In its seventh year, Mexico City’s Material Art Fair has certainly cemented itself as one of the premier global destinations for art. Focused, fresh, dynamic and unpretentious, the fair continues to draw some of the more important and critically curious works that perfectly balances local discourses and practices with currents occurring in Europe and the Americas (note the exception of galleries from the African continent and periphery areas. Whether this is a lack of outreach from fair organizers or interest from prominent galleries on the continent of Africa and other areas of the global south is up to speculation). To say it’s matured since its inauguration in 2013 initially begs the question, for what, how and for whom? Yet, in the context of the art market, many participating galleries and collateral events placed risk ahead of conventional profit-generating works: a key factor that sets it apart from other fairs occurring during Mexico City Art Week. The 2020 edition of Material Art Fair, which ran February 6 through 9, presented a refreshing and exhilarating blend of equal parts adventure and aesthetic curiosity.
On opening day, hundreds of patrons descended on the Fronton, the grand, clay-red art-deco building housing the main event. Inside, gallerists and staff eagerly greeted guests, sanguinely discussing works on view. Particularly appropriate to the integrity of the fair was México-based gallery Jorge Garcia Mx showing incredible, socially-charged sculptures and drawings by Eduardo Sarabia. Resembling elaborate, decorative vases as well as packaging material used for vegetable and fruit transport, these works bring to fore contemporary and historical migratory issues as contextualized by internal and external trade. Sarabia, who’s based in Guadalajara and earned a BFA at Otis College in Los Angeles, addresses the cultural importance of baseball and iconographies of Latin America through beautiful deep blue sketches, creating a romantic visual narrative that celebrates the complexities of his heritage without falling into a myopic exocitization of its cultural significance.
At the Future Gallery booth, works by Anna Solal, Iain Ball - whose solo presentation is currently on view at the gallerie’s main space at Edificio Humbodlt- and Kevin Bray differentiated and highlighted Future Gallery’s strong networked culture-influenced programme. Ball’s eccentric and layered UV Prints on PVC sheets cull images from the internet to create visually striking collage work that are at once a humorous take on contemporary concerns like surveillance and climate change by virtue of its absurd dissonance, and a sincere archive of our contested post-truth media landscape. Similarly, Kevin Bray’s vivid figurative illustrations borrow heavily from the gestural language of 3D works, imbricating it with a nod to painterly traditions.
Notable booths that weaved new media and contemporary practices with the art historical included Mexico-based gallery Janet40 showing particularly strong and arresting sculptures, collaborative digital prints, and video work by artists Emma Pryde, Marian Garrido, Canek Zapata, Tea Strazicic, Maya Ben David, and Luis Hidalgo. These rather anarchic pieces stood in stark contrast to the more composed and refined booth by Mexico City’s Kurimanzutto, which occupied one of the largest square-footage of the fair. For their section, Kurimanzutto organized a comprehensive display of a new body of work by Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco titled “Tracing Money” (2020). The work consists of an array of bills and transparency drawings by the nomadic artist that serves as a chronicle and documentation of his travels between Japan and Mexico. Of all the works in the fair, this particular piece directly highlighted the marketplace of the fair while also showcasing its grand ambitions.
Lausanne-based gallery Alienze and Los Angeles’s Syndicate, although rather small in comparison to the first floor spaces, were also standout. At Syndicate’s booth, artist Debora Delmar created an expansive gated installation with printworks meant to be changed each day of the fair. Speaking with Syndicate’s founding director Liam Murtaugh, he informed me that the work, titled “Property/Propiedad” was heavily inspired by the upper-class suburban gate structures of Mexico City’s housing developments. For Delmar, the gate is not only a symbol of wealth and urbanity, but also a metaphorical icon of access. Each of the hand-painted prints were composed as a result of her extensive research into ads from the 1950s and 1960s selling an easily accessible fantasy through urban growth. The black and white edition on view during the opening was that of a man holding an easel while looking on as a female companion enters a luxury car with other passengers. This particular ad was appropriated from an advertisement for the Loma del Rio neighborhood. She also created an edition of six keychains that grant visitors access into the gated booth. One key featured a cartoon image of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and another Betty Boop. London-based but born in Mexico City, much of Delmar’s work follows along this line of inquiry, interrogating classed and gendered capitalist systems through a highly diverse and historically-contingent lens.
Alienze, a relatively new artist-run project space founded by Noemie Degen and Simon Jaton, featured works by artist and curator Deborah Joyce Holman and artist Sitara Ghaznawi. In conversation with the founders of the space at the fair, they expressed apprehension toward market pressures, given their own experiences as artists. However, a few of the works in the booth had sold, and for them, their main concern was making sure their artists were content and as much a part of the sales process as anything else.
In the booth were a large photographic self-portrait, or as she prefers to call it, an auto-fiction of Holman with clown makeup on and a small object of a mirror platform with friend-gifted individual teeth placed on its base. One of the tooth featured text written adapted from the writing of thinker and writer Sara Ahmed, another marked with a self-composed poem in felt pen; while others were wrapped in thin gold wire. Holman informed me, during a chat at the booth, that the impetus for the orthodontic works originated from the capacity for teeth to hold information, as evidenced in its use in forensics and historical archiving. For Holman, it was important to highlight the poetics and violence of dentistry while working against the tendency to create buzzwords about identity. Ghazwani’s craft-inflected pieces, bringing to mind the collage works of Maggie Lee, collapse the divide between art, craft, and the tenuous, yet violent, link between the aesthetic terminology of “prettiness” and “beautiful” as markers of value and taste, an idea proposed by theorist Mackenzie Wark in their essay “Femme As in Fuck You” (eflux Journal #102, September 2019).The diversity of style and approach significantly made Alienze’s booth one of the more pertinent of the fair.
The momentum of Material was consistent throughout its duration. The lethargy that usually sets in after the first day was kept at bay by the vibrancy and enthusiasm of fairgoers. It’s not beyond comprehension or out of reach to say that Material’s composition in every aspect championed earlier iterations of the fair. The works on view were powerful and challenged the conventions of similar more sales-driven fairs. Even elsewhere at collateral off-site spaces like Galeria Karen Huber, which showcased a solo show by former Mexico-City based artist Andrew Birk titled “Para Mi Hija”, a dedication to his young daughter, the fervent call to showcase the cultural riches of Mexico’s linkages to a wider community seemed urgent and necessary. Birk’s large scale installation of oil paintings, in his own words, stemmed from a need to grow beyond ones limitations, refining and producing a palette that’s personal but rooted in the rich legacy and history of the Mexican art establishment. He states, in a chat the gallery space, that he wanted to highlight a newfound maturity and personal, introspective assessment of his emergent social location as father and image-maker, while tapping into a visual language and process informed by his departure from urbanity. Daring, intimate and bold, the show runs through April 11 and is not to be missed.
To try and envision how the directors of the fair will push the next one further remains a challenge. However, for now those of us that were in attendance can only leave with a sense of glee and personal growth for what it’s worth, especially those lucky enough to walk away with some of the pieces from exhibiting galleries.