"About Painting"

Ana Teixeira Pinto

September 9, 2011
ABC Art Berlin Contemporary, Berlin
September 7–11, 2011

The fourth edition of the ABC (Art Berlin Contemporary) is fated to be the most contentious: the show is being held against the background of Art Forum Berlin’s demisethe city’s official art fair that has ceased to exist after negotiations to merge the two events collapsed. While ABC began as a response to discontent with Art Forum Berlin, the shows had coexisted for some yearsArt Forum Berlin as a traditional art fair venue and ABC taking a more experimental approach. But now ABC stands as Berlin’s lone trade fair. Art Forum Berlin’s cancellation announcement squarely blamed the organizers of ABC, who are accused of not committing to a joint venture. Yet placing decisions over its future in the hands of a dissident group reveals the weakened position from which Art Forum Berlin entered the negotiations. Berlin has been debating whether this represents a drawback: however, pitching Art Forum Berlin as an “open,” democratic event against ABC’s elitism is a faulty argument. Art Forum Berlin produced as much exclusion as any other art fairand the plethora of satellite venues surely indicated this. The real issue is rather how inclusion is managedunlike an art fair, ABC has no peer review admission system, and thus its dynamics have a potential to stiffen. That said, I, for one, will not be shedding crocodile tears over Art Forum Berlin, which always seemed hapless.

ABC’s first edition, curated by Ariane Beyn, with each gallery having focused on a single piece, had a real impact—a stark contrast to Art Forum Berlin’s crammed corridors. Whether ABC can take on the role of a major art fair, however, as the expansion of the event seems to indicate, remains doubtful—in its current form at least.

ABC was originally conceived as a compromise between an exhibition and an art fair: the show is curated, grouping the works around a themed display, yet its aim is to showcase Berlin based galleries. The hybrid format can be interestingas Art Unlimited certainly provesyet, over the years it seems to have been stifled by its own disciplinary categorizations. The first edition was loosely centered on sculpture; the second edition (possibly one of the most hated shows ever judging by the audience’s comments, though I was personally fond of itsunintendedscience-fair visuals) showcased models of possible monuments; the third dealt with cinema, and the current one is about painting. While sculpturea practice, which exploded into an expanded fieldmakes for a favorable enough topic, film doesn’t lend itself kindly to a fair format, as one ends up with incompatible temporalities: the speedy pace of a fair and the duration of the moving image. Further, the show overly fetishized the media itself with the unintended effect of pigeonholing contemporary film practices as footnotes to cinema. Which brings us to the current edition, “About Painting.

“About Painting” seems to me an inauspicious, albeit cunning choice of a theme, namely one that attempts to endow a conservative stance with a progressive spin. To be sure everything can be “about painting”as the curator painstakingly explained during the press tour, emphasis on the prepositionyet there is no exegetical insight to be gained from this view, except that the term “painting” can be used in a loose enough way as to accommodate a variety of mannerisms, which neither address nor examine the specific phenomenology of the media. In other words, the statement “painting can be many things” is not equivalent to “many things can be painting.” The second statement turns the first on its head: it flattens a conceptual field onto a disciplinary one. Though there are certainly many captivating proposalsStephen G. Rhodes’s hauntingly green hues at Isabella Bortolozzi and Gerda Scheepers’s black-board paintings at Micky Shubert; Rineke Dijkstra’s absorbed little girl drawing at Jan Mot; Michal Budny’s (literally) taped painting at Johnen; Cezary Bodzianowski lulling to a Beatles tune inside a cardboard box on a chair at Zero; Pablo Rasgado’s cut-outs rearranged into frames at Arratia/Beer; and Matt Mullican’s giant doodle-esque cartographies at Klosterfelde. Throughout, the exhibition model dovetails with the business model. Fine enough, it’s an art fair, after all, albeit under the guise of an exhibition. That said, not all business models are created equal, and ABC’s seems to privilege more established market positions leaving most younger participating galleriesdisenfranchised from the decision-making processat a loss. Unlike their senior counterparts they cannot afford to be blasé about their presence. They have limited resources, which need to be applied in a savvy manner; yet they can neither afford to isolate themselves, nor to be cut-out from the gallery scene. With ABC as the only existing art fair on local turf, they are caught in a conundrum. I cannot help wondering if they wouldn’t be better represented by the less hierarchical structure and more accommodating format of something like the Sunday Faira small fair organized by Limoncello (London), Croy Nielsen (Berlin), and Tulips and Roses (Brussels) which will continue to be held in London though having ended in Berlin. After all, if Berlin is to maintain the vibrancy of its gallery scene—the same vibrancy ABC finds so appealing—it should take pains not to cork it up with a too tight of a grip.

Curating, Art Market

Ana Teixeira Pinto is a cultural theorist living in Berlin.

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September 9, 2011

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