Superfine! is evolving. The three-year-old art fair is finding its footing in a market full of inflated prices…and egos. The work has always been interesting and the curation dazzling, but what makes the upcoming Superfine! NYC so strong is its voice. Founders Alex Mitow and James Miille have honed their brand, and it’s attracting artists who fit their point of view. The result? A space filled with artwork that complements one other thematically, building a strong overarching narrative for the new collector.
The narrative is a manifestation of our contemporary condition– I’ll call it “The In-Between.” Today we are breaking molds cast in stone hundreds of years ago. We are re-defining (and re-carving, if you like this sculpting metaphor) what it means to be human. What it means to embody your gender. To choose no gender. We are forging safer relationships with the planet and our bodies. Superfine! recognizes that categorization is archaic. Its aesthetic is everything broken that has yet to be re-built. The In-Between.
As per usual, I bit off slightly more than I could chew with this article, choosing to interview eleven (eleven!) Superfine! artists. The following is a Sparknotes narrative meant to tease your interest in these artists’ and their imagined universes. Click each artist’s name to see a sneak peek of their work on Superfine!’s online E-fair… the entire E-fair drops Wednesday.
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A number of Superfine! artists are in the business of dismantling gender. Russell Boyle is a standout. His work grapples with what it means to honor one’s true self while living within the confines of society. What makes his work so painfully poignant is his recognition that completely shedding the constricting skin of gender is not always possible. “Out of convenience and sometimes necessity,” Boyle explains, “it seems easier to honor these foreign concepts implanted upon who we are meant to be rather than discard of the facade altogether.” Thus, his work can never be a utopian destruction of gender roles. It has to remain grounded within the limits of our world. The result is a series of work depicting figures fighting against the binary, while paying respect to their fear.
The Butterfly Fairy (2018) epitomizes this dualism. Boyle paints a figure centered on the wings of a butterfly, blending the two anatomically. Their face is a rich color-field of whites, pinks, browns, and ruby red. The figure has painted on their face with makeup, just as Boyle has constructed their face with paint. What can we make of this performative self-presentation? It feels in some ways like an act of strength; painting ones face is a means of forging identity, and controlling the image they present to the world. If this person’s sex at birth was male, it is also an act of rebellion against society– our society designates makeup a woman’s accouterment.
Yet there is also a sadness in this figure’s self-presentation. To paint one’s face is akin to covering oneself. Boyle confided that he “wore many masks through young adulthood to appease peers…and to survive unscathed in a critical world.” There is something mask-like about this figure’s face. Perhaps it is the opaqueness of their white, powdery foundation, or the thick, orange lines on their contoured cheeks. Their makeup is so stylized that it takes on the appearance of a mask.
The butterfly imagery further complicates the message. On one hand, the insect represents transformation, transcendence and liberation. But the dainty creature is also incredibly delicate. If you touch a butterfly’s wing you can instantly damage it.
So which is The Butterfly Fairy? Proud and defiant, or fearful and self-loathing? Boyle’s work is so strong precisely because it doesn’t decide. It lingers in the in-between, recognizing that even the most proud act of self-expression does not indicate total liberation. Not when members of the gay and trans community live in constant fear of violence.
Another Superfine! artist who plays with our perceptions of gender is Joe Turek. His “A White Male” series is a performative destruction of toxic white masculinity. Turek paints portraits of white men in acrylic paint atop a wax surface. He then melts the wax from underneath the paint, distorting the portrait beyond recognition.
A White Male 16 depicts one of Turek’s deconstructed male figures. If you look closely, you can see where the figure’s facial features used to be. His eyes, now two wriggling lines, emerge from what his nose-region. His nose, barely discernible, has dropped down to his chin. Instead of a mouth there is a bulbous orange and yellow protrusion. A hardened mass of lines resembles a wad of chewing gum rather than a head of hair.
Turek’s subjects represent the demographic of abusive, white men in power– of which Turek considers himself a member. “When I paint the men I feel like I’m painting a self-portrait of my power,” the artist explains, “but when I melt it all that power and control goes away.” The viewer is left with the “horrible visages of who these men really are.”
I think that the contemporary discourse around gender politics makes it difficult for those in power to appropriately tackle the subject of their own privilege– it can come across as self-indulgent. Turek has figured out how to confront his position of power in a way that is both personally cathartic and socially instructive.
