Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pier Review

by Drew Martin

I went to the Armory Show on Saturday, March 6th at Pier 92 and 94 in New York. I had never been to a trade show for art before. I am sure most exhibitors shun that term, but it was not very different than trade shows I have been to for other industries...and that was the impression I got there, that art is an industry and its products need to be peddled.

I am not put off by trade shows...I love all the dynamics of the exhibitors and the attendees. I have especially savory memories when I met my wife at the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center a few years ago. I think even the most devoted art lover would not blink before trading in his or her ticket for that exhibition. Though I last wrote about a shared experience and intermingling of art and food, an art exhibition lacks a natural structure of a food exhibit. At a food show you can start off with drinks and appetizers, work you way through a series of courses and then end with an array of desserts. There is no equivalent to this in art; no appetizer art or dessert art. I could fit works into those genres but they simply are not expressed that way. You do not finish off a Turner with a Matisse.

The Armory is more random, like a food fight. It would be difficult to talk about the work because it is not a curated show or a museum collection and you can find art of varying talents and quality. The problem with this warehouse approach for displaying art is that the precision, space and serenity of the museum are lost to small, impermanent booths. Not that art needs to be seen in that environment, but these works wish to be. The crowded venue gives the feeling of being in a market. I thought I would be turned off by the people in the crowds but they were genuinely engaged and interested, even more so than I have seen in museums where you often get the people who think they should be there but do not know why and are uncomfortable: the wayward tourists and the reluctant tag-along boyfriends who decide to use the stroll through, i.e., MoMA for foreplay. Those are the guys who walk around with their hands parked inside the back of their girlfriends' jeans.

The Armory attendees come in all shapes and sizes but they are all there for the art even if it that means something more akin to design in their eyes or as a backdrop for their socializing and personal fashion. I met former NJ Governor Corzine, with whom I spoke for a few minutes. He said he preferred the impressionists but was there with his "significant other" (his words) who liked modern art and was thrilled to be there. In a nutshell, I found much of the artwork interesting, but hard to appreciate in that setting, which is very deceiving because the pieces that stand out in the crowds and are competing with all the other work might be too visually loud and annoying in a more intimate setting, such as one's home. Just as being able to listen to music in a car really changes the kind of music we listen to because of the speed, distractions and competing noises, this kind of trade show approach, actually changes the kind of art one would buy.

What caught my eye most of all were the exhibitors. In a traditional trade show for electronics, pharmaceuticals and the like, the exhibiting team is usually a middle-aged married man and a 20-something, single and fairly new female employee, who is easy on the eyes. The latter is nicknamed the Booth Bunny. The Armory had quite a diverse range of exhibitors, but certainly not in an ethnic way. I took a picture of every exhibitor desk/table set up (and that's a lot). They fell into one of ten categories: the waiting room, the receptionist, the accidental office, the worker bees, the corner people, the airport delay, the talk show, retail, the cafe and the shoe shine. The difference between the accident office and the worker bees is that the former looks like someone and his or her desk was dropped into the exhibition space and that he or she could care less about the show around him or her. The worker bees, on the other hand, are buzzing around selling art and working their spaces.

My favorite were the airport delay exhibitors, who looked like they missed their planes and had to wait eight hours. They were all on their phones or computers and looked a bit bedraggled. I also thought the corner people were interesting...stuffed as tightly into the corners of their booths as possible. Perhaps they thought they would be less obvious but they just looked odd and a little neglected or worse, abused. I had hoped to see someone playing off his or her presence but nobody was having fun with the possibilities of the set up, strictly business as usual. I have included some visuals to help explain the categories: