-6:30PM.

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