Superfine! feels rather like a trendy millennial doughnut shop- the pink aesthetic is strong, and art decorates the walls. In some instances, the vibe of Superfine! overwhelms the taste of the doughnuts. At certain booths- Pansy Ass Ceramics, Apostrophe NYC, and Hall-Barnett Gallery- the art overcomes the smell of sugar.
Despite its relative youth (it is only three years old!) the identity of Superfine! is fully formed. Some fairs seem unsure of themselves, which manifests itself in a lack of overarching narrative. Superfine! has a strong visual aesthetic- tropical blues and millennial pinks abound in the fair decor and the artwork in the booths. Artificial turf, palm trees, and bubbly blue drinks lend the space a playful and youthful vibe that is reinforced by the chosen artwork. Nudity abounds in the work, as does geometry and a sense of humor. It can all feel a bit too carefully curated at times, but in certain booths the effect is dazzling.
The founders of Superfine! understand their audience- collectors interested in emerging artists selling at accessible price points. The small, cozy venue made for easy conversation between strangers, and I met several young collectors eager to grow their collections. We chatted about the whimsical art surrounding us. There’s nothing like a ceramic phallus to jumpstart a conversation… which brings me to the first notable booth, Pansy Ass Ceramics. Though completely in line with everything Superfine! stands for (the color pink, nudity, humor), this booth transcended aesthetics.
Pansy Ass Ceramics was founded by Andy Walker and Kris Aaron, two self-taught ceramists from Toronto, Canada. Their work has amassed quite the following- they count Jerry Saltz among their 30k+ Instagram following. It’s no surprise that their work has received such positive critical reception. In an era that bodies have become battlegrounds for subjects like race, gender, and sexuality, people are eager to fight back by celebrating their bodies. Walker and Aaron’s sex-positive ceramics are a medium through which people may reclaim ownership over their bodies and their desires, and declare them beautiful. This is a radical and wonderful thing. The pink, white and black phalluses joyfully titled “Big Daddy” represent the beautification of the human form.
Painted in what I consider the world’s most aesthetically pleasing color scheme, they announce their elegance to the world. The detailing of bodily fluid in gold somehow manages to be tasteful, an impressive feat in and of itself. I chalk this up to the luxurious associations we have with the color gold. The silky surface of each phallus also lends it a sleek and polished finish. The juxtaposition of blatant sexual imagery and opulent design choices is compelling. It is shocking to see the human form so brazenly depicted, but liberating to see it celebrated in such an aesthetic way. “The subject matter is often shocking for some people,” write Walker and Aaron, “but in the presentation we try to make it really soft and pleasurable.”
The two artists hope that their ceramics will eliminate “elements of shame related to sexuality or identity.” Says the couple, “[We] create beautiful objects that people can display with pride.” Furthermore, they hope that Pansy Ass Ceramics “makes [people] more comfortable with their identities or desires.” Seeing aspects of oneself reflected in art is a very powerful and affirming experience. It can help people legitimize their view of themselves and their sexual inclinations.
I also enjoyed these delightful ceramic banana splits. The use of food innuendos demonstrate Walker and Aaron’s tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. They also represent a slightly more P-G13 way to bring Pansy Ass Ceramics into your home (“It’s just a banana, Katie!”)
The artists also make saucy enamel pins, ball-gag mugs, and flamingo flower pots. You can add some irreverent humor to your life at a variety of price points- the pins go for just $18.00. Read more about Pansy Ass Ceramics on their website.
* * *
One of the first booths to catch my attention was Apostrophe NYC. Located right next to the entrance, this gallery is notable for its forward-thinking curatorial style. Rather than display work statically, founders (and brothers) Sei & Ki Smith exhibited paintings on one wall on a rotating schedule. A schedule informed visitors which work would be next and when. This feature is characteristic of Apostrophe’s artistic approach.