Turek feels a physical release when these conceptual self-portraits melt before his eyes. On a personal level, he hopes that this self-destructive phase will eventually make way for the construction of a better identity. On a societal level, Turek believes that his work can provide “a visual trigger for contemplation,” motivating his white male viewers to examine their own behavior.
Though I don’t think Turek would agree, I do see in his work the slightest glimmer of hope. It manifests itself in a pale yellow light glowing beneath the strands of matted brown hair. In recognizing this light, I felt a pang. It is evident that toxic masculinity has been detrimental to the artist himself– we don’t crave self-destruction if we are content with our circumstances. Unfortunately, gender discourse often leaves out the harmful effects of the gender binary on men. When you look at Turek’s work, I urge you to practice radical empathy. Rejoice in the satisfaction of watching white male power melt before your eyes. But also recognize that this work comes from a place of dissatisfaction with the self… and we all deserve to feel comfortable in our skin.
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Lori Cuisinier approaches gender from the female perspective, making her work an interesting complement to Boyle’s and Zolin’s. Her stance on femininity has a certain tension that makes it compelling: the duality of strength and softness in sexuality. But Cuisinier’s Ariadne Abandoned is filled with dualities, and I’d like to start with these, as they wind their way back to gender in a thought-provoking stream of consciousness.
Cuisinier’s work evokes both the ancient and the contemporary. She is inspired by the sensuality and power in the drapery of ancient Green & Roman statuary. Her monumental compositions of fabric and flesh recall these ancient sculptures, taking on the appearance of stone through careful attention to light.
In Ariadne Abandoned, the fabric draped around Cuisinier’s body forms organic shapes and shadows. Light accentuates these, creating a strong contrast between light and dark. This has a dramatizing and dehumanizing effect on the tableau; heightened contrast animates the fabric, making it a subject of the work. It also distorts the figure’s skin, casting it in shades of grey and rose, like stone rather than flesh.
There is something inherently erotic about the voyeuristic nature of the nude sculpture. Cuisinier also sees drapery as a “vehicle of eroticism,” delivering the “frozen emotionality” of the nude form to any who view her. But the artist is quick to point out that she maintains agency in her self-portraits.
Cuisinier hides her face in these images not to allow herself to be consumed, but so that she can slip more easily into the shoes of a character. When Cuisinier becomes Ariadne, a character who has been abandoned by Theseus, she asserts her own agency and lends it to Ariadne. Neither woman is a victim. As both artist and model, Cuisinier/Ariadne chooses what the viewer sees. “I am completely in control and empowered when creating this imagery,” Cuisinier states, in the voice I imagine Manet’s Olympia to have. Like Olympia, Ariadne presents herself with agency despite also projecting femininity and sensuality.
This juxtaposition is keenly felt in the work. Though Ariadne is depicted in a pornographic dreamscape (pink! lace! nudity!), she asserts her agency by excluding the viewer. Instead, she masturbatorily covers herself in fabric, taking pleasure in the depths of her emotionality and sensuality.
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Carol Scavotto is exhibiting with Re:Artiste, an international arts organization dedicated to exposing artists’ work through various exhibitions, workshops, and juries. Her collages on wood approach the subject of gender with a strong sense of intimacy due to their material nature and use of self-portraiture.
Naked save for a thin glaze, You Too Can Have It All parades its art-making, the veneer of the glaze flickering in the light. I love when the artist’s hand is visible in a work. Balanced correctly, as Scavotto has here, it reveals the artist’s vulnerability. Because she has incorporated her physical likeness into the collage, her art-making becomes a presentation of the self.
Scavotto often uses dolls and masked faces to illustrate this presentation– and subsequent obscuration. In You Too Can Have It All, she has inserted photograph of Betty Boop over her own face, effectively creating a ‘new’ face for her body. This constructed face reflects traditional modes of beauty as designed by men. Betty’s averted gaze amplifies this phenomenon– she is a contemporary mythologized Venus who looks away to allow for guilt-free consumption.
The use of Betty Boop’s face is especially poignant when discussed in context. She adorns the body of a career woman, wife, and mother. The suit, baby, and kitchen acoutremont suggest her insatiable urge to have it all. But the face waiting for her on the kitchen counter, free of make-up and staring listlessly up at the ceiling, reveals a crack in her mask. In a society stacked against women, we can’t really have it all.
