Sheida Soleimani in Artnews

'Ceramic Tools, Henry Kissinger, and Gobs of Vaseline: A Report from the Wilds of NADA New York' by Alex Battaglia and Alex Greenberger

10 March 2018  Weathered fairgoers who braved a wintry mix of snow and rain for the Armory Show on Wednesday could take solace in the fact that Thursday’s meteorological conditions in New York were less severe. And no doubt the more forgiving outdoors contributed to a warm and welcoming mood at the preview for NADA New York, which relocated one block south this year to the ground floor of Skylight Clarkson South in West SoHo. Unlike the Armory Show’s primary focus on established and mid-career artists shown by blue-chip galleries, NADA, now in its seventh edition, features younger dealers and artists with work generally sold for far lower prices. The crowd is hip—and the art is, too.



London’s Edel Assanti gallery is using its booth to display freestanding photo-collages by the young Rhode Island–based artist Sheida Soleimani, whose geopolitically minded work parodies the tangled relationships between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and crooked foreign officials. To make her images, Soleimani had half-nude performers in poorly fitted masks take on the identities of various politicians—Henry Kissinger among them—and pose against backdrops of densely collaged images of landscapes, cities, and deserts. “What you get is this sexual interplay between [the performers], which injects humanity into a situation that’s actually not very funny at all,” Jeremy Epstein, the dealer in the booth, said of the photographs priced at $8,000 each. A black-and-white still life featuring fish, corn, and other items serves as wallpaper for the booth, and it looks less like food than blood and guts. “It looks horrible!” Epstein said, smiling.


Some dealers use art fairs as an opportunity to rake in cash, but not so for Guetamala City’s Proyectos Ultravioleta, which turned over its entire booth to a project by the collective Brigada Puerta de Tierra (BPDT). The group takes its name from Puerta de Tierra, a neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the group of three artists—Luis Agosto-Leduc, Jesús “Bubu” Negrón, and José Vélez Camacho—have endeavored into community-empowering work. Money raised from the group’s watercolors for sale at NADA (as well as other works contributed by the likes of Allora & Calzadilla, José Lerma, and Chemi Rosado Seijo) will go toward buying a plot of land to be used as the collective’s headquarters. “It’s a nonprofit project in a commercial fair,” Stefan Benchoam, a cofounder of Proyectos Ultravioleta, said. “And it raises awareness for the state of Puerto Rico” as it reels from hurricane-related destruction. Also in the booth are bottles of rubbing alcohol that include herbs native to BPDT’s namesake neighborhood. Buying them could be “a way to rebuild the neighborhood itself,” Benchoam said


Another good cause selling art for support is Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, which works with artists with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities. (The artists get free materials and studio space, and when work of theirs sells, half the money goes to the artist and half to the organization itself.) A fetching selection of ceramic wall works by John Martin paid oddly moving tribute to tools (a wrench, a knife, shears, etc.), all available for $350 each. Nearby, paintings by Daniel Miller—whose work featured alongside work by Judith Scott in last year’s Venice Biennale—billowed with abstracted scratchings of words. “Dan doesn’t speak,” said Creative Growth director Tom di Maria. “His mother tried to teach him as a boy by spelling words with him, so he learned words, but they never came out of his mouth. When he makes work, he just writes them all.” A large painting of the kind was for sale for $15,000, while smaller ones are $3,500.



On a similar fundraising note, LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division), a public art nonprofit in California, is selling artist multiples created by collaborators from its past, including wall hangings by Anna Sew Hoy and Sarah Cain as well as a photograph from Mungo Thomson’s series “People,” which shows oglers at art fairs staring surreally at empty walls with their artworks removed. “It shows the act of looking and wanting and desire,” LAND’s director, Shamim Momin, said of a series that was disseminated by way of reproductions in giveaway pamphlets in Marfa, Texas—“the same way you would find a penny circular in a supermarket.”


