At SPRING/BREAK, 800 Artists Tackle Technology, Ownership, and Appropriation
Yesterday afternoon, curators giving their installations final tweaks ran around the wide, hallowed halls of New York’s James A. Farley Post Office building. Lined with rooms labeled “Postal Inspection Service” and “Manager Marketing,” it’s an unlikely home for cutting-edge art. But that’s exactly what SPRING/BREAK, a nonconformist art fair—where affordably priced installations are tucked into offices, curators (not gallerists) man booths, and artists are rumored to outnumber collectors on opening day—has brought to the Beaux-Arts landmark two years running.
SPRING/BREAK founders Ambre Kelly and Andrew Gori have been breathing new life into old (read: ramshackle) buildings since launching their curator-driven art fair five years ago. From 2012 to 2014, they transformed the classrooms of a downtown schoolhouse into booths. And last year, they secured the sprawling third and fourth floors of the old post office, filling its long-abandoned rooms (slated to be renovated in the coming years as part of a much talked-about Penn Station expansion) with art.
It’s fitting, then, that Kelly and Gori, no strangers to reappropriation, organized this year’s fifth edition around the theme “⌘COPY⌘PASTE.” “It came to us last spring, around the time when all the controversy was happening around Richard Prince and his use of Instagram pictures,” explained an at-ease Gori, just a few hours before the fair’s opening. “We thought it was an interesting time to talk about appropriation, not just when it comes to Prince, because he’s been doing it forever, but especially with technology and the way ownership is now shared online.”
Across the fair’s some 90 installations, representing over 100 curators and 800 artists, the theme is interpreted liberally—and thank goodness for that. One could imagine a sprawl of net art crafted from emojis and piped through glowing screens. But Gori and Kelly excel at orchestrating surprises, and they came in scores.
In curator Seth Sgorbati’s quiet, elegant booth, works by Greater New York darling Ignacio González-Lang (laser etchings on clay panels, priced at $14,000 apiece) look subdued from afar but reveal a marked absurdity up close. The works lift and fuse entries from the New York Post’s “Weird but True” column, yielding phrases like “His only problem: the money stinks so badly, the local bank won’t accept it until it’s deodorized.” González-Lang is drawing from the old Dada practice of compositing information from different sources to realize his point: random connections can yield profound messages. It’s a punch line that sets the tone for a string of curveballs to come.
Pass through Sgorbati’s more traditional, white-walled booth, and enter a cozy, den-like room chock full of plush furniture, tchotchkes, and glossy self-portraits of a woman. The portraits, priced on the range of $2,000 and $4,200, depict the artist behind the installation, Genevieve Gaignard, dressed as different characters. Gaignard herself was perched by the couch at the time of my visit, and explained that the “Cat Lady” and “Hair Hopper” roles she assumes represent how she’s seen by others, “not who I feel like I am in terms of my racial identity” (her father is black and her mother is white). This installation begins as a fun house ends as a thought-provoking meditation on identity, driven home by Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted and Black crooning through the record player.
An installation organized by Ulys O. Hanson, Joey Frank and Daniel Kent’s Here to Go quickly became a crowd favorite, plunging visitors into an equally transportive, unpredictable environment. Blue and red lights, reminiscent of police car toppers, flash in a strobe-effect that’s equal parts alluring and disconcerting (the idiom “moth to a flame” springs to mind). Posters on the walls, priced at $450 each, flash in step, revealing cheeky but poignant word play. In one, a red flash conjures the word “reincarnation,” while a blue flash counters with “incarceration.”
During a taco break in the cafe, two visitors were overheard gushing over booth 3111. There, a few minutes later, Canadian-Trinidadian artist Talwst opened a 2 x 2 x 1.5-inch purple velvet ring box to reveal a tiny scene within—a lone figurine laying on a bed of rubble—titled Tell Them To Stop! Tell Them To Stop! (2014). It might be the smallest work at the fair, and also one of the most moving. Santiago reimagines charged events, like this one recalling a YouTube video showing a Gaza civilian killed by an alleged Israeli sniper, in the space of found boxes, topping out at nine-inches long and ranging from $3,500 to $5,000. “A lot of my practice rides on serendipity,” he mused, as he turned the piece over in his hand to reveal three holes in the bottom of the box. “When I finished this piece, I was holding it and saw these three holes, which almost feel like bullet holes—you hear three shots in the YouTube video.”
Other small, mighty works come from cult filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, in the form newsprint collages no larger than index cards. In one, Sean Penn’s head looms over a crowd of what look like little league players. In another, David Bowie’s face is affixed to a female body, posing for the paparazzi. While hilariously absurd, they’re so delicate and carefully hewn that they read as homage rather than parody. At $700 a pop, they also might be the best buy at the fair. They join works by other polyglot-collagists, like New York poet David Shapiro and Nouveau Realist master Jacques Villeglé, in Arielle de Saint Phalle (yes, related to Niki, if you’re wondering) and Taylor Roy’s excellent booth.
Just before the stately doors swung open to opening-night crowds, one intrepid curator, Magdalena Sawon, readied to cut up a to-scale, 18-foot replica of a Barnett Newman masterwork. The act is the mischievous, market-probing brainchild of artist Greg Allen; each faux-Newman slice is priced beginning at $1,800.
Across the building and up a grand flight of stairs, a very different sort of reproduction was taking place. A young artist, Amy Silver, had transported her Brooklyn studio into one of the post office’s small, wood-paneled rooms for the run of the fair. Sitting on the floor, pencil in hand, she worked on a tall panel that showed an untethered astronaut, a foul-mouthed teddy bear, a woman who wonders via word bubble, “I seem to have deviated from the path, wanderlust?,” among intimate, detailed drawings. Silver was putting the finishing touches on a sketch of a mouse—a new friend she’d met recently. Copy from life, paste into art, tweak, repeat. It might be an obvious recipe for creative output, but it’s the kind that benefits from experimentation (an addition here, an adjustment there). It also turns out to be a galvanizing theme for a fair—almost any way you cut it.