Since 2012, the Smith brothers have reimagined the relationship between gallery, artist, and visitor. They hand-picked twelve artists for their current project, Base 12, with the idea that diverse artists in a quasi-collective would inspire each other in unconventional ways. Apostrophe also holds dinners where guests enjoy a 5-course meal in the presence of both the chef and a featured artist. These directorial decisions and programs situate Apostrophe at the forefront of curation and art-making. In this new paradigm, the roles of the gallerists, the artist, and the visitor are transformed.
Galleries used to simply represent artists and sell their work. In curating the company their artists keep, Sei & Ki stimulate spontaneity and dialogue. By inviting visitors to intimate dinners with artists, Apostrophe breaks down the wall between consumer and creator. These interactions deepen a collector’s understanding of the artist’s work, and teach the artist about his audience.
Alana Dee Haynes is one of Apostrophe’s Base 12 artists. Her work is characterized by the careful process of ink-drawing on photographic prints. I was drawn to this work because it struck me as both intricate and ambiguous.
In some ways, Haynes provides us with quite a lot of information. The black web covering one figure’s chest and arm is overwhelmingly detailed. The viewer is completely bombarded with not-quite-polka-dots. Yet we are also denied access to both figures’ faces, and subsequently, their identities. It is a strange paradox to know every inch of a person’s body, the patterning on her skin, but to know nothing about who she is. What color are her eyes? How does she feel about us staring at her when she is in the midst of an embrace? The decision to pattern her skin feels purely aesthetic, but a part of me does wonder: why is the embraced figure dot-less? This work gives us a lot to work with, but leaves us wanting more. It’s a delicate dance that keeps my eyes on these figures, marveling at their beauty but wondering about their identities.
If you’re feeling like a tease, check out Haynes’ website. She does quite a lot of interesting work, including some editorial collaborations that are a blessing for the eyes.
I also quite liked Apostrophe’s “Mini Museum” series. On one of the booth walls the Smith brothers placed seven works by different Apostrophe artists. Beneath each work they affixed mini figurines to a shelf and positioned them towards the wall. Thus, the figurines assumed the position of gallery visitors in a tiny, one-walled museum.
The black and white painting on wood is one of three in a series entitled Flashlight. Artist Ryan Bock frequently uses grey-scale to paint bold narratives. Flashlight illustrates Bock’s simplification of forms to their geometric minimum- a practice that emphasizes symbolic relevance over anecdotal detail. Rather than detail all the elements of the story at hand, Bock strips down the most important aspect of the narrative to a key image; in this case, an eye. The remaining details are generalized into rigid shapes that support this narrative. The result is chilling. The experience of viewing Flashlight is the experience of Flashlight viewing you. The eye at the center of the canvas stares right at the viewer. The jagged shapes and tumbling cubes provide the viewer no reprieve from the painting’s gaze. He is forced to confront this eye, and whatever the eye represents to him.
Perhaps the eye is a manifestation of the viewer’s fears. Bock writes that his work “[confronts] the modern individual’s relationship to mortality, fear, and superstition.” He typically does so in nightmarish scenes that force this confrontation upon the viewer. In Flashlight, we (along with the figurines standing before The Eye), are granted access to a bizarre supernatural world where colors are nonexistent. Yet this access comes at a price: we are to confront our deepest fears.
It is impossible to discuss Flashlight without paying homage to the most famous disembodied eye: the Eye of Sauron. In Tolkien’s famed “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the villain jeopardizing the future of Middle Earth is an eye made of fire. The man Sauron was reduced to a ball of energy resembling an eye after a fall from power. He is also referred to as The Eye because he can sense (and therefore “see”) activity on Middle Earth. The history of the eye as a symbol of the all-knowing could be its own research paper, but it’s worth mentioning here. (I could also go on a tangent about Big Brother but I will refrain). Bock knowingly utilized a symbol with strong associative power in order to achieve his desired effect: confrontation. Being an artist is about more than learning painting techniques or accessing your own emotions and imagination. The very best artists respect the power of images. They understand how different visual choices impact the viewer’s experience.