Fairs involve a lot of walking and standing, and places to sit grow evermore scarce as the day goes on. But you might want to think twice before taking a seat on a couch that has come to NADA courtesy of the artist Sondra Perry. Exhibited by Good Weather gallery from North Little Rock, Arkansas, Perry’s sculpture titled And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going is a piece of beige furniture that has been placed under a plastic slip cover and slicked with Vaseline. On top is a pair of headphones that plays a recording of her mother and aunt singing a gospel song. Haynes Riley, Good Weather’s director, described the Vaseline as “an extra barrier—people have to really want to listen and be included to be a part of this.” No one had yet sat fully on the sculpture by early this morning, Riley said, but a few unsuspecting fairgoers had brushed up against the slick, sticky jelly: “You can see it on their shoulders!”


Some work at NADA stares down the digital sphere. Brooklyn’s 315 Gallery is showing Molly Soda, who became an internet celebrity a few years back for posting her feminist selfies on Instagram, which censored them. Such notoriety is in the past, however, and Soda has turned her attention to the difficulties of intimacy with strangers online. At NADA are two mirror pieces based on Instagram direct-messages that Soda received; next to them is a computer displaying a chatbot with whom fairgoers can commune. (The bot asks questions, and viewers can pick from a set of answers. After the question “How many orchids do you think I’ve killed?,” options include “None”—to which the bot might respond “Two to be exact. One was a gift, the other was bought in an act of impulsive despair.”) “This conversation has happened a million times, even though you think it’s unique,” said 315 Gallery director Jack Barrett. “It’s all circumscribed.”


Historical curios are on offer at the booth for New York’s Alden Projects, which has a Robert Rauschenberg–designed poster for “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering,” a series of tech-minded art trials in 1966. “What’s special about this one is that it’s signed by all the artists and scientists who participated,” Rebekah Tafel, a gallery associate, said while gesturing toward the eye-popping autographs of a cast including Robert Whitman, John Cage, Billy Klüver, Lucinda Childs, and more. The poster is going for $12,500; for a wee bit more, a buyer could pick up John Baldessari’s Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of 36 Attempts), a portfolio of photo prints originally conceived to be available as a cheap and accessible portfolio in 1973. “Obviously it’s a little more pricey now,” Tafel noted of an offering priced to move at $15,000.


A set of wispy-yet-formidable wall sculptures by Christian Camacho cast a bewitching spell at the booth for Galeria Mascota from Mexico City. In one, a trio of small white concrete slabs has been implanted with bits of colored plastic and mylar, which raise from the surface in a sort of Minimalist bas-relief while casting hues onto the surface as a viewer’s vantage changes. Next to those are two wall-hung assemblages made with painted bits of refuse (wood, wire, branches, a leaf) that pay tribute to a sense of place. “They come from houses,” Galeria Mascota director Javier Estevez Hinojosa said. “He picked up all of this debris and made portraits of them.” (The concrete works are priced at $2,500; the others range from $3,000 to $5,000.)

Bewitching in a different way are large ceramic floor sculptures by Heidi Lau in the booth of the Geary gallery in New York. Now based in the city, Lau grew up in Macau, and her work—sprawling and many-tendriled and winsomely wretched in their way—take inspiration from Taoist cosmology. To wit, a piece with shards of material and ceramic-cast chains titled The Seventh and Eighth Level of Hell eludes to a legend from an otherworldly realm. “Usually women who were adulterous had to be put in an ice world to have their limbs frozen off,” the artist said of a particular Taoist myth, “but I put a man in there.”


Above an area where the NADA crowd mills around a concession stand are three big screens that transmit computer-generated imagery likely to leave more than a few fairgoers perplexed. If they head up a set of stairs, however, they will learn that the mix of sights and sounds are integral to a project, “The Download,” presented by Brooklyn’s Transfer gallery. As part of a series, screen-scrambling works by AES+F, Theo Triantafyllidis, Claudia Hart, and others are being featured, but none is more kaleidoscopic than Electromagnetic Brainology, a trippy reimagining of Buddhist philosophy that renders the religion’s four elements—fire, earth, water, and air—as oversized digital superheroes as imagined by the young Chinese artist Lu Yang. The heroes shimmy over cities and in outer space, amid riots of pink, green, and yellow bursts of light. One viewer on Wednesday told a gallery representative that she liked their choreography. The rep laughed and said, “Maybe we should just have a dance party up here instead.”

10 March 2018
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