Comic Relief: Humor and Playfulness at Frieze New York 2015

Frieze New York 2014. Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze. Photo: Marco Scozzaro.

Art-fair-going can be arduous and draining, physically and mentally. Frieze New York, housed in a serpentine tent structure that snakes across Randall's Island overlooking the East River, demands at least an entire day of fair visitors, from the ferry ride to the long aisles of artworks by over a thousand artists. Luckily for Frieze visitors, the fair makes abundant concessions and considerations to fair fatigue, from the natural light-filled interior of the tent to the hip food vendors, not to mention the sprawling green park surroundings that offer respite and fresh air for those looking for a break from the grueling rigors of contemporary art viewing. This year there are even massage chairs, courtesy of a Frieze Projects commission by Korakrit Arunanondchai, that "interrupt the fabric of the fair itself," which is a fancy way to say that they've been installed in different locations throughout the tent, free for visitors to use. And this year's Frieze Talks program exhibits a strong streak of humor and irony, promising to transform the auditorium appendage at the north end of the Frieze tent from a room you might accidentally wander into when you're looking for a bathroom, to the room that you're actually looking for. Inspired by the Frieze Talks' lineup of artists, comedians and provocateurs, we present a look at the humorous, playful and un-serious side of Frieze New York.

Frieze New York 2014. Courtesy of Marco Scozzaro/Frieze. Photo: Marco Scozzaro.

It was infamous New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz and the storm that surrounded his Facebook ban earlier this year that prompted Frieze Talks curators Tom Eccles (Executive Director of the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College) and Christy Lange (Associate Editor, frieze) to bring the focus of the talks program on "the ways in which artists, critics and curators push the limits of humor, irony, decency and performance as well as the audience's willingness to tolerate or accept those provocations." Saltz will appear on Saturday May 16 at 12pm in a session entitled "Ask Jerry," where he will, as suggested by the title, field questions from the audience. If the session unfolds like any of Saltz's social media comment threads, the repartee will smack of desperation, cynicism and bitterness, but it will certainly be funny.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Connect), 2015. Courtesy Sprüth Magers.

Other highlights of the Frieze Talks program includes an artist talk by conceptual artist and Chief Curator of Manifesta 11, Christian Jankowski (Thursday May 14 at 4pm); an air-quotes-infused panel discussion on the "'Aesthetics' of 'Female' 'Attractiveness'" with comedian and artist Casey Jane Ellison (Friday May 15 at 12pm); and on Sunday May 17 at 4pm, artists Paul McCarthy and Leigh Ledare will converse about their taboo-busting works and the kinds of controversies they provoked, from accusations of Oedipal obsessions, to a punch in the jaw delivered on account of an oversized butt plug sculpture. Some critics don't take art very lightly, it seems. (Find the full Frieze Talks schedule here.)

Sara Cwynar, Liquify Grid 3, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Foxy Production.

Venturing out into the fair, it doesn't take more than a few steps to stumble upon artworks that employ the awkward and the absurd to great effect. New York gallery Foxy Production flanks the entrance to the auditorium, with Petra Cortright wriggling around in a striped shirt, exploiting the disorientation of a fun house mirror-like distortion effect in her video i feel u (2015), and Sara Cwynar showing us manipulations of vernacular photography and a new series of color grids melting beyond their neat black borders. At Tif Sigfrids' booth in the Frieze Frame sector, Zachary Leener's prints and sculptures exhibit odd globular shapes that recall the comic plumpness of Philip Guston's cyclopean protagonist.

Zachary Leener, Five Etchings (Penthouse), 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Tif Sigfrids.

Galleri Nicolai Wallner of Copenhagen exhibits one of the art world's greatest jokesters, David Shrigley, with a selection of works on paper, naively painted with matter-of-fact, sometimes contradictory text statements. One depicts a simple burning candle with the disapproving caption, "candle in the daytime: unnecessary." At London and Brussels-based gallery MOT International, Laure Prouvost's monochrome text-paintings make concessions to reality: "Ideally," one black-and-white sign reads, "this sign would be a pink little cloud in the middle of the room." Nearby, Sprüth Magers brings out works by artists revered for their ability to harness the power of humor, like Jenny Holzer, John Baldessari and George Condo. Barbara Kruger's tongue-in-cheek sloganeering gets updated with an image of an iPhone with buttons reading "kindness," "laughter," "resistance," and "irony." And the diminutive size of a photograph of Keith Arnatt holding a big sign proclaiming, "I'M A REAL ARTIST," undercuts the validity of such an insistent message.

Keith Arnatt, Study, I am a Real Artist, 1969-72. © Keith Arnatt Estate, Courtesy Keith Arnatt Estate, Fine Art Partners and Sprüth Magers.

Frieze Projects this year seems to want to steer audiences into labyrinthine constructions and surreal happenings. As in years previous, Frieze pays tribute to an historical artist-run project, this year recreating George Maciunas's art obstacle-course Flux-Labyrinth (1976). And performance artist Aki Sasamoto will construct her own maze experiment, sending fair goers like lab-rats through a "3-D personality test." The test mirrors the art fair experience--the audience will gravitate towards what they're attracted to, thus revealing details of their individual taste, preference and personality. "My piece is light-hearted but satirical," Sasamoto says, "I aim to hit the issue with humor so that we are able to laugh about how absurd and (in)accurate our judgments are."

Aki Sasamoto, Wrong Happy Hour, 2014. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Takehiro Iikawa.

Humor is one of our first lines of defense against the tragedy and absurdity of life, against our failures, insecurities and pain. In art, humor can come in many forms. It might be as simple as flipping a picture upside down--Georg Baselitz's paintings, which you'll find at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac's booth, can strike as immensely funny in that simple gesture--or it could come through repetition, parody, deadpan delivery, ironic detachment, messy execution or tongue-in-cheek titles. It might hit right away, or it might creep up on you after a long while, but once laughter strikes you're immediately disarmed, left susceptible to the experience of profundity, or revelation or poignancy that follows in humor's wake.

Frieze New York opens to the public Thursday, May 14 and runs through Sunday, May 17 on Randall's Island.

--Natalie Hegert