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Emma Repp approaches the subject of gender more subtly than her peers, but her work buzzes with a quiet strength. She depicts women in claustrophobically beautiful environments– rooms teeming with sparkling lights and rosy colors. The figure in Breakfast Crouch shields herself from the fluorescent colors of the outside world. Her hair spills over her face and her shoulders hunch forward. She is on her journey towards self-love and acceptance, Repp explains. It is an arduous one in a society built on beauty and excess.
The artist’s worlds are a physical manifestation of this excess. Repp builds these spaces by layering scanned drawings in photoshop. Her experience as a printmaker taught her to create in such a systematic fashion, though the result feels fluid. Patterns merge with seemingly no boundaries, creating an overabundance of aestheticism that contrasts with the figure’s glum posture. “It’s about how I feel as a female human,” explains Repp, “trying to figure out how to take up space in the world.”
On the flip side, Repp is also inspired by the abundance of beauty around her. “I’m excited to currently inhabit a body on this planet,”she says, “because there is a lot of beauty, even if you don’t know how to be a part of it.” This sentiment struck a chord. As a self-proclaimed fashionista and body positive advocate, I love the sensation of feeling beautiful. But the constant influx of images telling us how to look makes it difficult to reconcile our personal beauty with society’s idea of perfection. It creates a strange tension between self-love and self-loathing, as women struggle to find a middle ground between individualism and conformity. Repp captures these in-betweens well, acknowledging the objective beauty that surrounds us while reminding us of its emotional consequences.
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Another group of Superfine! artists are explorers and world-builders. Their work dances between reality and fantasy, conjuring up spaces with iconography from each. Rather than let us know which world they are operating in, these artists leave us guessing. This ambiguity leaves room for contemplation, creating a very active relationship between the work and the viewer.
Kenneth Burris revels in this ambiguity. He takes fragments of images and videos and filters them into video game software, producing recontextualized images that inspire his painted fantasy worlds. These worlds resemble our planet in some ways, but are inhabited by strange creatures. Vivid aquatic species fill the foreground of Neo Olympus (2018), while a blurry manmade building rises up in the background. It is as if we are submerged, looking up out of the water at the strange stone monument above. Burris positions the viewer beneath the surface of the water so that we inhabit the space of a nonhuman living thing. We are forced to empathize with these luminescent anemones.
Raising awareness about environmental issues is a major component of Burris’ work, and his approach is innovative. Rather than depict the barren wasteland of a potentially dystopian Earth, the artist imagines the beauty of a world without environmental destruction. His paintings are not a heavy-handed warning, but a lucid dream that we are invited to participate in. Heavy-handed warnings often go unheeded because their apocalyptic predictions feel so impossible. We look at the verdant greenery around us and doubt the reality of deforestation. Burris first attracts viewers visually, through his alluring depiction of nature untouched by human hands. By then, viewers are more emotionally receptive to the artist’s admonition.
Burris’ message is simple. The world is toxic because humans are destroying the earth. Animals have the potential to grow, thrive, and evolve, and we are preventing this with our parasitic presence. In his paintings, animals are transformed into more powerful, beautiful beings, because our extinction has allowed them to evolve.
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Naoaki Funayama grew up near Mt. Fuji. Throughout his childhood and into his adult life he has been captivated by nature and the ancient history of the mountain. Funayama’s pre-historic landscapes are the foil to Burris’ imagined futures. Both universes feel as if they’ve been dipped in day-glo colors. Both animal populations look like the genetically-modified survivors of a nuclear explosion. Funayama’s anthropomorphized dinosaurs have the size and strength of T-Rexes but the self-control and intent of men. The result is terrifying: an army of creatures both massive and cunning.
But it bears noting that Funayama situates these creatures in foreign terrain. In X-Don #56, clouds gather around a planet presumed to be Saturn, which we cannot see with the naked eye from Earth. Additionally, the ground curves upward at an astonishing rate. Looking at X-Don #56 is a fish-eye experience; the viewer feels as if the ground beneath him is rolling. This definitely isn’t earth as we know it– whether prehistoric or futuristic, its conditions are unfit for humans. Only these hybrid dinosaurs (and massive creepy crawlies) can survive and thrive here.
