Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Here is an article from Yasmine Ryan, a Kiwi freelance journalist in Paris, on the Affordable Art Fair in Brussels.

The Affordable Art Fair, according to its founder, is based on the same concept that took wine into the supermarkets: to make it fun, accessible and affordable, a kind of “Art for Dummies.”

“They managed to take away that fear factor of ‘I don’t know about wine,” explained Will Ramsay, the brain behind the AAF.

First launched in London in 1999, the AAF has since become an international phenomenon. Ten fairs in cities around the globe – including Paris, New York, Sydney and Melbourne and, for the first time, Singapore – are scheduled this year.

This month, eyeCONTACT visited the fair in Brussels, where AAF was running for its second year, 5-8 February. Eighty galleries and more than 5,000 artworks, all on sale for 5,000 euros (NZ$9,770) or less.

From his purple socks and snake skin loafers, to the white handkerchief poking out haphazardly from his jacket pocket, all the way to square glasses, Mr. Ramsay certainly looks appropriately “arty.” Not that the founder of the Affordable Arts Fair, who lives on a farm “in the middle of nowhere” in Scotland, comes from an art background – unsurprisingly, he studied business at university.

“If I had a degree in art, maybe we wouldn’t be here,” Mr. Ramsay said. “I would come at art from a different angle.”

As with wine, however, art that is “fun,” “accessible” and “affordable” is not the same as that favoured by those with more of a gourmet palette.

Originality was a little harder to come by amongst the gallery stalls themselves, most were heavy with conservatively kitsch and ascetically-centered works. Crystal skulls were one of the least subtle examples of imitation (although Damien Hirst, himself accused of appropriation by John LeKay, is arguably fair game). Conceptual art, it would appear, has a very narrow place in the world of the Affordable Art Fair.

One highlight of the fair is the "Young Talent" section, where five young previously unknown Belgian artists, selected by a panel of judges, are awarded with unique access to buyers, journalists and galleries. Photographer Lisa Carletta's surreal and comical "Hotel Room" series was one of the most exceptional on display at the fair. The Belgian competition remains modest compared to the Young Talent section at the London AAF, which involves scouts scouring art schools throughout the UK for fresh talent.

The AAF does not particularly cater those who view art purely as an investment. One exception is limited edition series by big-name artists, which serve to make collectibles affordable - and easy to spot – for the masses. At Brussels this year, it was multiples by the German artist Ottmar Hörl (Roses in black, red or gold go for 160 euros signed and numbered, or 80 euros for the “non-investment” version).

To its credit, the AAF does not claim to be anything other that what it is. While its organizers hope that it will serve to demystify contemporary art to the general public, a gateway drug of sorts. Mr. Ramsay concedes that “some people never get beyond the visual,” but rightly points out that many collectors at bigger budget fairs are hardly interested in the intellectual side of the works they buy.

Many galleries do very well out of the AAF. After participating in the London fair since its early years, Richard Chapman of Sheridan Russell Gallery was also in Brussels this year. The gallery, which specializes in sculptures by artists based in Britain, did some research before coming to the city.

“Apparently, the Belgians are the biggest spenders [on art] in Europe per capita,” Mr. Chapman said, adding that research had also suggested that Belgians have a particular fondness for sculpture.

Works displayed by the Robinsons Art Gallery were amongst the most engaging at the Brussels fair. Chinese artist Zhu Yan was born in 1982 but her stark and idiosyncratic paintings tackle the violence and political idolatry of the generation that preceded her. Mixed media “flower” works by Zhuang Hong Yi hung near the works of his younger compatriot.

Ludo Hanegreefs of Robinsons Art Gallery was rather jaded about the push to popularize the art market.

“There is a lot of intellectual pollution here,” said the Belgian gallériste. He argued that the role of the gallery as intermediary, to make an educated and informed selection, is just as important as ever.

New Zealand artists have featured recently in high-end collectors’ fairs such as the Basel Art Fair and the New York International Outsider Art Fair. Certainly the three AAF in the Asia-Pacific region are an opportunity for lesser known artists - economically speaking at least, and for profile.

Photos in descending order
1.) Overview
2.) Rottweiler by Ottmar Hörl, Maisenbacher Art Gallery, Polyvinyl chloride, 2005, Unsigned 300 euros, Signed and numbered 700 euros
3.) Roses by Ottmar Hörl, Maisenbacher Art Gallery, Polyvinyl chloride, 2005, Unsigned 80 euros, Signed and numbered 160 euros
4.) Hand-fed Jackal by David Farrer, Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, Wire, paper-mâché, horse hair, 2009, 2,900 euros
5.) Zhu Yan, Robinsons Art Gallery, Oil on canvas, 2009, 4,400 euros
6.) Flowers by Zhuang Hong Yi, Robinsons Art Gallery, Mixed media, 2009
7.) Sheridan Russell Gallery stand

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