London Art Fair 2016 Remains Cheerful Despite the Volatile Market
A glass bong that may have belonged to Lord Byron sold for £1.1 million.
Against a background of extreme volatility in financial markets, The London Art Fair attracted nearly 25,000 visitors last week, though how many were there to spend is uncertain. “They are mostly students,” sniffed one high-end dealer; but among them were enough buyers to keep things ticking over.
By “high end” read Modern British (the fair bills itself as a fair for “Modern British and Contemporary Art”), though why restrict modern to British is anyone’s guess. It cements the parochial nature of this fair.
Topping the sale bill in this category, as last year, was a 1950s painting by the Scottish abstract expressionist, Alan Davie, at £180,00 on Mark Goodman’s stand (curiously, it was the same painting that Goodman sold for the same price last year). Best represented artist in this category was another Scottish artist, William Gear, who was part of the CoBrA group in the 1940s and 50s, had a recent museum retrospective at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, and is the subject of a hefty new monograph by art critic Andrew Lambirth. Alan Wheatley sold one and the Redfern Gallery, which represents the artist’s estate, sold three works from the 50s priced around £25,000 to £35,000 each. These reflect the gradual increase in Gear prices at auction over the last year.
Undervalued post-war abstract painting was itself a strong theme throughout the fair. At Piano Nobile was a 1970s abstraction by the art historian-turned-artist, John Golding, which sold for £48,000. Very little by Golding has appeared at auction, and Piano Nobile, who is working with the artist’s estate, is doing a good job building up his primary market. The gallery has also taken a position on the Irish artist William Crozier, whose work they have sold to museums, and at the fair they sold a large, vivid landscape from 1969 for a very healthy £48,000.
Another neglected British abstract artist is John Plumb, who died in 2008. London dealer, Stephen Paisnel has done much to restore his profile, and was rewarded at the fair when he sold Plumb’s Merlin for £38,000.
Astonishingly unsold at the fair, was a 1950s mixed media with sacking painting by Sandra Blow, the former girlfriend of Alberto Burri whose rare sack work (Sacco) is estimated to sell for £9 million at Sotheby’s next contemporary sale. Blow produced a series of works that relate very closely to Burri’s, but this example, priced at £28,000 seems to have passed unnoticed.
Other unsold modern works were simply judged over-priced. Two years ago, dealer Omer Tiroche picked up the 1950’s semi-abstracted Two Forms by Graham Sutherland—then considered the equal of Francis Bacon— at Phillips for a bargain £12,000. But did buyers think it was actually worth his £180,000 asking price? Obviously not.
Turning to contemporary, there was very little of international appeal. Tiroche sported a wall of shaped spin paintings by Damien Hirst (£15,000 each); Venet-Haus Galerie from Germany mounted probably the first UK show for French sculptor Bernard Venet where a steel maquette for one of his familiar, arced outdoor sculptures was priced at £55,000; and Vigo Gallery showed the latest work by former YBA, Marcus Harvey, TRAGIC HISTORICAL Head, (£30,000)—a take on icons of British identity from cricket balls to busts of Nelson and Winston Churchill and resembling an Arcimboldo painting.
The piece caught the eye of Hirst’s former accountant, Frank Dunphy, who told me that Harvey had made a series of five similar bronzes and that Hirst had bought the first cast from each edition. They are all to be included in Harvey’s solo show at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings this summer. Vigo was still looking for a buyer at the close (not easy, even for a jingoistic Brit), but took comfort in a handful of sales of luminous target paintings by Oliver Marsden which were priced from £8,000 to £18,000 each.
Struggling to find something meaningful in the assorted contemporary booths, I hit, probably in desperation, on a literary strand. At Jane England’s there were some coloured symbols on a £6,850 antique (1986) Minitel screen by Brazilian born Eduardo Kac, who, Jane tells me, “investigates the philosophical and political dimensions of the communication processes.” Kac will become better known after his inclusion in the Whitechapel Gallery’s “Electronic Superhighway” exhibition, which opens this weekend.
Round the corner, things got more bookish on the Merville Gallery stand, where Tom Lighton, formerly a director at Waddington Galleries, was displaying a 1959, £48,000 torn book relief by the respected conceptual artist John Latham. On an adjacent wall was a horizontal canvas consisting of coloured strips, like a relief, by Benjamin Hannavy Cousen. Each strip and colour referring to a colour mentioned or suggested in the book All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Who would have thought such a grim war subject could evoke such joyous colours. It sold for £8,000.
Also on the art and literature theme was a display board of coloured balls on Mark Jason’s stand for £8,000. On the underside of each ball, the artist, Stuart Hartley, had written the first word of an event in a novel—hence the title “Event 39—On the Road—Jack Kerouac.” Drawing the crowds downstairs was a photo both where the public could sit on the beach (Aldeburgh, Suffolk) with a backdrop by photographer Bill Jackson, and have their photograph taken. For dealer Caroline Wiseman, the big catch was when best-selling novelist and screen writer Anthony Horowitz took the bait. How could he not. He has a writing hideaway just a 20-minute boat ride from Aldeburgh.
On the Flowers Gallery stand I found poet Robert Vas Dias gazing at a painting by Tom Hammick. Vas Dias has collaborated with many artists, including Hammick, writing words inspired by their art, but he wasn’t sharing his thoughts on this one. So I went in search of red dots.
Contender for best sellers amongst the contemporaries were photographer Richard Seymour, whose view of Baoytou Lake sold out of its edition of four, priced at up to £4,500 by GBS Fine Art, and Pippa Young, an artist recommended to investors by Saatchi Art (not the big man himself), whose photographically realistic portraits seemed to be selling fast at Edinburgh’s Arusha Gallery for up to just £3,500 a pop.
Cheap and cheerful was the name of the game, and best sellers by a long way were the Connor Brothers, aka art dealers Mike Snelle and James Golding, who recently hit the headlines with their plans to build temporary shelter for the asylum seekers in Calais. At the fair they were exhibiting Victorian biblical engravings and prints taken from pulp fiction novel covers which they overlaid with irreverent slogans or sayings. Priced between £650 and £2,500 each, they must have sold close to 200 of them. A glass bong, with which Lord Byron reputedly smoked opium, was placed at the centre of their booth with a £1.1 million price tag, but the sold sticker was more likely part of the leg pulling artwork than an indication it had sold at that price.
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