I interpret X-Don #56 as a larger metaphor about our relationship with the planet. “Humans are helpless against the great power of nature,” Funayama explains. Sometimes we have to exclude ourselves from the narrative to recognize the strength and beauty of everything else in this world.
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The geographical in-between that Steve Zolin explores is the line between mathematical and spiritual planes. The artist studies Overlapping Curved Perspective, a process that allows him to create an infinite number of perspectival spaces, each with its own vanishing point. The Wreck of Ol’ Number 7 features two perspectival spaces layered on top of one another. I see one vanishing point down the tunnel at the viewer’s right, behind the shape of the floating figure. I detect another one towards the distant white column at the viewer’s left. Notice how the streets undulate forebodingly towards each vanishing point.
The distortion created by curved perspective heightens the emotional intensity of the work, creating the ominous sensation that the space is closing in on itself. The overwhelming sense of claustrophobia is what lends The Wreck of Ol’ Number 7 its intense power. When the physical rules of our world are broken, all other tools to create order are called into question. The destruction of traditional notions of space on canvas awakens the subconscious fear of entropy.
It is even more frightening for the viewer to contemplate these fractured spaces because Zolin provides just enough anecdotal detail to ground them in reality. Fragments of columns and cars form the background upon which Zolin splinters perspective and sends figures flying through the air.
Zolin sees the vanishing points in Overlapping Curved Perspective simultaneously as emanation points– “bringing creation forth from a single point.” This duplicity– of destruction and creation– contributes to the tension of the work. It adds a spiritual dimension to a mathematical phenomenon, forming the second “in-between.” Zolin’s work re-imagines our conception of space, and its spiritual implications. After all, as the artist says, “[Space] is the cake upon which the frosting of all human drama laid.”
If there were a spokesperson for the in-between, it would be Shamona Stokes. The seventeen ceramic + mixed media works she is exhibiting at Superfine! are a menagerie of ambiguous beings. They are “equal parts human, animal, deity, and alien,” she says, “and are inspired by the liminal space between wakefulness and sleep.” Upon first glance, the collection- entitled Hypnos, after the Greek God of sleep- could be mistaken for a trove of discovered artifacts… but Stokes’ materials situate her work in the present.
In many ways Fertility Goddess resembles the famous Venus of Willendorf circa 25,000 BCE. The sculpture is rotund, with emphasized breasts and a pronounced pubic region. It stands on two stumpy legs and lacks arms or fingers. It has neither eyes nor a nose.
But it does have a strange marking in the middle of its face, which immediately sets it apart from the ancient statue. I instinctively see it as a displaced mouth, perhaps due to its puckered quality and darker pink coloring. Fertility Goddess also feels too smooth to be ancient. That, plus its millennial pink shade and silver grommet nipples situate Fertility Goddess in the present.
Would you have recognized the work to be a vessel of fertility without reading its title? Stokes would argue, yes. She is well-travelled in the collective subconscious, a realm that I have researched quite a bit (along with our good friend Carl Jung). The collective subconscious is the realm where our imaginations, ancestral memories, fears, myths, and dreams reside. It is thought that we instinctively recognize certain symbols and ideas because they are born from the collective subconscious. We recognize a figure with pronounced breasts to be female, and associate her with fertility, because this imagery is part of our collective memories. “It’s like the cloud storage for every single memory and story in all of human history,” Stokes explains, using an anachronistic metaphor fit for her aesthetic.
Stokes taps into the collective subconscious through meditation and dream interpretation, pulling symbols that she recognizes from the early myths. She is particularly interested in the way many cultures attributed human qualities to animals, worshipped celestial bodies, and created physical vessels to harness creativity and fertility.
In the collective subconscious, ideas present themselves a million ways at once. Without Newtonian laws, it is possible to shape-shift without time ever passing. When Stokes pulls an idea from the subconscious, she makes a choice to assign it a physicality. The idea may still bear multiple associations, but it will only look one way. Thus, any attempt to capture an idea from the subconscious and display it in our physical world will inevitably be a single interpretation of a more complicated idea. Therefore, Stokes’ sculptures cannot be seen as entirely subconscious depictions. They are a blend of both conscious and subconscious realms. This second, more conceptual “in-between” adds a complex new dimension to an already anachronistic treasure.
