The Seattle Art Fair: What We Say and What To See

Posted on July 29, 2015, 12:00 pm
21 mins


A little over a year ago, a few dozen artists, organizers and advocates met in Pioneer Square and discussed rumors about a potential Seattle Art Fair. Seattle had never had an international art fair of scale, and it seemed to be coming out of the blue. In some ways, it still seems unbelievable that it is actually happening, even as the final preparations are being made for the opening tomorrow at CenturyLink Event Center, where a little over sixty exhibitors from around the world will be displaying carefully selected works from top artists. Even more unbelievable is the involvement of some of the world’s biggest blue chip galleries, including Gagosian and David Zwirner, who have declined to be part of more established fairs in cities better known for having an avid collector class.

Seattle has a large potential collector class, and the Seattle Art Fair may be the first international art fair attended by some of these locals. Art fairs have become a big business unto themselves, designed with collectors—new and established—in mind. They are excellent points of entry for newcomers, who get to see top-notch works from many cities in one place, while established collectors enjoy courtship by gallerists and their artists. Fairs bring notoriety and new audiences to their host cities, and off-site events around them invigorate other venues and commercial galleries to host their own events, creating a critical mass of art for a brief period.

"Rusty Cake" by Peter Millet, 2015, Corten steel, 85 x 28 x 28 in, courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery

“Rusty Cake” by Peter Millet, 2015, Corten steel, 85 x 28 x 28 in, courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery

However, it’s a sword that cuts both ways. Being a crystallization of the market, art fairs put an emphasis on a transactional approach to art rather than a purely aesthetic one; they become less about seeing art than being seen around it. For those in the industry, there is a financial risk involved. Galleries will pay tens of thousands for a modest booth, and hopefully break even while cultivating clients in other regions. That is not easy amidst a throng: Art Basel a month ago had 283 exhibitors, while many middle-range fairs have between 100 and 200. Press and buzz is often diverted to the larger galleries, who might debut a “blockbuster” work from a big name. In short, fairs have a certain desperation about them, and frequently benefit the big guy at the expense of the little guy, including attendees on the periphery.

For those who are discontent with the “art market” and “art” being treated as synonymous, the proliferation of art fairs is problematic in other ways. Dozens of fairs are happening globally in both established and more reliable emerging markets, courting scores of newly minted millionaires in Asia and European oligarchs. The art market’s tastemakers are trained admen who know how to stir a frenzy of speculation and desire among collectors at the highest echelons, and for the majority of people and artists looking on from the margins, this is all invidious. It turns art solely into an exclusive commodity, which is at odds with how most people want to view art, especially if they have practiced art at any point in their lives. But the market is a tool and not impenetrable to positive influences, and we need more of that savvy in Seattle so gallerists can take more risks, more galleries can open, more artists can get representation and—naturally—get paid for their work.

This is why, in spite of my own misgivings about art fairs, I view the Seattle Art fair as vital and momentous. It raises the profile of Seattle as a place one ought to look for art. Despite an abundance of art being produced here, the city’s devoted collector class is not buying much here, and its lower profile on the national scene makes it harder for Seattle’s local galleries to cash in on the passion for collecting during travel.

That idea—buying art while traveling—is one not readily appreciated by those who have not done it before. To acquire work during a memorable trip imbues it with additional meaning and romance for the collector. Even during the frenzy of a fair, one sees examples of this. Prominent gallerists routinely cultivate interest in a work even before it debuts at a fair. Ideally it will be snatched up by a collector who might appear to be impulsive, but has actually been courted for months. That courtship is part of the romance of art for collectors. They aren’t just buying an object; they are saying, “I do,” and the romance can be contagious for those who bear witness.

This is why galleries take the financial risk of participating in art fairs elsewhere. It is also for the sake of the artists, whose careers require exposure beyond their own neighborhood. Artists who are not represented in other cities begin to feel trapped. We have seen this happen in Seattle. The net result is a sense of stagnation and provinciality that is unappealing to collectors, pushing them further away. Perceived apathy drives legions of lesser artists to produce apathetic work. The new money in town sees it for what it is, and if they are already inclined to believe that art is a farce, this will be the proof that the emperor has no clothes. The market further stagnates; everyone loses.

This rut has existed for years in Seattle, and the critical push to get us out of it requires intellectual and financial capital. The Seattle Art Fair could be a turning point, and it has been exciting to see galleries and artists bring their A-game in preparation. The fair is no act of charity; the organizers and the money behind it—Paul Allen via Vulcan—expect a return on their investment, and big-name galleries like Gagosian and Zwirner need a reason to come back. The participation of big names like those lends a stamp of market legitimacy to fairs around the world. It is safe to assume that they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Vulcan’s backing, the presence of some other very serious collectors, and the production being led by art fair veterans artMRKT.

