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Frieze London + Frieze Masters 2016 / Photography Review

Frieze London + Frieze Masters 2016 / Photography Review

 

There are two Frieze art fairs in London’s Regent’s Park each autumn: Frieze London for contemporary art; Frieze Masters for older works (with a fair bit contemporary thrown in). With almost 300 galleries and a large average booth size, Frieze is more than twice the size of Paris Photo, and seems to contain almost as many photographs.

At Frieze London, as you might expect with its emphasis on more recent art, the quality of the photographs for sale is variable and influenced by current collector taste. Frieze Masters has less photography and seems a little less fashion led, and the quality is on average a little higher with the odd glaring exception (the most lamentable being an entire booth of outsized black-and-white prints by big-name photographers involving actresses in various states of undress. And a snake). But, contrary to what you might expect, for the most part these fairs are not unadulterated money-fuelled bad taste parties – there is plenty of excellent photography on show.

Discernible trends are most marked at the contemporary jamboree, but are also evident at the modern fair to some extent. To be highly collectible in 2016, it seems photographs should be at least one of the following:

  1. large;
  2. grainy monochrome;
  3. several pictures together, arranged in a line/ grid.

Susan Hiller’s Roughly by Night, 2015, a large grid of grainy blown-up postcards, each one a different colour monochrome, ticks all three trend boxes. Depicting coasts and tumultuous seas, the images walk a fascinating line between photography and painting. Hiller is a veteran multimedia artist who has been at this sort of thing for decades, so she is much more a trendsetter than a follower of fashion.

Also a colourful grainy monochrome print, the great German artist Sigmar Polke’s Ohne Titel (Uran), 1986 is probably the most remarkable photograph on view. Made by exposing a sheet of film to a piece of uranium, this almost incandescent picture glows blue and looks for all the world as if it is backlit (it isn’t). Incandescent in an entirely different sense is Romanian anti-artist Ion Grigorescu’s self-portrait Mimicry I, 1975. Or is his face more resigned than angry? It is this ambiguity which makes this scratchy black-and-white print so fascinating. Equally as lo-fi, Gerhard Richter’s grey monochrome Ohne Titel (Selbstportrait) 1965-71 is at least as mesmerising, his hypnotic motion-blurred eyes making him look like a man possessed.

Another German, the late Michael Schmidt, reminds us that even when lifted from the pages of a book and put on a gallery wall, photographs often work best in relation to each other. With just three silver gelatin prints, his Triptychon II (from Waffenruhe), 1985-1987 offers deeply uncomfortable visual ruptures and correspondences involving slashed wrists and barbed wire. Françoise Janicot’s black-and-white polyptychs are just as discomfiting. Her series Encoconnage 1972 is a brave expression of her feelings of being stifled and trapped as a mother and a wife.

While none are more successful than Schmidt and Janicot, lots of other photographers here put images together in lines or grids to great effect. Chinese artist Zhang Peili’s quirky and inventive One Thousandth of a Second to One Second 1996 tells a story with a row of ten differently exposed monochrome prints of the same photograph, ten sheets of tracing paper and an electric fan. Just as thought provoking, Cerith Wyn Evans’s grid Condition of the Illusion, 1998 has thirteen grainy black-and-white prints of, well, what? Rocks, mould, snow, water, a blend of different things? The more you look, the less you’re sure.

At Bruce Silverstein’s beautifully curated booth the contorted bodies of André Kertész’s Distortions hang happily next to a grid of contortions of a different kind: the physical acrobatics of Aaron Siskind’s Pleasures & Terrors of Levitation, 1956-1965. But one of the best grids (and one of the biggest), Gerhard Richter’s 128 Fotos von einem Bild (Halifax 1978) II, must be well over 3 metres wide. Each of its 128 black-and-white photographs might show nothing but a tiny detail of a painting, but the richness and interplay of the shapes and textures make it a great deal more than the sum of its parts.

Unlike the grids discussed so far, Andreas Gursky’s Gucci 1996/2016 isn’t monochrome. It isn’t even really a grid, but a single image depicting a grid of beautifully-lit, high-end shop shelving, each square containing a single luxury item such as a handbag. What might be dismissed as a slight and superficial artwork, an expensive bauble at a money-driven art jamboree, actually takes on more weight in this context: does this item of bling depicting bling deliberately goad potential purchasers into parting with their cash while having a pop at them?

Another interesting feature of Gursky’s print is its size – by no means small, but modest compared to much of his previous output. Does this signal a new direction for this long-time photographer darling of the art world? While there may be some movement away from the giant prints that have dominated the contemporary market for years, size still matters. Proving the point, the most fashionable photographer at this year’s Frieze London (or the most savvy at playing the system) is Gursky’s fellow Düsseldorfer Thomas Ruff, whose towering portrait-format colour prints loom from the walls of around half a dozen different booths. At around two and a half metres tall, these titanic, typically semi-abstract editions of four don’t say nearly as much as their typically high-in-the-five-figures price tags might suggest.

It still seems – in contemporary sales especially – the bigger the size, the higher the price. Hence Cristina de Middel’s small prints of The Afronauts shown at the Photographers’ Gallery in 2013 are supplanted here by much larger versions of the same images. This adds little artistically, but probably a good deal financially.

But let’s not get carried away thinking that big is always bad. Or for that matter that big prints are a contemporary idea. At almost two metres tall, Man Ray’s Untitled (Enlargement of ‘Projet pour une Tapisserie’) is a two-panel silver gelatin work printed in the 1930s. It seems to show two mesmeric marionettes cavorting in a dance of love. Stunning, captivating and possibly unique, if anything deserves a price tag that makes a Ruff look cheap, it is this.

 – reviewed for Photomonitor by Simon Bowcock

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Frieze London and Frieze Masters were in London’s Regent Park from 6 – 9 October, 2016