Monday, July 31, 2017

Art Fairs and the Four Os

I went to the Bellevue Art Fairs, BAF, last Friday.  Yes, “fairs” plural.  In addition to the main (and biggest) of the three, sponsored by the Bellevue Arts Museum, there are two sort of salons des refuses for those who were not accepted in the main fair -- or that were put off by the entry fee, previous rejection, or just annoyed.  As always there were a lot of walk-by booths but also a lot of booths with well executed work — much of which doesn’t appeal to me, but that’s my problem.  There were a lot of photographers. 

Last year there were a lot of photographers, too, one of whom is Vitali (  In the spirit of full disclosure, Vitali is a friend of quite a few years standing.  His passion is painterly, mostly moderately-sized landscapes, largely from eastern Washington.  There were several other (well, quite a few more) photographers whose work was in a similar vein but — in my biased view — his stood out from the crowd.  The rest of the work shown was pretty much interchangeable from booth to booth.

Last year I also went to the Seattle Art Fair, SAF, held at the CenturyLink event center.  This is an enormous, big name event with galleries from all over the world paying huge bucks for display space.  (I’ll go to the 2017 SAF later this week.)  There was a lot of photography shown there also.  Apart from big names from the past — Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Sally Mann, Gordon Parks … — almost all the remaining, more contemporary photography was, to my eye, best described by the three Os:


The Seattle Times reviewer, Michael Upchurch, commented “If you’ve seen one gaudy anime-inspired painting, frankly, you’ve seen them all.”  Not only do I agree with him (there were a lot of those) I would add “If you’ve seen one oversharpened, oversaturated, oversized, landscape or nature photograph, frankly, you’ve seen them all.”  (and there were a lot of those, too).

Which circles me back to this year’s BAF.  With only a few exceptions, the photography was oversharpened, oversaturated, oversized, landscape and wildlife work — with the addition of a fourth O, Overpriced.  A few thousand bucks for a photograph (or triptych of photographs) is not only way outside the range of my art budget but, since it’s about the size of a ping-pong table it wouldn’t fit on any wall in my house.  

Duane Michals once quipped “I never trust any photograph that’s so big it can only fit into a museum” and “An eight-by-ten inch photograph by Robert Frank can be heroic.  An eight-by-ten foot Gursky is just a billboard with pretensions.”  

Beyond that, the Four O photographs just hurt my eyes.  Especially with the addition of high dynamic range (but I couldn’t think of a word for that beginning with “O”). 

Just this morning the light bulb over my head came on.  Last year’s big photography thing from upscale galleries at SAF became this year’s big photography thing for the way-less-prestigous BAF.  I’ll bet that if I had paid more attention to the paintings in both events the same phenomenon would be visible there.

Vitali was there again this year — with painterly, mostly moderately-sized landscapes from eastern Washington (different images from last year) — and his work stood out from the crowd even more than last year.  He is doing the work that moves and interests him rather than leaping on whatever square-wheeled bandwagon happens to be rumbling by. 

I do that, too.

I wonder what will be the big noise at the SAF this year?  Will it filter down to the provinces by this time next year?  Maybe it will be small, black and white, silver prints mostly about people (but I won’t hold my breath.)

RIP Newspace

Portland's Newspace Center for Photography abruptly closed as of July 7, citing financial distress.


When Blue Sky opened in Portland it was a counterculture answer to the Cameraworks gallery -- founded by Minor White students and firmly dedicated to that genre of photography.  (Cameraworks recently hired a new curator and has become quite a bit more eclectic.)

Newspace, 15 year-old NFP was, in my opinion, a counterculture answer to Blue Sky's emphasis on cutting edge and experimental work.  But it was also a lot like Photographic Center NW (PCNW) in Seattle was in its earlier days.  They had a rental darkroom, rental studio, and offered classes and workshops staffed by local photographers in addition to having a gallery space.  They were in a low-rent light industrial building in NE Portland -- a bit off of the beaten path but only a few blocks from the streetcar line.

My immediate mental image was that of their landlord wandering in and announcing a 150% rent increase to cash in on the gentrification of the neighborhood.  

Well, I don't know if it was 150% but Blue Sky's newsletter had an item bemoaning the demise of Newspace and it emphasized how lucky Blue Sky was to own their space.   Hmmmmmm.  

It's wonderful that PCNW and Blue Sky each had a sugar daddy (or mommy) to help bankroll buying their space but it's too bad that Newspace didn't have one too.