Yume Lion (The Dream Lion) by Takashi Murakami. 2009, Bronze with platinum leaf on marble base 75 1/4 x 50 x 43 3/4 inches © 2015 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever

“Yume Lion (The Dream Lion)” by Takashi Murakami. 2009, Bronze with platinum leaf on marble base 75.25 x 50 x 43.75 in Photo by Robert McKeever, courtesy Gagosian Gallery

As I said before, art fairs are already good entry points to the art world, but the Seattle Art Fair appears to be a good entry point to art fairs as a whole. Its highly concentrated and selective roster of galleries is showing an array of work that is diverse and full, but not overwhelming. I fully endorse attendance, and I have some recommendations below.

Art in Technology

In the prevailing rhetoric, Seattle’s large tech industry has been put at odds with art. In this false binary, it is disruption versus tradition, technicians against creatives. The Seattle Art Fair is smartly including substantial programming and art that uses new technology and media, to bridge the perceived gap between these worlds—a gap which never existed for well-rounded people.

A suite of works and programming called CreativeLab will be on display throughout the fair, presented by artists from bitforms gallery (NYC, booth 601) and 101/EXHIBIT (LA, booth 115). Artist Micah Ganske will collaborate with re:3D, the creators the Gigabot 3D printer to create a limited run of 3D printed objects for select visitors. Ganske has also created a 3D-printed “Ocular EVA Pod” that works with Oculus Rift technology to create an immersive tour of the artist’s paintings and sculptures. Artist Addie Wagenknecht creates paintings utilizes a different kind of new technology—specially equipped drones—and there are live demonstrations scheduled each day of the fair. Fellow bitforms artist Manfred Mohr will also be presenting digital and machine-assisted works at the gallery’s booth.

Pace Gallery (NYC, Booth 105) also dives right into new media with work by Japanese art collective teamLab, who offer a new iteration of their interactive digital installation titled Flowers and People. As visitors pass by screens with projected images of ethereal flowers and vines, a shower of glimmering petals and pollen is triggered. In a town that loves nature as much as it loves tech, this installation feels particularly at home.

"Psychogeography 74" by Dustin Yellin. 2015, mixed media. 72 x 27 x 15 in. Photo courtesy of Winston Wachter.

“Psychogeography 74” by Dustin Yellin. 2015, mixed media. 72 x 27 x 15 in. Photo courtesy of Winston Wachter.

Prominent Locals

Thirteen of the galleries represented at the Art Fair are either based locally or have a Seattle location. Winston Wachter (Booth 403), for example, is based in both Seattle and New York, and at its booth it will be showing works by Brooklyn-based artist Dustin Yellin. When I learned about this, I nearly came out of my skin; I adore Yellin’s work, which builds anthropomorphic figures from layers upon layers of painted and embedded media in resin.

Platform Gallery (Booth 609) presents the abstracted photography of Erin O’Keefe and sculpture by Scott Fife, whose larger-than-life busts and sculptures are formed from layers of painstakingly cut, folded and formed cardboard. Greg Kucera Gallery (Booth 103) will show sculptures from acclaimed artists Deborah Butterfield, Peter Millett and Sherry Markovitz, plus work from hometown hero Buster Simpson, who after years of work based in the public sphere and social practice just recently had his first gallery show, following a retrospective at The Frye last year. Elsewhere at the fair, the gallery is also presenting a large work by Millett titled “Rusty Cake.”

Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (Booth 207) is one of few local galleries that focuses almost exclusively on work from international artists, especially those working in photography. The gallery’s booth will show work from three artists who fit that bill: Fabrice Monteiro, Kimiko Yoshida and Jean-Claude Moschetti. A new painting by Sergio Lucena will also be on display at the booth, while at the gallery itself in Pioneer Square there will be a solo show of just Lucena’s work. Also at the fair, another artist in Ibrahim’s stable, Iran-based Negar Farajiani, will present her traveling installation “Made in China”—a 4-by-4 meter inflatable beach ball, which as toured cities across the globe, inviting both harmless playfulness and questions about globalization and power differentials.


Select Visiting Galleries

It’s hard to narrow this field, so I have to rely on personal preference. There are the big names that demand a look: a large sculpture by art star Takashi Murakami in his trademark Superflat style, presented by Gagosian Gallery (NYC, Booth 203); a porous pumpkin sculpture by art doyenne Yayoi Kusama, presented by David Zwirner (NYC, booth 111); and prints from blue-chip stalwarts James Turrell, Ed Ruscha and Debra Bloomfield at Richard Levy Gallery (Albuquerque, booth 407).

