Yesterday afternoon, amid relatively mild temperatures and sunny skies, Piper Marshall and I made our way to the West Side Piers to see what this year's Armory Show has to offer. Marshall, a jack of all trades—curator (she recently left New York's Swiss Institute and landed a gig curating six shows a year at New York's Mary Boone Gallery), scholar (she'll start studying for an art history PhD at Columbia University in the fall) and amateur real estate agent (she offered helpful advice for a friend she ran into who'd recently lost her apartment)—was drawn to mostly abstract, conceptual work that addresses interactions and divisions between the mind and the body.
The 2014 fair (Mar. 5-9) is home to 204 exhibitors, 146 of which are planted in the contemporary pier, the focus of Marshall's walkabout. As in previous years, several satellite fairs set up shop in New York to coincide with the Armory, among them Independent, Scope and Volta.
First up on Pier 94 were some enamel-on-metal sign paintings from the early '80s by Jenny Holzer, hung on the outside of the booth of Sprüth Magers (Berlin and London). The hand-painted signs are from her "Living" series, and they resemble the kind of plaques that typically designate historical buildings. "I've never seen anything like this," Marshall said. "They're just so fantastic; the use of language as material is at the origin of conceptual art." She was reminded of the current Whitney Biennial, which opened the night before, specifically the floor curated by Michelle Grabner. "The theme of signage and institutional critique is very apropos of the Biennial."
At Los Angeles's 1301PE, Marshall was immediately drawn to an easy-to-miss sculpture by Ann Veronica Janssens, a Brussels-based artist she was not familiar with. The corrugated gilded aluminum sculpture hung like an awning on a wall in the back of the gallery's booth. The piece reminded her of the somewhat under-known American sculptor Robert Grosvenor, who, according to Marshall, often had to defend his works' "demand for space."
Also on view was Sleep is for Losers, a large painting by Blake Rayne, whose New York studio Marshall had visited before his show at 1301PE last fall. Chatting with gallery owner Brian Butler about Rayne's process (he places the canvas face up on the ground and walks around it, "painting himself into a corner," per Butler), Marshall was particularly intrigued by the nature of Rayne's non-choreographed movements, the subtle over-painting that gives the whitish streaks an icy-blue-to-violet patina, and the smattering of crushed walnut shells embedded in the work. "He wants to put everything in a painting," said Butler.
At Tilton Gallery (New York), Marshall chatted with associate director Ryan McKenna about two pieces by Luca Dellaverson made of gesso, mirrors and resin. "They're brand new, just two weeks old," McKenna said, explaining how the artist makes his fractured mirror compositions. "He suspends the mirror in epoxy, pushing the materials to their breaking point. He uses really low-quality epoxy that's intended for kitchen knobs or costume jewelry; a six-ounce pour is recommended, but he'll pour 25 pounds."
A large, vaguely anthropomorphic burlap-and-concrete sculpture by Esther Kläs, planted in the middle of the booth of Peter Blum Gallery (New York), caught Marshall's eye. Vlad Smolkin, the gallery's archivist, pointed out the internal core of stacked blue and white foam blocks peeking through the tiny openings in the burlap weave; Kläs carved the foam into the desired shape, covered it with burlap, and sprayed the structure with concrete.
Marshall made a beeline for a piece by Latifa Echakhch at Zurich's Galerie Eva Presenhuber. The painting is an extension of Echakhch's installation last year at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. There, she covered the lobby walls with carbon paper and applied a solvent so that the ink drained from the paper and pooled onto the floor, a reference to activists' use of carbon paper to covertly disseminate information during the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War. "I'm really interested in her investigation of where the social body is located within an administrative space," Marshall said. For A wind arrives in the back, the breath get frozen and the wind get fixed for three, part of Echakhch's new series, the artist dipped the bottom of her canvas into a pool of blue ink, allowing the pigment to be absorbed and travel upwards, forming a delineation that looks like an evergreen tree line. "The work is very refined," Marshall said. "It seems to address our desire for standardization and our failure to meet such lofty ideals."
Philip Tinari, director of Beijing's Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, curated the "Armory Focus: China" section of the fair. Marshall got an unexpected history lesson thanks to Hong Kong gallery 10 Chancery Lane, whose booth was dedicated to Huang Rui (a painter) and Wang Keping (a sculptor). Both were members of "the Stars," a group of experimental artists who, in 1979, hung their work on gates across from the National Museum in Beijing and fought for the rights of independent artists.
Before we left, Marshall was eager to stop in to the Düsseldorf dealer Max Mayer's booth, in the "Armory Presents" section, devoted to newer galleries displaying single artists. Mayer fudged the rules a little bit, showing a series of paintings by Klaus Merkel and a single glazed ceramic sculpture by Nicolás Guagnini. "This shows how Guagnini, a highly conceptual artist, contends with materiality," Marshall said. "It's really interesting to see how he brings the body back into ceramics."
Off to the side in Mayer's booth was a small table on which sat several gold objects—replicas of rent and utility checks for CAGE, an alternative art space on New York's Lower East Side. Each was for sale for the amount written on the original check ($2,300 for rent, for example) plus production costs.
"Rather than idealistically positioning themselves outside the confines of the art fair, they're flipping the game and deploying the market to their own ends," Marshall said. "This model is important because it is neither isolated nor completely complicit; rather, there is a soft resistance. Which I quite enjoy."