Every iteration of Superfine! Art Fair has a different energy. My very first, Miami 2017, was a bubbly concoction of millennial pink and seafoam green atop astroturf in the baking sun. My second, NYC 2018, made space for cooler tones in its chic locale in the Meatpacking District, as well as a larger selection of quiet, meditative work. The latest edition of Superfine! to touch down in New York opened on Wednesday in SoHo with a line around the block. We were greeted upon entrance by a saxophonist, whose jazzy renditions of upbeat hits set the mood for the evening—unexpected.
In its Grand Street location, Superfine! NYC feels more eclectic than ever before. The mirrored doorways that conjoin each room lend the space a surreal quality—a sensation of infinity. I would have loved this affordable fair, which exhibits work by emerging and mid-career artists from across the globe, to extend forever into the ether. But bound by the laws of physics, it does a phenomenal job presenting thought-provoking narratives in unconventional ways.
The four artists I am highlighting here are figurative painters. But beyond this, their work diverges in style and content to tell unique stories in stylized ways. Justin Yoon paints dreamscapes occupied by queer pin-ups and celebrity deities, and Vaidehi Kinkhabwala presents witty Rooster-portraits of chauvinistic men. Elisa Valenti presents Cubist nudes without drawing comparisons to Picasso (a feat), instead spreading body positivity and self love. And Cesar Finamori borders on abstraction, but I have included him in the figurative category because I’m almost positive his uncanny portraits can actually see. Read on to learn about these four artists and the unique narratives they’re bringing to Superfine! New York this year.
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From Justin Yoon’s fluffy, impeccably blended brushwork emerges an ethereal skyscape. The artist says that his affinity for pink and blue is a byproduct of his fascination with light, particularly with sunsets and the moments that follow them. “I love the colors of the shadows during dusk,” he says. “It almost seems like powder blue.” Yoon’s ability to conjure the effects of atmosphere is impressive—In At Dusk, yellow light emerges from an obscured horizon, its rays softly permeating the sky, dampening the fuchsia hue of the nearest clouds. Born two hundred years earlier, he would have excelled as a landscape painter, but that would have been a waste of his talent. Because as fascinating as his skyscapes are, what makes his work most intriguing are the figures he situates within them.
They seem at once like pin-up stars and divine deities, a dichotomy that seems to collapse in our celebrity-obsessed culture. Yoon is inspired by 1950s movie stars and 1970s rock stars, idols who acquired a quasi-devotional following, and whose memorabilia recall religious kitsch. “I wanted to bridge a gap between the Americana history I experienced growing up with my spiritual ideas,” Yoon explains. The artist was exposed to jazz music by his father, and fell in love with the Golden Age of Hollywood watching old films late at night. Yoon’s paintings are an expression of devotion for these public characters who are evocative of a nostalgic time and a space that never has been real. Set in the sky, they linger in the spotlight, but we can never touch them. This distancing is important to Yoon, who strives to make his characters appear relatable but unreachable, a trait they share with celebrities and divine beings.
Perhaps another reason that Yoon expresses so much reverence for these characters is the fact that they are an integral part of his identity. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Seoul before moving to NYC to attend Parsons, the artist has been exposed to a range of visual and cultural influences beyond that of music and film. I can’t help but wonder if Yoon was into cartoons as a child—the universes he paints remind me of Fairy World, the whimsical pastel universe that is home to Cosmo and Wanda in The Fairly Odd Parents. Reading Japanese comics, playing the Sims video game, and eating American fast food are several other activities he says contributed to the construction of his worldview: that life is “romantic yet transient.”
Yoon also cites his Korean heritage as a strong influence on his casual self-disposition. He says that this attitude has manifested itself as a way to cope with the difficulties that arise as a result of being a queer Korean man. Searching his face, I find anything but nonchalance. Yoon is composed but eager to share his work, to connect with others, and to talk about his experiences. But this sense of ease does permeate his paintings– in the form of wistful glances, relaxed postures, and colors that are easy on the eyes. Justin Yoon’s paintings invite you to gaze up at them, to be influenced by them without really noticing.
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Like Yoon, Vaidehi Kinkhabwala is an expert draftsman. Every eye she paints is looking at you, and everything she paints in motion is moving swiftly towards you. In this series of Rooster Portraits, Kinkhabwala utilizes this skill to create uncannily accurate portraits of men in her life…without painting their faces. Instead, she conveys their essence through the heads of roosters perched atop human frames.
