“Metaphorically Beige” – Affordable Art Fair, Hampstead Heath, 2011
A salesman explains that the piece is “really interesting because of the juxtaposition between the hard stuff and the soft stuff.”
It is a cold and damp Autumnal evening on Hampstead Heath and we are walking across a muddy field towards what looks like a giant wedding marquee illuminated by floodlights and not one of us can get mobile phone signal. Despite the Affordable Art Fair’s best efforts (up-market location, fake grass dotted around the entrance, etc) it feels as if we are sneaking into the back of a festival. The complimentary wine that greets us upon arrival goes down well, but before we know it a Laithwaites representative is trying to sell us a box of the stuff so we quickly move on, looking at one another awkwardly, unsure of what next awaits us.
Once we get into the fair itself, it is safe to say that we have truly reached the pinnacle of ‘affordable’ and commercialised art. Framed photorealistic paintings of Savannah dwelling animals hang to the left of us, while on the right, various works in the style of Jack Vettriano are simply pleading to be printed onto a greetings card. Lapping it up are the clientele who generally consist of 40-something businessmen and women, sporting thick blazers with jeans, Barbour jackets, silk scarves and corduroy trousers. They are essentially new age Sloanes, wandering aimlessly around the aisles in search of that one piece that says to the world “I am an individual”. Occasionally, we spot the ‘artiste’ himself, stomping around in DMs and slinging a multicoloured skull emblazoned man bag over his shoulder in an irritated fashion. His latest Barry Flanagan-esque sculpture of an elongated bulldog has obviously not sold as well as he had hoped. Then there is the obligatory private view DJ in a trilby and waistcoat, playing what is best described as a combination of Radio 2 classics and songs that encapsulate the ‘contemporary cocktail bar’ mood. Although we are sniggering at the start of the evening, by the end of the night he busts out Teardrops by Womack and Womack and is now the one thing keeping us going amongst the exasperation.
The root cause of our suffering is that once we skirt past the initial subject matter of ‘slightly unusual animals’ and ‘couples walking hand in hand along a surreal pebble beach’, we are greeted with more of the same banal could-be-sold-in-Homebase-style work. Screen-prints of birds; watercolours of landscapes; pencil drawings depicting a tree of butterflies and all things made from wicker take up the majority of the ‘twee-meets-craft’ movement. For the more adventurous collector, we are presented with abstract Africana bronze sculptures, oil paintings that would satisfy the walls of Patrick Bateman’s apartment and grotesque portraiture of cricketers. Thrown in for good measure, is a healthy slice of erotica; a celebration of the female form. But God forbid we should see anything hinting at a phallus. And if you really want to impress your friends, you can head down to one of the numerous stalls selling ‘Limited Edition’ prints by the likes of Tracey Emin and Anthony Gormley. Now you too can own an original Damien Hirst. Only 20 copies available though, so get in there fast.
Many of the pieces at the Affordable Art Fair take fine art concepts and unwittingly manage to strip them of all meaning. Sculptures clearly referencing the work of Ernst Neizvestny do not represent a struggle for freedom within a Communist state, but instead depict a docile looking Gorilla. Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Girl With Hair Ribbon’ takes on a mosaic form, the tiles consisting of individual Rubik’s Cubes. Vague cultural references were dotted around everywhere and one thing that came as quite a surprise was that we did not see a James Dean in amongst the endless Monroes and Hepburns. Best of all are the ‘Pop Art’ acrylics of Einstein and Gandhi surrounded by phrases like “What is ART?” and “Do you like me?” Shame we forgot to note down the name of the artists in this case.
However, there are a handful of diamonds in the rough. Kenneth Whyte’s reinterpretation of a classical landscape painting is a good example of what the fair should be about: showcasing commercial and aesthetically pleasing art that still has a sense of credibility and originality. The same applies to Jess Littlewood’s print collages; surreal landscapes painstakingly assembled from images found on the Internet to fantastical effect. We have to give a mention to The Contemporary London, not because they were the ones that gave us tickets to the event but because their stall had to have been the most well thought out and packed full of interesting and truly unique art. We had already featured the works of Ernesto Canovas and Jessica Nina Mello, as recent graduates from the Slade, and seeing their art in such a commercialised and watered down setting only made it stand out all the more for us. The biggest surprise, however, is the appearance of Tobias Zehtner’s piece ‘Wave Water’, which had been a highlight of the most recent Goldsmiths BA Art Practice show. While it comes as a welcome change from all the charcoal cats and still lifes it is sadly debased to being an optical illusion in this setting. It pained us to see such work at this fair as one cannot help but feel that they have sold themselves short. Even when we do manage to find something we actually engage with, the gallery rep (or sales assistant), finds a way of cheapening it. Upon admiring a sculpture by Peter Brooke Ball, a large marble rock, its form seemingly bound in rope, a sales assistant explains that the piece is “really interesting because of the juxtaposition between the hard stuff and the soft stuff.” Insightful.
Some Pieces we enjoyed:
‘Jackson Pollock in Action’ (we are working on getting the name of the artist, if anyone knows please email us!)
‘Little Cat’ By Connelly
‘The Efforts of the Mint Team (and Ricky Gervais)’
Having seen all that the fair has to offer, consuming far too much free wine, and no doubt upsetting a few people with our less than polite comments, we decide it is time to depart from the sea of metaphorically beige artwork. Searching for the exit we find that the wrapping section is next to the toilet. It seems a fitting tribute.
This should give you an idea as to how affordable affordable art can get:
Edition of 10
A Black Cat Leaping
Edition of 100 (and this is no. 1)
John Iddon Fine Art
Edition of 200
Oil on canvas
Highgate Contemporary Art
Words: Dale Marshall, Hannah Tindle, Annie Strachan, Marcus Harris
Photos: Marcus Harris
Images used courtesy of the Affordable Art Fair