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The artist Ross Bonfanti is exhibiting at Superfine with Spence Gallery. Like Shamona Stokes, Bonfanti is interested in the associations we have with different images, and how juxtaposing these images creates vibrant stories. For Product of Environment, Bonfanti conjoined several found objects: a plush teddy bear, blocks of wood, and scraps of metal. The result is an uncanny creature that blurs the line between animal and machine. But the question does not seem to be, what is this creature? Instead, the question is: how does this creature make you feel?
“To some people my work looks cute and to others it’s creepy,” explains Bonfanti. “The dichotomy of beauty vs. grotesque is something that excites me.” The artist’s juxtapositions force us to confront our own perceptions of aestheticism. What do we find comforting, what do we find unsettling, and why?
Including a teddy bear in his work is a universal way of establishing nostalgia and sweetness. Bonfnati knows that humans associate the plush toys with childhood (consciously, or subconsciously, I’d like to know). The inclusion of brick and metal disturb the image of the innocent teddy bear. Why is it that attaching a bear’s head to a metal pole instantly transforms it into a creature of malice? Look into its wide, black eyes and feel a slight chill run though your body. No longer are glassy eyes comforting vessels for a young child to invest his love and devotion. Instead they are evidence of sentience in a monster’s body. Bonfanti understands that context is everything when it comes to human emotion. He purposely places familiar objects in new contexts to manipulate our emotions.
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Last but certainly not least is Dolly Faibyshev. The photographer works in extremes, casting her subjects in technicolor and framing them dramatically. My favorite print, Jolene, depicts a drag performer at Dollypalooza, a Dolly Parton impersonation contest. Despite drag’s gendered nature, the work does not strike me explicitly as a commentary on gender. Perhaps this is because I’ve seen Faibyshev’s other subject matter, which includes Sumo Wrestlers and the Westminster Dog Show.
Faibyshev is taken by niche pockets of American culture. Maybe the artist is more outside of than in-between. As the child of Russian immigrants, the photographer is keenly aware of the American Dream and its many manifestations. She is drawn to “people that dive headlong into a world that the rest of us have never thought of entering.” Her admiration for people’s dreams is evident in the way she treats her subjects. Faibyshev bathes Jolene in soft pink light, caressing the surface of her skin and illuminating her figure. Despite the camera’s apparent focus on Jolene’s breasts, I find myself looking at her blissful smile. The photographer utilizes specific color combinations to purposefully draw the viewer’s eye around the work. The bright red shadow above Jolene’s bosom catches the viewer’s eye, shifting our focus to her face.
In addition to “the sheer joy of self-expression,” Faibyshev captures “glamour, yearning, and validation,” all sentiments wrapped up in the American Dream. Her fluorescent colors feel dreamlike– apt for the documentation of those whose dreams are larger than life. Her use of framing isolates Jolene from the world around her. We cannot even quite make out the blurry red and purple shapes on the viewer’s right. The focus is Jolene and her unquenchable thirst for happiness. She exists in a vacuum of dreams and vivid materials– sequins, glitter, beads, wigs, satin and effervescent light. Separating Jolene from reality heightens the emotional intensity of her dreams– we see how Jolene sees herself, and how badly she needs this fantasy. Faibyshev ensures the immortality of her subject’s fantasy. She grants Jolene the spotlight, and turns her skin into a luminescent canvas.
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Visit Superfine.world to buy your tickets to Superfine! NYC. You can buy a day pass or tickets to one of Superfine!s’s events… ice-cream social, dim sum dinner party– there will even be cotton-candy-clad-champagne at the opening! No matter what delicious treats you consume the week of May 2-6, you’ll be more captivated by the artwork adorning the walls on West 14th street. The eleven artists I interviewed are highlights from a fantastic group of over 200 exhibitors. Let their subjects consume you, their materiality possess you, and their “in-between-ness” unbalance you. You will leave Superfine! NYC re-thinking the way you see yourself and those around you. And more likely than not, with a brilliant piece of contemporary art to add to your collection.
Keep a look out for my interview with Superfine! founders Alex Mitow and James Miille, dropping next week. And subscribe to Canvas and Crumpets for some extra treats…
Until next time!