With Europe opening its gallery doors again and some of London’s commercial spaces offering visits by appointment, the mood is one of normality returning. Long may it remain so. But, for now, the big events are still confined to cloud busting, displaying their wares online for the world to see and potentially purchase. Art Basel, the art fair blueprint, is now a brand megastructure, with satellite events in Hong Kong and Miami that have become firm fixtures on the art fair calendar. But the original event, held in Basel’s Messeplatz, remains a strong presence in the mix and provides easy for a European audience. Its Unlimited section is always a must-see for the ambitious projects by the great and emerging artists hosted.
Of course, it’s an impossible gig to truly replicate online, particularly for sculpture, film and installation works, so this year the output is now understandably Limited, but the platform still offers a visual feast for those who fancy a (fantasy) shopping spree or a one-stop swipe fest across the rich and varied international gallery circuit. Register for free access and head for a digital supermarket sweep of all the work you might check out with if money was no object…you’ve got just over 2.5 days before it closes on June 26 at 1pm. And if the scan through everything or the open search facility prove daunting, there are a series of expert tours and commentary available to guide the way.
Normally I would head straight for the curated sections, and struggle to make it around all of the many booths upstairs, but this year it’s all about the galleries. While some have organised their chosen artists into thematic presentations, others have gone for the straight-up approach – great works by some of the best (or most collectible) artists on their rosters. While it goes without saying the price bracket is generally not for those who have to ask about such before they buy, some provision has been made for the inclusion of younger galleries and those dedicated to showing works by emerging artists.
The beauty of being afforded a solo online gander is that you can hover in front of the works you love, without interruption, when you want and with no danger of blisters. But, naturally, this experience also highlights all that we are missing, THE PEOPLE: catch-ups, networking opportunities, the human parade littered with curious characters and interactions of note. And, the vital ability to get up close with works that don’t always make it into the shows we can get to. But, aside from all that and the oddity of having to directly negotiate everything as a commodity (the average visitor can swim through a normal Basel, unaware of price tags and sales secured), the vast array of works provides us with welcome, if remote, contact with a spectator sport we live to critique but have actually seriously missed in these odd times.
So, here’s a roundup of some Basel best-bits.
If there’s one work I could take with me to the desert island it would very likely be by Giorgio Morandi. His tremulous and tender execution of everyday objects in paint connects us with everything we could possibly understand and want to experience of both. He remains the master of the still-life genre. We are always left wondering how the arrangement of things and the handling of oily fluids on a surface can penetrate the cultural consciousness in the way it does, and so aptly describe the imperative to collect – the significance of objects to the memory of how we have lived.
David Zwirner is showing ‘Nature Morta (Still Life)’, 1953, an architectural beauty of an object set-up, where the uniform height of the grouped objects seems as improbable as the artist’s acute ability to articulate a mood through marks on canvas. Also featured here is American sculptor Carol Bove, who makes equally light work of describing the human condition, if through a very different form of material enquiry and manipulation. However stiff they may appear, her twisted, often high-coloured, metal forms embody the characteristics of malleable substances. The black knotty form of ‘Tragic Deviousness’, 2020, immediately appears as edible as liquorice and banging-tough as a car bonnet. But the matt quality of the paint job prevents either material suggestion from taking a primary hold on the senses, leaving us in a visceral hinterland between what we can know of an object and the referential territories its manufacture might transport us to.
I’ve previously posted on the work of Mike Nelson, specifically his exemplary transformation of Tate Britain’s Duveen galleries last year. My main hope after witnessing his perfectly pitched sculptural spectacle, was that it would be bought in its entirety for permanent museum display. Such is the power of this gesamkunstwerk, via Nelson’s custodial handling of collected matter, to communicate the state of things in modern Britain. But this was always a big expectation, given the scale of the installation and the number of components involved, and it’s possible a proportion of the works exist somewhere together. Certainly, the Tate owns a few. Fans with means will be happy to discover that two members of the ‘Asset Strippers’ collective have been released for sale at ArtBasel.
The hulking-great ‘From Antiquity’ is available to view at 303 Gallery, New York and ‘Megalith’ at Galleria Franco Noero, Turin. It initially feels odd, listing them individually, but curious to think about where these poignant anti-monuments to a complex industrial past might be sited in the future. Both appear to have been constructed with the classical sculptural court in mind, but these respectively tower- and plinth-like manifestations, also connect us with the history of commemorating a colonial and military past in object form. Essentially, they couldn’t be more relevant to the current UK situation; perfectly weighted harbingers for a society in flux.
I’ve just been writing about Swedish painters and am ready to tune back into the low-key but sumptuous chromatics of Mamma Andersson and Anders Eriksson at Stephen Friedman. Andersson’s ‘Cupido 1’, 2019, an exquisite study of a Roman sculpture, speaks of the history of the human form as an endlessly complex subject of art production. We find the god of love beautifully lit, but in a less-than-mirthful state, his wings lost under a shroud-like covering that also appears to envelop his crown in the manner of a headdress.
Eriksson’s loosely-described ‘Genom, 2017-2019’ presents us with an abstracted patchwork landscape we can at once view from every angle, as if simultaneously inhabiting the memory of a place through the mind’s eye and the sensory reality of being in and amongst it. The restrained, sophisticated palette is distinctly Nordic, but also brings to mind the tonality of key British painters like Ben Nicholson and Prunella Clough.
