Art Basel has long served as an important platform for fostering new trends and introducing artists' work to its international audience. This year, seven new galleries are debuting at the fair’s main sector, a major achievement that exhibitor Wendy Olsoff, co-owner of New York’s P.P.O.W. Gallery, describes as “a landmark moment in the gallery’s history.”
Many of the new exhibitors are focusing their presentations on works that deal with major social and political issues, evoking the transformative power of art and its ability to incite discussions, provoke change, and impact society. The theme of this year’s Venice Biennale, which opened in May, is the traditional Chinese curse “May You Live in Interesting Times.” Art Basel’s selection of these galleries as new important voices in contemporary art seems to imply that we do.
“Many of the artists we work with deal with some of the most important topics of our time, including women’s rights, LGBTQI issues, [and] the environment, as well as timeless issues of love, happiness, and inclusion,” explains Javier Peres of Berlin-based Peres Projects. Peres has curated a booth of rising stars who grapple with these concepts, from Austin Lee’s Pop-y neon works that investigate the tension of both family and natural dynamics, to Donna Huanca’s and Rebecca Ackroyd’s explorations of the body to Melike Kara and Ad Minoliti’s art-historically-informed paintings that tease out issues of identity politics.
“We’ve shown political work and social work,” says Olsoff of P.P.O.W. “Right now it serves a huge purpose again and is recognised by a whole new generation of viewers… We’ve survived by conviction and vision.”
P.P.O.W. is celebrating this vision with a historically focused presentation featuring David Wojnarowicz and Carolee Schneemann, two pioneers in identity politics and performance art, alongside feminist icon Betty Tompkins and emerging talent Robin F. Williams. An iconic Wojnarowicz photograph of buffalo careening off a cliff hints at the danger of herd mentality, while adjacent works by Tompkins juxtapose deliciously blurry, sensual imagery with texts of insults and laments levied at the artist, both in regard to herself and society at large.
“No one will ever love you as much I do,” reads one painting that tugs at the heartstrings.
“A classic abusers’ line,” explains Tompkins, dramatically reorienting the sentiment. “It’s incredibly manipulative because it’s saying ‘Only I will love you. You’re not lovable, you have no worth on your own.’” The beauty and sexuality of the background adds further depth to the text and raises questions — are women content to be seen as background sexual objects defined by superimposed limitations? Or are they creative forces who can transcend them? Other gems like “But can she cook?” and “Men are better at art than women. Just look at art history.” pack a lot of punch into a scant inches of canvas, and impel us to re-examine and discard outdated and oppressive societal norms.
Robin F. Williams engages similar themes in her work. In Here’s Betty, a clever mash-up of The Shining’s “Here’s Johnny!” and a classic Gerhard Richter painting, a reborn zombie blonde looks out at us with an aggressive grin. “I’m certainly interested in creating a power dynamic and trying to compose the paintings so that the figures appear to somehow know that they are paintings,” Williams explains. “[It] takes away some of the passive gaze that we’re so used to bringing to images of women, [and replaces it with] a very active confrontational dynamic.”
London’s Hollybush Gardens explores the transformation of tradition and values in their presentation. Turner Prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid has created a series of works on East African kanga cloths, traditional gifts for marriages or other rites of passage. “It’s really about different sorts of histories and legacies that exist in the world but are also rooted in art history,” explains Lisa Panting, co-owner of the gallery. “The kanga is something that would have a meaningful sentiment, and she’s twisting it a bit in this case to look at longing, sadness, and bereavement.”
The alteration and re-imagining of old traditions can also be seen at Berlin-based Wentrup Gallery’s booth, where artist Nevin Aladag honors the Turkish craft of carpet-making with complexly beautiful works. Aladag is “dealing with the inside and the outside on a more architectural plan, to mark social spaces and allow or avoid access, visually or physically,” explains gallery co-owner Tina Wentrup. Nearby, Olaf Metzel’s We Refugees, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s eponymous essay, is displayed in combination with his Turkish Delight, a bronze portrait bust of a nude female wearing a headscarf that plays with ideals of femininity and culturally-defined gender roles.
London’s Sprovieri has curated its booth to highlight conceptual artworks that compose “a subtle reflection on memory, borders, and migration,” says gallery owner Niccolo Sprovieri. “Seen together, the works form a landscape in which the notion of place and identity is articulated in between heritage/origin and the chasing of future perspectives.” Historical works by Alighero Boetti, Jannis Kounellis, and Ilya and Emile Kabakov engage with sociopolitical themes. Jimmie Durham, winner of this year’s Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale, presents a candy-colored surreal delight in his sculpture Aazaard, a composed mix of organic and synthetic materials that strike a literal delicate balance between nature and industry.
“Resistance at Any Given Time, Resistance For Any Given Time,” reads a Lawrence Weiner text installation emblazoned across a large wall of Burgundian Galerie Pietro Sparta’s booth. Adjacent ceramic works by Thomas Schutte depict Carnival masks, and perhaps also act as portraits and second skins, raising issues of cultural and personal identity.
Berlin-based Société Gallery has chosen to focus its presentation on works that explore the impact of digital life on society. Bunny Rogers’s Neopets, sculptures of digital animal companions, asks us to consider the divide between real life and cyber life. Avant-garde video works by Lu Yang further explore this theme, as do Petra Cortright’s digitally composed paintings.
Directly political contemporary art has been considered commercially risky; the subjects it confronts can be challenging for viewers to contend with, which makes these presentations bold choices for debuts at a commercial art fair. “I do honestly believe that art changes society,” says Olsoff. “I’m not saying it’s a straight road; it goes back and forth, but I believe the artists are way ahead.” Perhaps the market is following their lead.