She has chosen this animal for her satirical portraits because of their association with a kind of macho masculinity. Kinkhabwala describes the way these roosters signal their “toughness” through the angle of their heads. In shrinking the size of a figure’s rooster-head in proportion to his body, the artist draws attention to this superficial, chauvinistic façade. Some of the birds also appear alarmed—an effect of strange angles highlighting their eyes—which she describes as the expression she receives from men when she discusses feminism.
Though her portraits contain many humorous elements that serve to criticize toxic masculinity, the series is not confined to this one mode of reflection. The collection of portraits is thoughtfully curated, featuring many paintings of men with whom she has a complex and layered dynamic. Her relationships with these men vary in their number of positive and negative qualities, a fact which she demonstrates with two opposing works, The Influencersand Foster Dad. The titles, of course, convey two roles that fit a dualistic understanding of morality—the self-absorbed influencer versus the altruistic, self-sacrificing foster father. But titles aside, it is clear immediately which is which.
The Influencers features two ‘men,’ one of whom strides towards the viewer headlong, his confrontational gaze rendered even more disconcerting due to the fact that we rarely see pictures of roosters from the front. The other stands a foot behind his friend, his chin cocked (pun intended) to the left, one beady eye casting the viewer a sidelong glance. I can almost imagine him whispering a snide remark to his buddy, who is clearly the alpha male.
Contrast that with Foster Dad, in which a ‘man’ cradles a baby in his human arms. His visible eye is softer somehow, given more depth through shading, and—though I lack the vocabulary to properly describe rooster anatomy—its soft feathers (?) are similarly blended. Kinkhabwala clearly holds this latter figure in high regard, so why depict him as a rooster at all? The artist explains that the rooster contains additional meanings in different cultures. In Chinese mythology, the rooster signifies honesty and dependability in addition to masculine strength. In India, the rooster is also the Hindu Skandha, the personification of the sun’s energy.
Foster Dad illustrates the strength of true masculinity: what it truly means to be a man outside of societal norms that support chauvinistic attitudes and behaviors. He practices love, kindness, and altruism. He is honest and dependable. And this kindness radiates, like the sun, to all those around him.
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Feminist topics are par for the course in an art fair like Superfine!, an LGBTQ-run fair organized by partners in life and work, Alex Mitow and James Miille. And what Kinkhabwala brought with feminist wit, Elisa Valenti delivers with self-love—itself a radical act, particularly for women.
Valenti’s paintings of nude women celebrate the softness and sensuality of curvy female bodies without offering them up for consumption. The artist’s quasi-cubist approach to the human form dismantles the illusion of reality in her paintings. As we gaze at Solitude, our eyes fall on the female figure’s every curve, but what we consume is as much paint, as much blocks of shadow and light, as it is flesh. Always aware of her own materiality—the paint that constructs her very essence—she resists objectification and is spared from voyeurship. It is a treat to witness femininity without pornography, sexuality without hierarchy, and nudity free from the shadow cast by the male gaze.
Although Valenti’s paintings achieve this difficult feat, it is a mere side-effect of the artist’s central goal: to find freedom within herself. “I grew up in a time when eating in public was shameful, stomach rolls made you unworthy, and shopping for clothes was traumatic,” Valenti explains. “I grew up before being plus size was normal.” She tells me how a lack of plus-size representation in media made her feel less than beautiful, which led her to fight against nature for many years, forcing her body to occupy less space than it was meant to and poisoning her spirit with self-loathing. It was not until she began painting her body as it was that she started to realize her own beauty (a shock if you see her—she is exquisite-looking).
The paintings Valenti has brought to Superfine! represent different stages in the artist’s journey towards self-love. “With each stroke, with each imperfection I paint, the more beauty I feel,” she says, smiling. The artist’s most recent work, Pizza Girl, caught my eye from across the room and made me gasp with joy. In this painting, a female figure lounges in a bathtub, bubbles caressing her skin with the same tender touch Valenti applies to her paintings. The bather reclines on the ledge, her breasts folding together, while she contently bites into a slice of pizza.
