The Island of Emerging Art: Governors Island Nourishes Rising Talents With Its Latest Art Fair
Hop a ferry to see art amid crumbling Coast Guard facilities.
Governors Island, a former Coast Guard base home off the southern tip of Manhattan, has long been known primarily for its two crumbling military forts and the part it played in the Revolutionary War—but nowadays it’s becoming more famous as a hub for contemporary art. This weekend marks the opening of the 10th edition of the Governors Island Art Fair (GIAF).
The event is sponsored by 4heads, and the brainchild of Nicole Laemmle, Jack Robinson, and Antony Zito. It is specifically designed to give a platform to artists without gallery representation—as long as they are willing to work in the less-than-conventional environment. The work is for sale, of course, but the lack of commercial impetus does allow for greater gender parity than you find at the average art fair: 53 women artists, and 49 men—refreshing, to say the least.
A short ferry ride from lower Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridge Park, GIAF is primarily located on Colonels Row, in homes that have been slowly decaying since they were last occupied by Coast Guard families in the mid-’90s. This site means you’ll find sculptures tucked away in cupboard or kitchen cabinets, or murals that climb up narrow stairwells across curving walls and ceilings, a bizarre yet welcome juxtaposition of art and architecture.
The fair also extends into an even rawer space, Liggett Hall, a former military barrack for the 16th infantry. The building was most recently used as administrative offices, but has not been open to the public since a 2009 Creative Time project. This year, four artists’ works are installed in window galleries along the building, which is as long as the Chrysler Building is tall, with an additional 11 exhibitors left to explore the insides of the decrepit space.
Compared to the ’16 fair, Liggett replaces the island’s historic Fort Jay and Castle Clinton. The eerie space, just across the lawn from Colonels Row, features some stand-out work, including Simona Prives‘s dreamy hand-drawn animations; an ever-evolving drawing that Tim Fite will work on continuously throughout the fair’s run; David Grainger‘s massive sculptural tribute to the historic ice-bound polar vessel the Endurance; and Lauren Carly Shaw‘s life-size human figures wrapped in synthetic hair, as if trapped in a prison of femininity. All this gets an intermittent soundtrack from Joseph Morris‘s Solar Particle Wind Chime.
Laemmie told artnet News that 4heads was excited about exploring the new location: “We’ve always been sitting here looking at this gorgeous building.” The greater proximity of Liggett Hall to the rest of the fair, is a plus, she said. (The change also means the fair only has to work with the Trust for Governors Island, not the National Parks Department, which manages the forts, eliminating one layer of bureaucracy.)
Another change for 2017 is an increased focus on outdoor works, with 4heads hosting a separate call for the first time. “We got a lot more proposals,” noted Robinson.
Among these was Margaret Roleke‘s cheerfully colored Gun Club, actually made from spent shotgun shells strung on a massive steel wire armature, and Heinrich Spillmann‘s Celestial Heroes’ Totem Marker Group, stacked columns that were reminiscent of a smaller, wooden version of Ugo Rondinone‘s Seven Magic Mountain, but in sky blue, white, and brown.
Inside, many artists let the environment inspire them. “It’s divine. I think the unfinished nature reminds me of myself. It has potential, it just needs a little bit of work,” said Aleksandra Stone, who is showing photographic self portraits that read as surreal fashion shoots.
Very often, the highlights of Governors Island Art Fair are the artists who use unexpected materials, or typical ones in unique ways.
Jayoung Yoon‘s delicate sculpture at first appear to be an unwoven window screen. Closer inspection reveals a fine mesh of the artist’s hair, unsettling in its unexpected beauty.
Carin Kulb Dangot has invented her own way of painting, allowing thick pools of acrylic to set partially, then folding the paint up into sculptural bundles.
Pablo Garcia Lopez told artnet News that he is “trying to create something sacred with mundane material” with his miniature altars which replace marble with cheap spray foam, fashioning Catholic iconography from natural silk in an attempt to both venerate and critique the church.
Among the other strong presentations was husband and wife duo Joshua Starcher and Melissa Estro, who were inspired by how the housing crisis hit their hometown of Cleveland. They collected photographs of families at their homes, and cut out the figures, collaging the empty space over creditors’ bills. “We wanted to show what effect this predatory capitalism is having on people’s daily lives,” said Starcher. “People aren’t the sum of their debt.”
Occasionally, themes across artists will emerge, such as the mix of contemporary photography and Old Master paintings in the work of both Anna Cone and Zeren Badar. Displayed amid Baroque-style furniture, Cone’s photographs of naked women, some of whom are minorities, are Photoshopped into the painting, and displayed in ornate gold frames. For “Messing With the Old Masters,” Badar prints out images of the original paintings and uses them as a backdrop for 3-D collages featuring everyday objects such as a raw egg or a pile of straight pins.
You can certainly expect a fair amount of over-the-top spectacle. The artist known as Ventiko, for instance, has transformed the kitchen of 405B into a richly-decorated, dimly-lit tableaux, adorned with elegant fabric and a cascading tower of oyster shells where visitors can pose for photographs with a scantily clad group of Dionysian revelers and a live peacock named Dexter.
At a fair as offbeat as this, it’s no wonder that you get very little in the way of traditional painting—and even where there is, it often comes with a twist. Gregg Emery, for instance, creates his streaked compositions by dragging squeegees and pieces of wood across the canvas in a circular path, in a process he describes as “somewhere between an athletic event and a meditation.”
There may even be a little bit of pressure to stand out amid the spectacle. “This is heavily influenced by GIAF,” second-time exhibitor Kenneth Burris admitted to artnet News of the color-changing LED lights and audio track accompany his paintings. “I don’t usually do lighting… you see a transformation of color, sound, and mood.”
With dealers almost entirely out of the picture, in most rooms you’ll just find the artists, ready to tell you all about their work—although there were self-expressed nerves among several whom we spoke during the press preview, understandable among emerging artists.
4heads’ artist-forward approach also extends to the founders themselves. For the first time in many years, all three founders have work in the fair, Laemmie and Robinson in a shared room, Zito in an fully furnished living-room installation featuring portraits, largely memorializing his deceased loved ones, painted on found objects.
“We started this group to show our own work, and we never do anymore,” Zito told artnet News. “Over time, we’ve become more of administrators, and that’s hard on us as artists. Some people say curators shouldn’t show their own work, but we’re just a different kind of operation!”
The Governors Island Art Fair is on view at Colonels Row and Liggett Hall on Governors Island, New York Harbor, accessible by ferry from the Battery Maritime Building, 10 South St, New York, and Pier 6, Brooklyn Bridge Park Greenway, Brooklyn. The fair is open Saturdays and Sundays, September 2–October 1, 2017. Admission is free.
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