25 Jan

“Felix, darling, try not to whine when we get inside because this is daddy’s work, OK?”[Islingtonista dragging her son against his will into the London Art Fair. Daddy, grim faced, trails behind.]

I can certainly sympathise with Felix’s determination to have a little tantrum at the London Art Fair. Perhaps Felix already knew he’d be compelled to commit a homicide if he saw another frigging art work with skulls, butterflies and/or cut-outs from old books, maps and prints. Seriously, everybody knock that shit off. I wish I was exaggerating when I say that every third or fourth gallery was showing something involving butterflies. I think we could also usefully impose a ten year moratorium on white box frames, anything involving birds or feathers, and figurative painting with a few token smears, runs or drips to denote that it’s “contemporary” or “gestural” or whatever because being able to paint without making drips or smudging somebody’s face is boring and square, apparently.

Of course the daddy of all cheesy skull buggery and art world lepidoptery is Damien Hirst. As far as I know it was his shitty, lazy butterfly works that kicked off the whole shitty, lazy butterfly thing. Even more lazy and shitty are some gold skulls by him. Or rather, by his assistants since I doubt Hirst ever lifts a finger nowadays. He and/or the sellers of these skulls can only be cynically taking the piss when they offer “unique editions” which are in fact plastic skulls that can be had for about £45 from Amazon badly sprayed (the work of literally minutes, complete with the drips and runs that denote somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing) with paint that retails for £8.69 in Homebase.

They’re quite shamelessly, perhaps even tauntingly labelled as being “plastic skulls with gold paint”, i.e. things not made, recontextualised or transformed by the artist in any significant conceptual or practical manner. Merely spraypainting an object and putting it on a plinth does not automatically make it art. Anybody who thinks so has profoundly misunderstood the purpose and the strategy that Duchamp and his R. Mutt gesture were intended to enact. Nor is anything that happens to be done or thought of by an artist automatically an art work.

I’ll allow that each skull is very badly painted in its own unique way, but that’s just chemistry, gravity and ergonomics in action. It’s not the same as a unique art edition. Not even close. Ripping off people who’ve got more money than sense, being devoid of any intellectual content and taking a huge dump all over the very fundamentals of artistic merit and value is daddy’s work, OK?

One thing I did find genuinely interesting was the incredibly clear market segmentation. At Frieze there’s a lot of crassly commercial product by brand name artists, but they also exhibit and commission blatantly unsaleable stuff that’s mainly about a gallery (or Frieze itself) accruing some kind of kudos or cool factor by deliberately showing high prestige, incomprehensible conceptual work that not even the most coked-up Arab supervillain or Los Angelino dotcom millionaire with massive spectacles would want to buy. Simon Fujiwara’s commission at Frieze the year before last is a good example of that. I doubt anyone even knew what the hell it was supposed to be about or what he was hoping to achieve. I certainly can’t imagine anyone having an inclination to buy it, whatever “it” was, nor would they really be able to buy it in any practical way even if they did want to do so.

LAF, on the other hand, has no such pretensions. The numerous iterations of whatever the hot trope or imagery is this year (butterflies, skulls, cutting up old ephemera, etc.) collectively prove that LAF is servicing a different demographic. The coked-up Arab supervillains would probably never deign to set foot on Islington high street anyway. I don’t think it’s conscious or intentional in most cases but in fact quite a lot of the stuff on show at LAF is barely art at all and segues subtly but perceptibly into graphic design and decoration, even to the point of looking like it could be destined for Ikea or a range of stationery at Paperchase rather than an art gallery. Is there anything more Paperchasesque than butterflies? I’d advise LAF’s punters to save themselves a lot of money and just go to Ikea if they want mechanically reproduced decoration that mimics the external forms of a contemporary art work without actually being a contemporary art work. Ikea’s white box frames are super cheap, too.


[1] [Dismissively] “… ugh, more contemporary stuff…” [Said by the kind of sleek-haired sixtysomething woman they make in a factory somewhere for the express purposes of clogging up Fine Art MA courses and for hijacking any public discussion of art with their whinges about lack of available studio space for important artists such as themselves. Overheard again minutes later, praising a bunch of D-list, bargain basement St Ives paintings.]

[2] [Gallerist, presumably talking about an artist she represents.]  “… she lives ayt in the country and I keep trying to get her UP to London.” For a moment I thought I was in Pride and Prejudice. By “country” she probably means Kingston upon Thames, Slough or Chelmsford. Or, for that matter, Stratford or Brixton. This woman’s grasp of basic directional nomenclature is a bit shaky, too. She needs to watch Sesame Street or Teletubbies, they’d sort her out. I picture London hovering about half a mile above the “country”, like Laputa.

[3] Don’t ever pay for a ticket. Partly because it isn’t worth it, but mainly because I don’t know anyone who paid for a ticket and it seemed that three quarters of the people who went in didn’t pay either. If you know an artist, a lecturer or anyone vaguely connected with art in any capacity, or even merely follow them on Twitter or something, they’ll probably have at least one comp going spare. I had four.

[4] Holy shit, Lucy Liu’s paintings are even worse than I thought they would be. According to idiot-oligarch Anita Zabludowicz, Liu is “as talented a painter as she is an actress.” This is definitely true, although not in the flattering sense that I presume Zabludowicz means. Precisely the opposite, in fact.

[5] It’s not my area of expertise and I’m certainly not a knowledgeable art conservator, but at LAF I saw some of the most hamfisted mounting and framing of work ever. One example will suffice: prints by Takashi Murakami, costing several grand each, in white box frames of course… and the print is all warped at the edges. Even leaving aside the fact that whether or not you like the artist it’s quite a disrepectful way to treat their work, in practical terms how does somebody manage to make a flat piece of paper in a flat frame so curly, if it’s been professionally mounted? Who looked at the way that work was mounted and thought it was OK? Did they have interns do it with Pritt sticks, old cereal packets and frames from Ikea?

[6] Most of the (relatively) low cost editions being done by galleries like Whitechapel and Limoncello are absolute bollocks, just insultingly bad. Is it really so difficult to do something affordable that still has some artistic merit and desirability instead of simply being a lazy, tossed-off piece of shit? I also wonder if they ever actually sell any of these things. I suspect they just sit in a drawer or after a decent period they’re simply given away as a kind of customer incentive or loss leader, like the free calendars you get at a Chinese takeaway when it’s lunar new year.


  1. Alistair 25/01/2012 at 12:25 PM #

    OK, that was weird. Corrected a grammatical error and for no apparent reason everything between parentheses or in italics disappeared. Fixed now.

  2. Alistair 25/01/2012 at 12:33 PM #

    Paperchase update!

    Butterflies (48 different products, several of which closely resemble art works I saw at LAF):

    Retro cutouts:

    No skulls, though. Obviously those are off-trend already. You “Fine Artists” really need to keep up.



    […] anything at the supposedly commercial, fully professional and gallery-represented offerings at the London Art Fair. So I’m pretty confident in putting at least some of these reflex expressions of horror down […]


    […] LONDON ART FAIR: OH WELL, AT LEAST I DIDN’T PAY FOR THE TICKET. “Perhaps Felix already knew he’d be compelled to commit a homicide if he saw another […]

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