Two years ago, when it seemed like everyone I knew was shitting their pants with excitement about the inaugural Seattle Art Fair, I was skeptical to a degree that was, in all honesty, probably kind of annoying.
It's not that I don't enjoy seeing what all the galleries have to offer. It's just that there's something about throwing a bunch of art together in a convention center where the only common thread is that it's all for sale that has always struck me as more than a teensy bit crass. I come to art seeking mystery and meaning; art fairs constantly remind me of capitalism.
By the second Seattle Art Fair, my skepticism had softened a bit. "Okay, this is actually really good," I found myself thinking as I listened to Brian Jungen speak about the tensions he experiences as a First Nations artist working with institutions that can't help but perpetuate colonialism. The vibe of commerce still permeated everything, but there were also some important conversations happening.
"I don't think there's anyone in the business who unequivocally loves the idea of an art fair," says Marcella Zimmermann of Cultural Counsel, the New York–based firm handling PR for the Seattle Art Fair. "But galleries help artists survive financially, and art fairs help the galleries survive, so they're a necessary part of the ecosystem."
She's right. You don't have to love the commercialism to be excited about what an art fair can be—a place not just for transactions, but for making connections: dealers with other dealers, artists with galleries, and art audiences with objects we would otherwise never get to see in Seattle. (But it's the transactions that will ultimately secure the fair's future, so if you can afford art, this would be a great time to buy some.) Plus, it inspires satellite exhibitions like the fantastic Out of Sight (August 3-27 at 115 S Jackson St this year).
The first Seattle Art Fair was aspirational, with the lofty goal of establishing Seattle as an art destination. The second tested its staying power: Would the dealers find reasons to keep returning after the novelty had worn off? Fortunately, the answer appears to be yes. "When an art fair has made it into its third year, it's officially established," says Zimmermann. "Third time's a charm!"
The third edition of the Seattle Art Fair is more international and robust than ever, with a total of 100 exhibitors, representing 10 countries, including 60 galleries from the Pacific Rim. Here are five things I'm excited to see, ranging from big, colorful paintings by international superstars to intimate, handheld sculptures made right here in Seattle:
Kurt Cobain UTA Artist Space (Booth B13)
After Jimi Hendrix, but before Macklemore, there once lived a musician in Seattle who was basically the perfect transitional midpoint between the two: blond like Macklemore and a left-handed guitarist like Hendrix. His name was Kurt Cobain, and he helped invent a style of music known as "grunge" that was very popular on MTV, the network where right-wing pundit Kennedy launched her career.
He also made paintings, most of which have been in storage since his death in 1994. For the Seattle Art Fair, UTA Artist Space—the art-exhibiting arm of Hollywood's United Talent Agency, which represents Cobain's widow, Courtney Love—will be unveiling two of these never-before-exhibited paintings: one that was used as the cover of Nirvana's 1992 collection of B-sides, Incesticide, and another that has been described as bearing the influence of Norwegian Scream painter Edvard Munch.
The paintings aren't for sale, but rather represent the beginning of a long-term plan to bring more of the "dozens" of unseen Cobain paintings currently held by his estate to light. Transparent publicity stunt? Sure, but this hotly anticipated homecoming has the potential to attract audiences who might not have otherwise ventured into an art fair, which is interesting in and of itself.
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets—Whitestone Gallery (Booth E12)
If you haven't yet braved the lines to see Yayoi Kusama's blockbuster retrospective at the Seattle Art Museum, you can get a taste of what you're missing at Whitestone Gallery's booth. Before she started producing the Infinity Mirror Rooms that made her an art superstar, Kusama was a 2-D artist whose monochromatic "net paintings" from the late 1950s and early '60s bridged the gap between the gestural bravado of abstract expressionism and the vast, subjectless surfaces of minimalism.
Infinity Nets, a large-scale acrylic painting from 2014, combines the hallucinatory obsessiveness of these early canvases with the bold, pop-infused palette of her later works to create a mesmerising, undulating field of red and blue cloudlike forms. It's a strong, highly representative work by one of the world's most iconic contemporary artists, and if I had to bet on something selling on the first night, this painting would be a strong contender.
The Sculptures of Seth David Friedman—SEASON (Booth D6)
Seth David Friedman is a medical physicist who works with 3-D printed organs on a daily basis. He's also an accomplished artist whose bronze and stone sculptures resemble fragments of bodies as well as implements of pleasure. Last year, Jen Graves said a table of Friedman's sculptures at Out of Sight looked like "a cross between Brancusi's studio in Paris and the laboratory for a futuristic dildo-maker."
His intimate, biomorphic new offerings remind me of prehistoric butt plugs carved from bone, or Marcel Duchamp's small erotic sculptures from the 1950s, especially Female Fig Leaf—cast from the negative space around a model's vulva—and the stone lingams that represent divine generative energy for devotees of Shiva.
Alfredo Jaar, Life Magazine, April 19, 1968—Galerie Lelong (Booth C11)
If there's one weapon white Americans love to wield against black people engaged in the ongoing struggle for civil rights, it's the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Dr. King preached nonviolence," we'll announce at the slightest hint of righteous outrage. "If you want us to fight for your rights, you should try being more like him." But despite our oft-professed posthumous admiration for MLK, in the immediate aftermath of his assassination, most white people were more concerned about the riots than with actually mourning him.
On April 19, 1968, Life magazine published a photograph of Dr. King's funeral march where black and brown faces outnumber white ones by a factor of hundreds. To call attention to this disparity, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar has represented the black people captured in this historic photo with black dots and the white people with red dots. The resulting triptych provides an aesthetically striking reality check: As much as white folks love to invoke Dr. King's memory, it turns out there weren't too many of us at his funeral.
Michelle Grabner, Untitled Bronze—Upfor Gallery (Booth B1)
Portland's Upfor Gallery has a reputation for showing cutting-edge digital media art. (Their contribution to last year's fair was a special project by Brenna Murphy of experimental multimedia collective MSHR.) This year, however, they're devoting their booth to Art Institute of Chicago professor Michelle Grabner's oil paintings of gingham patterns and cast bronze textiles.
"I find that the more our lives become saturated with synthesized and screen-based experiences, the more powerful the simple physicality of familiar real objects becomes," says gallery manager Heather Lee Birdsong.
Cast directly from homemade blankets that are sacrificed in the process, Grabner's bronzes provide this familiar physicality while transmuting their quintessential softness into strength. In a social and political environment where femininity is constantly derided as weakness, these metal emblems of domestic comfort feel almost radical in their humble resilience.