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At Frieze London, art imitates life


Sadie Coles, Frieze London 2023. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze. © All Rights Reserved.

You’ve heard of the ‘hemline index’, which predicts skirts get longer during times of economic hardship. If Frieze London is anything to go by, our fashion is not the only thing that becomes more conservative.

From Wednesday, collectors and lovers of art alike descended on Regent’s Park for the 20th edition of the annual art fair. Known originally for its spontaneous, inventive spirit, twenty years on the event runs with precision. No Anish Kapoor waiting in the rain for an hour as in 2003. No pile of excrement to shock art magnates as in 2005. If a Jikoni outpost and Breguet stand are anything to go by, at Frieze 2023, the disruptive is out and the deluxe is in.

This adjustment comes near the end of a lethargic year for the art market. Following significant post-Covid growth in 2021 that trickled into 2022, sales at top auction houses are slowing. At Christie’s, global sales fell by 23% in the first half of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022. At Phillips, this number was 39%. The top end of the market, however, remains rather impervious to a turbulent macro environment, as the market becomes more internationalised and stratified.

At Frieze, it seems galleries accounted for the increasingly timid market with a rather commercial selection of works. At Gagosian, this meant a booth fully committed to Damien Hirst’s new series of works – The Secret Gardens Paintings. A series of large canvases depicting saturated scenes of flowers bespattered with bright hues, Gagosian suggests the works find “a style that balances the designed and the natural, the harmonious and the chaotic”. Unfortunately, these drab works miss the mark. One could easily have mistaken the booth for an amateur nature photography exhibition.

Damien Hirst, The Secret Gardens Paintings, 2023. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze. © All Rights Reserved.

It is disappointing to see perhaps the world’s leading commercial gallery playing it safe with a once disruptive, now blue-chip artist. However, Hirst’s choice to forgo formaldehyde proved fruitful. The Secret Garden Paintings, all with reported prices in the upper six figures, sold before closing on Wednesday. Artistic bankruptcy seems a small price to pay.

In other booths, however, artists such as Cece Philips proved that good contemporary art doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. With a dedicated space at Peres Projects, Philips’ works entrance and beguile. In Lucky Eyes, we stare into a house party where women congregate and chatter, from the shadowy parlour to a kitchen of glary yellows.

Cece Philips, Lucky Eyes, 2023. Courtesy Peres Projects. © All Rights Reserved.

The contrasting spaces engulf the viewer. And the longer we stare, the more conscious we become of our role as a voyeur. In this way, Lucky Eyes unfolds like a modern Edward Hopper, and unavoidably we imprint our own narratives on these refreshingly representative figures. Philips’ paintings of women of colour by a woman of colour in the style of Hopper thus interrogate the homogeneity of artists included in the Western canon. It is artists like Philips, whose works elegantly and thoughtfully question the current role of art, that ensure Frieze’s cultural relevance persists.

Elsewhere, such as at Paragon’s booth, social commentary was more blatant. The West London gallery exhibited multiple works by English artist Grayson Perry, including Sponsored by You, which depicts his childhood teddy bear, a recurring motif in his works, speeding through Silicon Valley in a supercar plastered with the names of various tax havens. Social mobility is trampled like roadkill and an eagle soars proudly above – an unflinching representation of wealth inequality.

Grayson Perry, Sponsored by You, 2019. © Grayson Perry + Paragon | Contemporary Editions Ltd.

Immediate and punchy, Perry’s work demands attention. However, given the well-heeled crowd of Frieze – and the booth’s proximity to the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounge – does Perry’s sentiment fall on deaf ears? Or rather, does chastising wealth inequality with a saleable work exhibited to affluent collectors at a luxury art fair still funny? Perry no doubt grasps how ironic and entirely paradoxical a concept this is, but what does he actually achieve beyond a disaffected, isn't-it-all-pointless chuckle (followed, often, by a sigh)?

If contemporary art should portray contemporary times, then perhaps Frieze, with its mixed bag selection, deftly captures the precarious economic and political conditions we face in 2023. While some works could be considered innocuous, they may also suggest a longing for familiarity – or a sure-thing investment – in unprecedented times. With over 160 participating galleries, you cannot expect to connect with every work displayed. However, look long enough, and Frieze London still has something for everyone.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn


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