It is a sensual image, not because the figure is displayed for our viewing, but because her happiness radiates—along with the smell of melted cheese—out of the canvas and into our own hearts. This effect is, of course, purposeful. In each painting, Valenti invites the viewer to feel the same joy and peace in their own bodies that her painted figures do in theirs. Access is of the utmost importance to the artist, whose fragmentation of bodies through color and line is not merely a technical choice; it allows more viewers, regardless of race, to see themselves as these women. “Underneath our outward facades, we are all just different shades of the same colors,” Valenti says. Looking at Solitude, one might find themselves in a swath of ivory on the upper thigh, or a patch of rich cocoa on her lower back; perhaps a warm terra cotta or a soft grey-brown. Once she has found herself in Solitude, she will find so much pleasure in the sensual play of light and shadow between her rolling hills of flesh. She will be free.
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Cesar Finamori dances between representation and de-representation with the precision of a tight-rope-walker. With one step—a swath of paint determines a cheekbone—he tip-toes towards reality. With another—a mathematically-perfect circle is erected atop it—he leans backwards in the direction of abstraction. The artist seems to be searching for the exact moment when a face becomes a face, and conversely, the moment when it ceases to be humanoid. With the ‘Vivian Girls,’ a collection of paintings the artist began in 2016, he has achieved the uncanny balance between the two poles.
At first glance, Tui Vivian is a ghoul—a humanoid ghoul, but a ghoul nonetheless. One eye socket is empty—a hole that leads to the black depths of nothingness. Where there should be teeth there is instead a protrusion of white bubbles, and a wet red ring has formed around her lips. Disembodied from the rest of her figure, her ghastly bulbous head floats in the ether.
But upon looking closer, the essence of Tui Vivian is not so certain. Many of the elements that seem to render her ghoulish are actually very inorganic in structure, suggesting machine-like precision rather than supernatural ectoplasm. The white circles that fill her mouth and the black circle that registers as an empty socket take more from the geometric experiments of Kandinsky and Miró than any figurative painterly precedent. The artist’s ability to utilize abstraction in the service of figuration is a testament to his conceptual talents. From this I gather that Finamori has a much different understanding of what makes anyone alive than our current paradigms of science and culture dictate. Perhaps it is not the number of humanoid facial features that render a figure human, but the capacity to feel emotion. In that sense, Tui Vivian is more human than you or I; she wears her shock, her horror, her death—whatever it is that bled her of her color and robbed her of her body—more clearly than any person I know can express their state of mind without words. “I think my figures are looking to themselves,” Finamori says, cryptically.
And look they do. The artist’s canvases are dotted with rolling pupils and floating eyeballs– Wendy Vivian is a particularly good example of this tendency. There are so many gaping holes that might be eyes; to which do we look to ascertain the figure’s identity? The eyes are, after all, the window to the soul, the apparatus through which we seek to discover information about those around us. I propose a leading question to the artist: Which of Wendy’s eyes are looking at us? Finamori disagrees with my suggestion that his figures use any of these eyes to consume us. Their action is purely internal, a web of looks exchanged between different sets of eyes—perhaps, I wonder now, different selves within one dominant self.
Finamori emphasizes one’s emotions over any other tangible quality. All of the portraits in the series bear the last name Vivian, a choice inspired by the Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger, whose tale of gender-fluid Victorian girls was discovered posthumously several decades ago. I ask if his Vivians are ghosts or doubles of Darger’s girls, or if they are meant to evoke the personalities ascribed to the original characters. The artist responds that the influence of the late artist’s work has been purely emotional. The way he felt encountering Darger’s masterpiece at an exhibition inspired him to name his own ambiguous portraits after the late recluse’s tale. It’s a discomforting solution for me, a rather left-brained creative, who likes one-to-one metaphors, or at the very least, models through which I can understand a series of identity displacements. But I trust Finamori—and I trust what I don’t understand. When I look at Tui Vivian and Wendy VivianI no longer feel stared at as I once did. I feel instead that I am bearing witness to each figure’s internal struggle, an outsider myself, looking at someone whose inner world I will never understand.
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Have a favorite? Drop me a line. Don’t have a favorite? Need to look in person to really make up your mind? Head to Superfine! through Sunday at 107 Grand Street in Soho. Click here for a ticket. While you’re there, make sure to take some time at each booth. It’s an interesting mix of artists this year, and many have brought work that requires a second, a third, or even a fourth look to really appreciate.
Happy spring, enjoy the blossoms!