For me, the booth of Gana Art (Seoul, Booth 201) is a must-see, featuring paintings by Yi Hwan-Kwon and Youn Myeung-Ro, among others. There’s an intriguing mix of painting and sculpture from Patricia Sweetow Gallery (Oakland, Booth 208), one of two galleries showing work by Markus Linnenbrink. And I’ll be damned if I don’t get a close look at the big works at Catharine Clark Gallery (SFX, Booth 209), including an early scroll painting by Masami Teraoka and a recent oil painting by Chester Arnold.

"Hanauma Bay Series/ Wikiwiki Tour" by Masami Teraoka, 1982, Watercolor on paper. 24.25 x 81 in (framed). Image courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery.

“Hanauma Bay Series/ Wikiwiki Tour” by Masami Teraoka, 1982, Watercolor on paper. 24.25 x 81 in (framed). Image courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery.

Maxwell Davidson Gallery (NYC, booth 405) is presenting a swath of eye catching, graphic work at its booth, plus two kinetic sculptures by George Rickey, which display what the artist calls “excentric motion.” One titled “OPEN TRAPEZOIDS EXCENTRIC ONE UP ONE DOWN VARIATION V” is 13 feet high.

James Cohan Gallery (NYC, booth 303) is showing paintings by Shi Zhiying and Spencer Finch at its booth. Zhiying’s work repeats figures in monochrome. Finch’s work is all light, shape and color. A pendent sculpture (110 in in diameter) will be hung at the Fair, but Finch is also presenting an unusual installation titled “Sunset” at the outdoor cafe. “Previously presented at the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis by the Pulitzer Arts Foundation and in Central Park by Creative Time,” the work takes hues from a watercolor painting Finch made and imbues them in soft serve ice cream cones. The SAF site says: “Each ice cream cone becomes a deliciously poetic gesture in reverence of summer sunsets.” The important part is: “ice cream.”


The Signature Exhibition

Last but not least, the Fair has its own signature exhibition, “THINKING CURRENTS,” curated by Leeza Ahamdy, who is director of Asian Contemporary Art Week in NYC. Ahmady has assembled a roster of artists from “the Pacific Rim and beyond” who work in new media, video, sound and film. Expect to be astounded.

Every day of the fair offers scheduled programming, and you should check out the full roster, but I am particularly drawn to the heady sounding panel discussion in connection with the signature exhibition, “Liquid Territories & the Flux of Myths, Dreams and Reality.”

A keynote discussion on the role of the Pacific Ocean, historically and today; mapping a set of interlacing inquiries by contemporary artists around pressing environmental and geo-economical concerns within and around the Pacific Rim territories (Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Australia etc.) in connection to the Pacific Northwest and the world at large.

That happens Saturday, August 1 from 3:30 to 5 PM at the CenturyLink Event Center.

Digital still from "SEA STATE 6: phase 1" by Charles Lim, 2015, Single-channel HD digital video. Courtesy of FuturePerfect and the artist.

Digital still from “SEA STATE 6: phase 1” by Charles Lim, 2015, Single-channel HD digital video. Courtesy of FuturePerfect and the artist.

Off-Site Events

The fair has inspired numerous other shows and events throughout the city from independent curators and artists, but it has its own off-site projects as well. This includes a temporary installation of decoys and sculptures in Volunteer Park by artist Wendy Red Star, a “Portrait Party” by Jenny Heishman in Myrtle Edwards, and an installation by Robert Montgomery co-presented with the ongoing ALL RISE Seattle project at the site of the future Denny Substation.

There are so many other events, too. Satellite Seattle is a site that has been set up to help everyone find independently presented shows around the city, and the massive Out of Sight show at King Street Station is practically a small fair unto itself, with framed work and installations from a hundred local artists. That critical mass that Seattle needs to mature as a city for art is happening

If you are local seeing these artists for the first time, you are in good company with international attendees. Whether you are an aspiring collector or just an enthusiast, if you have hesitated to dive into the art world before, the time is ripe. Hesitate further and you may find yourself less aware of what is happening in your own city than the jet-set from elsewhere. At the very least, you are going to miss a very good time. And ice cream.

The Seattle Art Fair opens to the public this Friday, July 31 and runs through Sunday, August 2. One-day tickets are $20. Three day passes are $35. VIP Patron passes are $150 and grant access to special events and the opening party on Thursday night. Get tickets and more info online.

For visitors: Welcome to Seattle. Check out advice from our travel writer, Jiawen Shi, on traveling in Seattle like a local (if you can find the time between events).

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

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