The opening night frenzy of Art Santa Fe delivers an initial sugar rush of dizzy excitement before the inevitable crash into sensory fatigue. Inside, drink in hand, I navigated through the usual suspects: collectors, socialites, and art professionals who make up the regular Santa Fe gallery scene lineup. Unexpected are the Japanese businessmen in sharp white suits, beaming kimono-clad artists, and a solemn row of women fast at work making traditional Korean paper arts in a forgotten corner of the building. The art on the walls is a puzzling mix of tastes and perspectives; syrupy landscapes in pastel colors share space with bawdy anime characters, a tutu-festooned wrecking ball, and a solitary Sol LeWitt piece. Takashi Murakami’s neon flowers grin and glow with furious enthusiasm, encapsulating perfectly the wide-eyed breathless expectancy of opening night. The disorienting gala washes over me like a fever dream, eventually depositing me onto a wet, empty street hours later, my champagne buzz fading and the promise of a headache looming on the horizon.
Art Santa Fe, an international contemporary art fair organized by the Charlotte Jackson Gallery, is now in its 12th year. It is housed in a large windowless room at the Convention Center, and features galleries from far and wide, including Afghanistan, Argentina, and Bolivia. All in all, Japan appears to have the strongest showing at the fair this year, both in quality of content and in the number of galleries represented.
Katsu Ishida, Black Fuji, Mixed-media on Paper, 2010; Courtesy of the Artist and Systema Gallery.
Katsu Ishida, from Systema Gallery based out of Osaka and Kathmandu, is a clear fair favorite judging by the crowds huddled tightly around his booth. Ishida’s textured ink brushed canvases draw the eye in and hold it there to linger over their tacky, tar-like surfaces. His trademark is embedding multitudes of ghoulish figures within larger scenes. His piece Black Fuji depicts a sun rising over a mountaintop. Moving closer in, hundreds of contorted figures become visible, each wearing a twisted, mischievous grin. Their bodies are rhizome-like, with bulbous heads tapering off into wispy tails. The overall effect of the piece is frenetic and dark, similar in look and feel to a Hieronymus Bosch hell-scape. Ishida’s agitated work acts as a counterpoint to the intended Zen effect of most traditional Japanese brush paintings.
Also impressive from Systema Gallery are artist Waa Kitayabu’s shaded pencil drawings. Kitayabu walked me through a booklet of photographs of his work installed in Buddhist temples throughout his home city of Osaka. In the stark temple settings, Kitayabu’s simple geometric shapes are striking. Their slightly unbalanced, crumpled forms appear to float through space like sentient alien beings.
The work of Cobi Moules, a resident artist at Santa Fe Art Institute, is another highlight of the fair. I found Moules at the Art Institute booth standing square in front of a painting of himself. His work, he explains, is an exercise in confronting both his queer and transgender identities. He approaches this weighty goal with surprisingly light-hearted humor as well as a charming self-awareness and masterful painting skill.
Cobi Moules, Untitled (Tumblers 20), 10"x14", Oil on Paper, 2012; Courtesy of the Artist.
In Moules’ Tumblers series, each progressive picture includes additional figures of the artist engaged in a wrestling match with his other selves. In the final piece, the series culminates in a large entangled mass of writhing figures. In Untitled (Lake McDonald) Moules appears in multiples again, this time negotiating a Hudson River School-esque landscape, pants-less and dressed from the waist up like an overgrown boy scout. By dominating the landscape with his body, Moules manages to become a seamless, essential part of it, the bright colors of his clothing appearing as natural as the water, earth, and clouds around him.
Two afternoons following the opening, I returned to Art Santa Fe to find it cleared out, and eerily quiet. Gallery reps sat aimlessly at their booths, periodically checking their phones and making small talk with each other. Several collectors wandered through, finalizing their purchases. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the gala opening had given way to dull inaction. Art Santa Fe’s run this year coincides with the popular Folk Art Market on Santa Fe’s Museum Hill, which reliably attracts throngs of visitors and vendors to the city every summer. Despite the city being overrun with out-of-towners, however, it’s unclear how much overlap there is between the audiences for these two markets. Perhaps one day, Art Santa Fe will emerge as an anticipated summer powerhouse. For now, it lacks the slick packaging, savvy editing, and clear sense of purpose needed to propel it to major league art fair status.
(Image on top: Cobi Moules, Untitled (Lake McDonald), 21"x41", 2012, Oil on Canvas; Courtesy of the Artist.)