The gallery is also showing a covetable pair of Lisa Brice oil-on-tracing paper works. The South-African artist’s cobalt-blue women appear to exist as a result of paint just about adhering to the semi-transparent ground. There's a directness to their gaze, into mirrors and out of doorways, which ensures they are never beholden as subjects, to the terms of this or the entire history of female muse-dom.
Seek out the magnificent grubby-yellow Susan Rothenberg painting at New York gallery Sperone Westwater. The influential American artist, known for her visceral horse studies, sadly died last month aged 75. As with Andersson’s cupid, the demeanour of her ‘Buddha Monk’, 2018-2019, defies titular expectation. In a wriggling charcoal script, he appears caught mid-movement in a tangle of limbs. Whether wrestling with a higher purpose or in the grip of a conniption, it’s hard to tell, but the effect of smudgy black linearity on the canary ground is delicious.
For an image that’s also much more than the brief sum of its descriptive parts, look to London photographer John Riddy’s ‘London (Peckham)’, 2019, 2020 at Frith Street Gallery. The city’s scenography becomes entirely malleable to socially redolent suggestion through the artist’s lens. The underside of a south-London railway arch appears a site for contemplation, potentially religious in its significance. A mix of damp and dry bricks in random tesselation, brings a painterly design sense to the proceedings more akin to images of 17th century vaulted church ceilings than 20th century street furniture. The natural curve of the structure appears to have been flattened, the space between wall, railing and road concertinaed, as if to posit the idea of this site as a single surface, or a canvas ground.
On the subject of flatness and imbuing inanimate things with human characteristics, Cornelia Parker’s physically affecting ‘Alter Ego (Waterfall)’, 2018, is also being shown here. Two silver pots, one whole, the other crushed and prone like its faltering shadow, appear together strung like puppets. The evident effect of pressure on the object can be acutely felt in re the sense of a cavity compressed and the final breath subsequently released.
The history of image-making is veritably collapsed in the collages of John Stezaker (UK). The Approach has a wonderful example of the artist at his cut-and-shut best, making the process of marrying a host of found-image characters and a variety of borrowed compositional strategies look easy. Yet, such is the tightness of the seams between the pictorial layers of this untitled work from last year, the eye struggles to focus enough to find out what the shadowy woman about to step off into a Surrealist-cloudy ether is made of.
There are of course too many great works to mention: the monochrome Julie Mehretu (US) at carlier gebauer; the Paul Winstanley (UK) painting of viewers all cheek-by-jowl in a private view, at Galerie Vera Munro; the dark, profane and utterly delectable ‘Shit Mom (Recess)’, 2019, by Tala Madani at Pilar Corrias; and, of course, any chance to see a Marlene Dumas, like ‘SPOTLIGHT’, 1985, shown here by Basel gallery Stampa.
After all this, and the eye watering price tags attached, head over to Mother’s Tankstation representing two artists on the rise at different career points: Japanese kinetic sculptor Yuko Mohri and established Australian painter Noel Mckenna. I first saw Mohri’s work in the Dublin gallery’s London space earlier this year, which included a startlingly humanoid, dancing feather duster powered by an elegant and highly inventive arrangement that incorporated a trumpet as conductor. ‘Urban Mining’, 2020, appears an equally captivating prospect created from a random-sounding inventory, such as a beer can, street-light models, used cable and a battery. It may be light in actual weight and material touch, but Mohri’s thinking here is around illuminating the serious issue of energy conversion and the pressing global need to develop new, clean methods of power.
There is an odd tension to Mckenna’s everyday scenes in paint that belies the simplicity of his approach and sometimes comical nature of the animals and objects he describes. Perhaps it is because, as ‘Poodle, Shaker, Stove’, 2019, corroborates, the artist’s chromatic and tonal choices - a delicate swatch-like medley of just-about-decided-upon greys, umbers and pastels - are anything but simple. We are therefore left oscillating between a childlike world of dogs and cosy domestic security and one that reverberates with serious portent.
Images all courtesy of ArtBasel, the artists and galleries:
Natura morta (Still Life), 1953 © The estate of Giorgio Morandi/David Zwirner
Tragic Deviousness, 2020 © Carol Bove/David Zwirner
The Asset Strippers (Megalith), 2019 © Mike Nelson/Galleria Franco Noero
The Asset Strippers (from antiquity), 2019 © Mike Nelson/303 Gallery
Cupido 1, 2019 © Mamma Andersson/Stephen Friedman
Genom, 2017 – 2019 © Andreas Eriksson/Stephen Friedman
Untitled, 2020 © Lisa Brice/Stephen Friedman
Buddha Monk, 2018 – 2019 © Susan Rothenberg/Sperone Westwater
London (Peckham), 2019, 2020 © John Riddy/Frith Street Gallery
Alter Ego (Water Fall), 2018 © Cornelia Parker/Frith Street Gallery
Untitled, 2019 © John Stezaker/The Approach
Six Bardos: Last Breath, 2018 © Julie Mehretu/carlier gebauer
Apostasy (Demons Out), 2019 © Paul Winstanley/Galerie Vera Munro
Shit Mom (Recess), 2019 © Tala Madani/Pilar Corrias
SPOT LIGHT, 1985 © The Estate of Marlene Dumas/Stampa
Urban Mining, 2020 © Yuko Mohri/mother's tankstation limited
Poodle, Shaker Stove, 2019 © Noel McKenna/mother's tankstation limited