By Anya Harrison
This year’s edition of Artissima had a distinctly celebratory feel as the fair marked its 25th anniversary. But the event, organized for the second time under Ilaria Bonacossa, eschewed crowd-pleasing selfie moments for a largely pared-down aesthetic that demonstrated a more conceptual, or in some cases formalist, edge. If not as multi-layered as the mysterious city of Turin itself — which is replete with occult and masonic signs and histories — it at least offered much more than quick hits of aesthetic pleasure during the first weekend of November.
With eight different sections, four of which were organized by external teams of curators, Artissima was notable both for its thoughtful presentations, and for not sidelining them, as so often happens, to the periphery. Indeed, the central axis of the Oval Pavilion where the fair takes place, was given over to two of the curated sections devoted to drawing and emerging artists. A true highlight in the “Disegni” section, which was curated by Luis Silva and João Mourão of the Lisbon project space Kunsthalle Lissabon, was the Los Angeles gallery Steve Turner, which devoted its booth to drawings and small-scale paintings by the Montreal-based artist Claire Milbrath. What from a distance looked sweetly naive and innocent, with some Cocteau-ish flourishes, gave way to darker, vulgar and anxiety-ridden undercurrents, as Milbrath invited us into the imaginary world of her alter ego “Poor Gray,” an “aimless, wealthy, melancholy gay man” — so say the accompanying press materials — who offers up pastel-colored visions of S&M daydreams such as the euphemism-laden “Rosebuds,” 2018.
“Disegni” also presented works by artists who might not necessarily be thought of as draftsmen, including Alexandre Singh’s playfully surreal watercolors of the Eiffel Tower turned gigantic bottle opener at Monitor’s booth, and an inked-up ceramic piece by Tony Cragg — “Untitled,” 1998 — at Tucci Russo.
Among the emerging talent that the section “Present Futures” championed, PEDRO NEVES MARQUES, represented at Artissima by the Naples gallery Umberto di Marino, was awarded the illy Present Future Prize for his video, wall-based pieces and poems that engaged with issues surrounding genetic engineering, the environment, anthropology and globalization, all condensed into the minute body of a genetically-modified mosquito. Mosquitoes also made it into the work of Vivian Caccuri a few booths down at Rio de Janeiro’s A Gentil Carioca, this time as embroidered figures caught in a coital embrace, tokens of Caccuri’s recent research that pits the loathing that surrounds mosquito noise against histories of medicine, music and colonization. An equally strong impression was made by Alejandra Hernandez’s works on paper and ceramics at Laveronica, its booth a riot of color, a celebration of female bodies and empowerment. “We are the daughters of all the witches you could not burn,” one work declared, the text “inked” on to the neck of one in a series of superimposed female heads all painted in profile.
It’s a compliment to the fair that, with 195 participating galleries this year, there were enough strong presentations to draw the visitor in aisle after aisle. Within the main gallery sector, Turin-based Guido Costa’s group-focused booth was weighty with the stark documentary eye of Boris Mikhailov’s “Case History,” 1996, photographs. These shared space with a 1987 metal-and-acrylic work by William Burroughs (“Footsteps on dead leaves”); Diane Arbus’s early ’70s photographs of masked figures out in the street, as well as a large section devoted to the late Chiara Fumai’s paintings depicting LP sleeves, capturing the artist’s father as a 1980s pop singer and blurring the boundaries between reality and image.
In fitting with the cerebral nature of this edition it’s not surprising that photography loomed large: whether in Lala Meredith-Vula’s portraits of Kosovar haystacks at Alberto Peola or, at Norma Mangione, the Czech documentary photographer Viktor Kolar’s strangely off-kilter images depicting urban life in the Ostrava region. In one, a suited man, briefcase in tow, lies on the sidewalk in broad daylight while a crowd — perhaps emerging from the dark recesses of a church that forms the composition’s background, patiently waits to cross the road. No less enticing were the Cuban artist Eduardo Ruben’s painterly explorations of space, infinity kept in check by bars and grids, presented by Berlin’s House of Egorn; or the intricate geometries and poetry at another Berlin gallery, ChertLudde, of the German artist Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt’s typewriter graphics from the 1970s and 1980s, which stopped in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Usually dubbed the experimental fair, Artissima took a risk this year with a new off-site section at Officine Grandi Riparazioni — an industrial building in central Turin that used to serve as the city’s train repair facility — presenting sound works. “It’s the first time that Artissima brings a bit of the fair outside,” Bonacossa explained to me on the eve of its opening. Although sound art may not yet wield the same popularity in collecting circles as more traditional (and easier to install) painting or sculpture, Bonacossa wished to highlight the works’ “emotional capacity to pull you in,” as well as bring in artists, such as Lili Reynaud-Dewar or Franz Erhard Walther, who do not necessarily fall into the “sound art” category. But this is also where the fair faltered, sounds bleeding in to one another, interactive pieces jostling for attention next to ones inviting a moment of silence and stillness. Instead of a stand-alone section, it would have done well to integrate these works into the fabric of the fair itself, without jeopardizing its strength.