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MUCH of what has been written about contemporary art lately has focused on the decline of the art market due to the economic realities facing the world, and for good reason. The end result of this financial turmoil is that galleries are being more transparent than ever before, with prices of works often disclosed without a fight and the willingness to give larger discounts. This behavior would have been unthinkable in years past, but despite this downturn, during the first weekend of March in New York, there was still enough collector interest to have seven simultaneous fairs. The Armory Show and it's accompanying Modern section, Volta, Pulse, Scope, Bridge, Fountain and Pool made for more art for sale than almost anyone could possibly have wanted to see in the span of several days. Casualties not returning from last year were the LA Art Fair, Red Dot and Art Now fairs.

The Armory had 254 galleries participating this year, a big bump up from last year's 160 due to the additional Modern section. Attendance was said to be 56,000, also an increase over last year. But did collectors have the cash on hand to make for a successful fair? Although sales figures are often hard to corroborate, gallerist Zach Feuer summed up the mood at the VIP preview by quickly and succinctly responding, "It's going well. People are still buying art." The same was not true of the Modern section, where sales were said to be relatively slow, although many dealers mentioned that the contacts they made were just as important.

Highlights at the Armory included Tony Matelli's diptych sculpture Double Meathead (2008) made of cast aluminum, cast bronze, urethane and paint. Two of the three editions have found buyers at $250,000 each from New York's Leo Koenig gallery, although those were not sold at the fair.

The striking and hilarious self-portrait that looked like it was made from various meat products made one dealer wince when described to him, but out of all the works in the Armory show, it may have been the most memorable. Also a breath of fresh air from much of the high-end eye candy on display was an evil looking and complex collage-style work on paper, Untitled (Lion Rogue), (2008) by Berlin-based Damien Deroubaix at the booth of In Situ Fabienne Leclerc gallery from Paris. The €5000 piece featured a red quadruped sporting a skull mask and forked tongue with floating skulls in tear-drop shapes rounding out the nightmare landscape. The work could double as a Slayer album cover and in fact, Deroubaix's art was used in a limited edition silkscreened poster designed by Bongout gallery when Slayer performed in the capital of Germany.

At Kukje Gallery from Seoul, a double shot of Pop satisfied a hunger for the visual punch one needed to attract attention in a crowded field of prominent galleries. The LED bulbs of Kira Kim's I Love You (2007) blinked from blue to pink, making for a perfect pairing with Gimhongsok's Bunny Sofa (2007). The fabric, foam rubber and wood sculpture of a human-sized rabbit costume reclining on a pink sofa definitely made for a warm and fuzzy feeling compared to a lot of the cold art on display elsewhere. However slick and expensive looking Julian Opie's work is, his animated film on a 52 inch LCD screen, Antonia with Evening Dress (2008) at London's Lisson gallery felt more human than his static paintings. Every so often the eyes of Opie's white-skinned woman in a blue evening gown would blink, while her earrings also sparkled. This is one trophy wife worth hanging on your wall instead of your arm.

Avoiding many of the larger galleries who often present the same artists year after year is easy, just walk to the other side of the pier where the smaller booths present work that is often more compelling than the blue chip spaces. One such installation was at New York's John Connelly Presents, where the artist Kent Henricksen had the distinction of having the best solo presentation at the fair. Henricksen's embroidery thread and gold leaf on silk narrative works featured hooded figures he describes as trickster characters, engaging in various activities both whimsical and sinister in nature. Connelly's standout booth was a testament to his strong program and installation skills. Also at the far end of the fair was a light-reflecting sculpture by Alyson Shotz entitled Wavelength 2 (2008)taking up half of Derek Eller's booth. The shimmering hues bouncing from the dichroic acrylic on aluminum tube and steel work resembling a section of DNA made several attendees take notice of its outright beauty and impeccable design. Discovering the elite art of the fair on the opening day, even if it takes a careful scan of each and every booth, more than made up for a lot of mediocrity and having to navigate crowds of people doing the very same dance. ■

artillery cover
Tony Matelli, Double Meathead, 2008; Cast aluminum, cast bronze, urethane and paint; Fresh: 48 x 34 x 30 inches; Rotten: Approx 34 x 48 x 30 inches; courtesy Leo Koenig Inc. 
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