Dispatches From Inside (and Outside) Frieze LA

LOS ANGELES — “I have a deep skepticism of the art market, with its structure predicated on privilege, wealth, class, and race,” artist Jennifer Wofford told Hyperallergic. Despite her reticence, she was there in the belly of the best, at the fifth edition of Frieze Los Angeles, where her vibrant canvases depicting the whimsical Madonna Inn were on view in the booth of the Manila and New York-based gallery SilverLens alongside work by fellow Filipino-American artist Stepanie Syjuco.

Given the current state of the world, with Israel’s relentless bombardment of Palestine and Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine, worsening ecological crises across the globe, and the threat of far-right movements in the United States and elsewhere, the rarified bubble of the art fair may seem especially out of touch with realities outside the tent. However, there are signs that entrenched systems — both within and beyond the fair — are beginning to be challenged.

Veteran LA gallerist Suzanne Vielmetter had a two-person booth showing Andrea Bowers and Whitney Bedford, whose work addresses “eco-feminism.” (“How do I justify what I’m doing? This is the only way, to tackle the hard questions,” Vielmetter told me.) But others chose a much more visceral method to drive that point home. In Various Small Fires’s booth, for instance, the late artists Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison’s “Composting in the Pentagon with Worm Tailings” (2017) contained dirt and compost with little wigglers that fairgoers were encouraged to scoop into a bag to take home with them.

One captivating discovery was Esteban Cabeza de Baca’s electric portraits of his father at the booth of Parker Gallery, depicting the former member of the Brown Berets and bodyguard to civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. Cabeza de Baca inserts references to his Mexican culture and Indigenous heritage, incorporating traditional cochineal dye into acrylic paintings that channel the promise of revolutionary Chicanismo.

The Frieze Focus section of emerging galleries, curated by Essence Harden of the California African-American Museum, featured several artists who embrace the complexities of identity.  Among the standouts were Lilian Martinez’s curvaceous female figures at Ochi Gallery’s booth, Sow & Tailor’s presentation of paintings and sculptures by Javier Ramirez celebrating the Southland’s Latinx gardeners and horticulturalists, Akea Brionne’s glittering Afrocentric tapestries at Lyles & King’s booth, and James Perkins’s ecologically considered minimalism presented by Hannah Traore. Also in the Focus section, Chinese-American, Mexico-City based Yeni Mao’s post-Minimalist constructions based on tunnels under the border town of Mexicali combine materials in a poetic, evocative way, alluding to unstable histories and myths while avoiding facile interpretations.

The local Dominique Gallery brought Mustafa Ali Clayton’s lustrous black ceramic female busts, which monumentalize traditional black hairstyles. Speaking with Hyperallergic, gallery founder Dominique Clayton stressed the importance of inclusion not just in whose work is seen on the walls, but also who is selling and acquiring it. She noted that Dominique is one of only five galleries run by Black women at the fair this year, alongside Sow & Tailor, Jenkins Johnson, Hannah Traore, and Welancora.

On the soccer fields just outside the tent, Sharif Farrag’s “Rat Race” (2024) for Frieze Projects poked fun at the cutthroat commercialism taking place inside. The ceramic artist sculpted several cartoonish rat heads, partly inspired by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s iconic Rat Fink character, which were mounted onto the chassis of RC cars. Participants took turns racing them around a track, as a pit crew dressed in white jumpsuits emblazoned with a knock-off version of underground cartoonist Robert Armstrong’s Mickey Rat (itself a scuzzy version of Mickey Mouse) attended to malfunctioning or overturned vehicles. 

Sometimes the cars collided, sending a ceramic rat ear flying, to which Farrag just shrugged. “I’ve got a gluing station for that,” he said. “To me, the piece is the race.”

“Rat Race” reduces, or exposes, the art fair as a game where there are winners and losers based on who gets to be seen, who is selling, who is buying, and who is represented on many levels. Incrementally, perhaps, the rules are being rewritten.

“Why play the game?” Wofford asks. “The game is changing, becoming more relevant. It seems hopeful somehow. There are more collectors of color, more folks interested in these narratives. You can tell the ground is shifting.”

That shift may be happening, but it can feel tectonically slow considering the rate at which the world around us is changing. Inside the tent, it was still business usual, with the bottom line being who gets what for how much. As fairgoers strolled the aisles with increasingly glazed looks on their faces, it’s worth noting that the most fun seemed to be hand on the soccer field where motley crews of rat racers chased their toy cars around a track, with the grand prize being a small orange ceramic traffic cone and bragging rights.

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