London art fair provides antidote to Frieze with Modern British and contemporary art

By Mark Sheerin | 17 January 2013
Panoramic shot of a conference centre filled with art stands
© Culture24

Exhibition review: London Art Fair, Business Design Centre, Islington, until Sunday 20 2013

The largest ever London Art Fair is still some way smaller than Frieze. It boasts 130 galleries, as opposed to 175 in Regent's Park last year. But in some respects, this David beats Goliath hands down.

Gallerists, who at Frieze look past you, are liable to approach you here. Artworks are displayed along with title and priced within dreaming range. The Islington event may be less busy, not to mention less buzzy, but it is more welcoming.

What’s more, it takes place in a warm conference centre rather than a glaring white tent. Peckham, Deptford and Shoreditch are represented, rather than Zurich, New York and Berlin. And it is not uncommon to witness a sale actually taking place; in Frieze the buying and selling is so discreet as to be invisible.

Now in its 25th year, London Art Fair has been the historic destination of choice for traditionalists. In its present incarnation it still caters well to those in the market for Modern British painters. In need of a muddy still life by Christopher Wood? Or a bucolic portrait by Augustus John? You will find them here (at Browse and Darby, stand 23 to be precise).

Although Frieze made headlines by opening Frieze Masters in 2012, there are reassurances to be had from the core galleries on the ground floor and mezzanine in Islington. Visit London Art Fair and you can be sure to see a few Peter Blakes, a couple of pieces by Bridget Riley, and so on. Despite the odd surprise (Takashi Murakami at Sims Reed Gallery), the main stands appear relatively unchanged from year to year.

Excitement is provided by a floorload of emerging, younger galleries from the hot, aforementioned London boroughs. It is here you can find the inevitable critique of the market, with exemplary pieces by Sarah Maple at La Scatola. Two of her paintings, in printed block caps, simply read “I am £10,000” and “This is an Investment”.

Less contentious but equally striking work is on the Bearspace stand, where Jane Ward’s hazy urban jungles pull in and out of focus. Blurry and fleeting snapshots of history haunt the eye in paintings by Ernesto Canovas at Patrick Davies Gallery. And at Gallery Vela, paintings of the London riots look like cavorting rag dolls, thanks to Darren Marshall.

At least two of these edgier spaces had come complete with a high concept stand. At Limoncello they have made a virtue of an excess of female talent with a stand arrangement based on popular ITV dating show Take Me Out. In other words, a hooded bust by Sean Edwards faces 30 works by female artists. Whenever one of his dates sells, she is quickly replaced.

Another sly comment on the mechanics of the fair is provided by Sunday Painter, whose raised stand is carpeted with a painting by Samara Scott. Yes, you can walk on it, but it adds to the showroom feel. Artist Wil,l from the Peckham Gallery, is philosophical about his role at the London art fair: "I think a lot of the punters feel reassured by the buzz of a younger crowd," he tells me.

One sure highlight of the annual fair is the annual launch of the Catlin Guide. This year’s survey of the UK’s best graduate talent suggests a return to material concerns, as younger artists get back to brass tacks and prioritise desirable objects over shock tactics or conceptual one liners. The talent around is evident from curator Justin Hammond’s display, which includes a pixelated Sistene Chapel ceiling.

London Art Fair is possibly the only place where the freshest talent vies for your attention, with the most conventional British figurative painting of the past 100 years. Here lies both past and future of art on this sceptered isle.

This makes for a heady mix, but it is still easier to get your head around than the barrage of global blue chip wares on offer at Frieze. If you want to be dazzled, the bigger fair is still the only choice. But if you’re looking for a mroe focussed, manageable and unintimidating art fair, you know where to come.

  • Open until 9pm Thursday, 11am-7pm Friday, 10am-7pm Saturday, 10am-5pm Sunday. Tickets £12-£35 (free for under-12s). Book online. Follow the fair on Twitter @LondonArtFair.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

Watch a video from the preview night of the fair:

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