* * *
The third of my favorite booths at Superfine! was Hall-Barnett Gallery. As the first contemporary art gallery in New Orleans’ French Quarter, Hall-Barnett has an incredibly rich history. It was founded in the 1970s by Howard Barnett and is now run by his daughter, Holly Barnett. She has continued Howard Barnett’s mission to foster emerging artists since she reopened Hall-Barnett four years ago. It is only natural that she exhibit at Superfine! given their shared mission. Furthermore, Barnett’s curatorial style continues to joyfully surprise, turning art world ‘rules’ upside-down. Rather than dividing her exhibitions into neat blocks according to artist, Barnett hangs works by different artists close together. In doing so, she demonstrates the dialogue that can be formed between artists. This practice is also educational for collectors. It illustrates the ways in which they may display their work to promote conversation and alter the aesthetic of a room.
I am particularly intrigued by the work of James Heraclitus Wall, who transforms the traditional relationship between line and color in his work. In After Self-Portrait by Velasquez, Wall reimagines his favorite painting, Velasquez’ famed self-portrait. When a contemporary artist updates a famous work, I expect him to re-write the rulebook entirely. In almost every single way, Wall delivers. The transformation of Velasquez’ skin to a vibrant pink hue is somewhat expected for a contemporary update, but is so aesthetically beautiful that I forgive him immediately. The combination of fuchsia and a delicious, glossy black are tantalizing. There is something about that color juxtaposition that captivates my senses.
But what made me stare (for a decent ten minutes or so) was Wall’s strange manipulation of the figure’s bodily form. There is a strange pink protrusion beneath the figure’s white collar- far too bulbous and off-enter to be Velasquez’ neck. It rests (or bounces) on a large black circle, perhaps meant to represent his torso. Distending from this shape are two glove-like forms which could represent either feet or hands (or a strange combination of the two). One is painted in blue, with three fat fingers and a scrawny thumb. It is relatively neatly painted, as glove-hands go. The other extremity is much more uncanny. With a red writing instrument Wall has sketched a contorted hand, complete with individual fingers and semi-circular nails. However, the fluorescent pink of this hand- which matches the figure’s neck and face- has been colored messily outside the lines. The result is disorienting; we perceive the shape to be a hand but it is in the process of de-representation. The harder we try to pin it down and identify it, the more it slips away, like matter’s penchant for entropy.
The manipulation of line and color for uncanny effect remind me of an article I read by art historian Hal Foster. Entitled “Creaturely Cobra,” the article discusses the human instinct to categorize. Artists need only reference the slightest symbol of something recognizable and the viewer will furiously try to identify its meaning. Foster refers to certain figures in works as ‘creaturely,’ in that they reside somewhere on the spectrum between animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic, human and animal. I believe that Wall has subconsciously discovered the creaturely in his own mind. He enjoys the delicate balance between abstract and representational. At what point does the dissolution of form surrender to abstraction? What triggers the brain to connect two lines and say, “hey that kinda looks like…?”
Wall plays with these ideas more in his smaller mixed-media works. In these, he displaces the colors ‘meant’ to shade his figures’ bodies. In doing so, he disrupts the illusion of three-dimensionality most artists strive so hard to create. Amorphous blobs of color leak away from their intended positions within the lines, like puddles spilling over newspaper on the street. It’s a bit disorienting, and I could make a case for the oscillation between 2D and 3D in experiencing this work. However, Wall infuses these works with such humor and joy that such a reading feels overly-intellectualized. Wall’s figures giggle at their nudity, in some instances covering themselves with a shy smirk. I find it absolutely hilarious that the nails on his figures are the most detailed parts of their bodies. Perhaps it is a commentary on how utterly strange it is that people paint their nails. After all, we don’t paint our teeth. Or maybe the idea just made him laugh. Regardless, the effect is lovely. Wall’s works both confuse and delight with their subject matter and their unique approach to the possibilities of color and line. You can see more of Wall’s work on his website.
* * *
I hope you enjoyed reading about Superfine! It was a joy for my senses to re-immerse myself in its pink paradise. Feel free to reach out to any of the artists and/or galleries listed here for inquiries. And as usual, if you like what you see, comment/subscribe/drop me a line. You know the drill.
Until next time!