Contributed by Kenneth Greiner / Having recently relocated to London, I was delighted when a friend offered me a free ticket to the twentieth-anniversary Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park. On a sunny Saturday, I took the Jubilee Line tube from my new flat in northwest London to Baker Street before joining the line in front of the fair’s enormous white tent. This, I would discover, was where the contemporary works were on display. With 130 galleries participating, I knew I’d need to be a bit discerning if I was going to spend more than a few seconds with any particular painting. I soon found myself standing in front of The Only Thing Left Behind, a mid-size oil painting by British artist Martyn Cross at the Hales Gallery booth.
Immediately, my eyes were drawn in by the faded teal and orange palette. A vortex swirling around the lefthand side of the canvas intrigued me, then the image of the sun or a planet in the eye of a smiling, golden face, with luscious, Rapunzel-like hair on a desert landscape unfolded. Looking closer, I noticed a little smushed face in the vortex, what appeared to be a creature’s hand, and a spine on its back. The designation “Greek mythology-laced surrealism” came to mind as I took in the softly painted scene. The muted color and the chalkiness of the texture add to its folk aesthetic, but as I peered closer, I saw more animal faces and a smaller sun scratched into the detail of the whirling water and was reminded of cave paintings. Charming!
Next I stumbled onto Adams and Ollman, a Portland, Oregon, gallery showing a large sequence of Minimalist compositions by Marielle Capanna that appear to depict window views of a distant fireworks show above a late sunset horizon. In the context of Frieze, where even the largest galleries often field varied and eclectic selections of work from different artists, Capanna’s “Borrowed Light” solo series stood out. It is precise and nostalgic. Each geometric outer border evoking a window frame, comes in its own subtle shades of navy green, which gives the paintings a dreamlike quality that shifts ever so slightly as you progress from one to the next. The viewer becomes as the artist, gazing out at long-lost summer nights. I myself was transported back to many July Fourths in New York – rambunctious nights from my twenties I’ll never fully remember, spent with close friends on our Grattan Street rooftop that overlooked the industrial warehouses of Bushwick and embraced the bright orange sunsets that hung over the Manhattan skyline. In time’s rose-tinted glasses, these are serene recollections.
Across the way, at Alison Jacques Gallery (London), I spotted a familiar name – that of Brooklyn artist Randy Wray — next to his abstract painting called Sync, composed of earthy browns, reddish oranges, and a dash of purple. Having met Randy a couple of years ago in his studio at the Sharpe–Walentas Residency space while staffing Dumbo Open Studios, I remembered the comically reductive way in which he described his painting process. To paraphrase: paint forms, obscure and cover them, paint new forms over those, repeat. I remembered chuckling to myself, suspecting that Wray was being archly conservative in that description. But as a process-oriented painter, I understood what he was getting at. Sync appeared like the cross-section of a tree, or maybe a brain scan, or possibly the top-down view of a psychedelic volcano. As the title suggests, though, there are two main bodies in the image, seemingly stuck together. Two minds connecting, perhaps. Compared with his other work, which is also organically layered and anatomical in appearance, this painting is muted and low-contrast, yet no less affecting.
Turning a corner, I was struck by the boxy, scraping, red marks of Ha Chong-Hyun in Conjunction, on display at Almine Rech. There seemed to be an invisible red thread running between The Only Thing Left Behind, Sync, and now this painting. Red has certain customary connotations in East Asia – fire, for instance, or auspiciousness. In South Korea, where the artist is from, it was negatively associated with communism after the war with North Korea, but more recently it has apparently referenced positivity, passion, and social cohesion. For me, the kind of vivid red in the painting has always signified stress: STOP! Emergency. Given the artist’s restrained composition and accomplished use of negative space, however, I felt warm instead.
Next I found myself marveling at a series of moody, three-dimensional chiaroscuro paintings by the Chinese artist Shi Jiayun, shown in a booth by Vacancy Gallery of Shanghai. After looking from multiple angles, it occurred to me that while most of these works are abstract, they might derive from unusually close observation of plant-like textures. Yet The Light appeared to include human fingers. From just a few inches away, I noticed a film-like granular texture that gives these paintings a hypnotic, cinematic feel. Hours of tiny dot-work might have been required to achieve this subtle effect. Though both part of a series, The Light and Shadow are an obvious natural pairing, distinct from other work by the artist that looks more digital, and seemingly more intimate and personal.
At this point, I’d reached the limit of what I could productively absorb. With a growling stomach, I headed back towards the maze-like entrance at the front, ready to call it a day, and thought about what connected the images I’d spent the most time with that afternoon, and why others failed to capture my attention. I seemed to favor the subdued and contemplative over the brash, the textured and ambiguous over the resolved. I preferred work that prompted questions or memories, or reminded me of dreams. It was often presented by regional galleries, off to the side of larger, louder, and brighter work that more prominent galleries tended to showcase. I suppose, in what was at times a somewhat overstimulating environment, I was naturally drawn to quieter voices.
About the author: Kenneth Greiner is an artist studying at the Royal College of Art in London.