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The Wall Street Journal

Independent 20th Century and the Armory Show—Conflicting Visions

September 9, 2022

Work on paper titled November Series from 2014 by Richard Mayhew

Richard Mayhew, "November Series," 2014. Watercolor on paper; 12 x 15 in (30.5 x 38.1 cm). Courtesy Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

Work on paper by Joseph Elmer Yoakum titled Moosehead Lake near Town of Rockwood in North Central Main from 1965

Joseph Elmer Yoakum, "Moosehead Lake near Town of Rockwood In North Central Maine," 1965. Pen and colored pencil on paper; 12 x 18 in (30.5 x 45.7 cm). Courtesy Venus Over Manhattan, New York.

Installation view of Galleria Tommaso Calabro’s booth at Independent 20th Century

Installation view of Galleria Tommaso Calabro’s booth at Independent 20th Century. Photo: Alexa Hoyer.

Painting by Juanita McNeely titled Willow from 1979

Juanita McNeely’s "Willow" (1979). Photo: James Fuentes

Painting by Stanislao Lepri titled L'homme au visage craquele from 1953

Stanislao Lepri’s "L’homme au visage craquele" (1953). Photo: Tommaso Calabro.

Painting by Chico da Silva titled Jellyfish and piranhas from the late 1950s

Chico da Silva, "Jellyfish and piranhas," late 50's. Photo: Galatea.

Painting by Dale Lewis titled Champagne Supernova from 2022

Dale Lewis’s "Champagne Supernova" (2022). Photo: Edel Assanti.

Painting by Claire Oswalt titled Tusk, the Literal from 2021

Claire Oswalt, "Tusk, the Literal," 2021. Photo: Broadway Gallery.

Painting by Claire Oswalt titled Cloud Roper form 2021

Claire Oswalt, "Cloud Roper," 2021. Photo: Broadyway Gallery.

Untitled sculpture by Artura Kameya from 2021

Artura Kameya, "Untitled," 2021. Photo: Grimm Gallery.

Painting by Caroline Walker titled Cashing Up

Caroline Walker, "Cashing Up." Photo: Grimm Gallery.

Painting by Matthias Weischer titled Vorleger by 2022

Matthias Weischer, "Vorleger," 2022. Photo: Grimm Gallery.

Painting titled Finding Faith by Tidawhitney Lek from 2022

Tidawhitney Lek, "Finding Faith," 2022. Courtesy of Sow & Tailor Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Joshua Schaedel.

Painting titled Resting by Tidawhitney Lek from 2022

Tidawhitney Lek, "Resting," 2022. Courtesy of Sow & Tailor Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Joshua Schaedel.

Painting by Nick Angelo titled Park Ave. Painting (Opulence Hoard) from 2022

Nick Angelo, "Park Ave. Painting (Opulence Hoard)," 2022. Photo: Sebastian Gladstone Gallery, Los Angeles.

Installation view of LA Fitness by Jake Longstreth

Installation view of "LA Fitness," by Jake Longstreth. Photo: Nino Meier Gallery.

A year ago, the art-fair circuit was focusing on post-COVID-19 survival and recovery. Today, its attention is on what the future of fairs might look like. At the start of this month, Frieze Seoul launched, and there is a growing list of first-time ventures on the horizon, including new fairs coming to Tokyo, Singapore and, next month, Paris.

This year’s Armory Week—that time when the marquee Armory Show and numerous satellite fairs, pop-ups and openings overrun New York—provides another lens on the way the art world is working to define its new normal, with two highly watched fairs offering changes big and small that might point the way forward.

At the tip of Manhattan, Independent 20th Century is a new program from the Independent Art Fair, the event that, since being established in 2010, has remained the most interesting and adventurous of its kind in the U.S. Located in a stunning, recently restored Beaux-Arts space at the Battery Maritime Building, it includes about 30 exhibitors and aims to highlight artists from 1900 to 2000 who have been overlooked and, in doing so, to expand the canon. The show offers many discoveries, elevating some names that visitors might have already heard while also bringing to light powerful art by complete unknowns.

The most powerful works here are Juanita McNeely’s shocking, large-scale paintings being presented by James Fuentes. While Max Beckmann comes to mind standing in front of her canvases, Ms. McNeely (b. 1936) draws most clearly from the visual language of Francis Bacon. But if Bacon was preoccupied with the horrors of mankind, Ms. McNeely focuses on the horrors of womankind. These unapologetically feminist works are filled with contorted nudes, flowing blood and savage dogs. Harrowing is a word that gets applied to too much art, but here it’s fully warranted. While certainly not for the squeamish, these visceral images, made in the ’60s,’70s and ’90s, are not to be missed.

While far less haunting, the work of Stanislao Lepri can be deeply creepy. An aristocrat who became a diplomat, the Italian Lepri (1905-1980) enjoyed a period of artistic recognition during his lifetime, even having his Surrealist paintings exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art but he has since been forgotten. His works here, often nodding at Renaissance forebears, can be unsettling—a man’s face cracks apart like dried mud—but there’s also humor: In the middle of a field of exotic animals, a mountain range turns into a man-made backdrop mounted on stilts.

The brightly colored fauna of indigenous Brazilian artist Chico da Silva (1910-1985), exhibited at Galatea, are a cure for any gloominess that other booths might instill. Best of all is his gouache jellyfish of the late ’50s. Surrounded by piranhas, its fiery red, orange and purple tentacles give an electric sting to its attackers and an enjoyable buzz to viewers’ eyes. At Venus Over Manhattan, the folk-inflected landscapes of Joseph E. Yoakum (1891-1972)—who received a grand introduction to the broader public at a show at MoMA last summer—and the quieter, more Impressionist-influenced ones by Richard Mayhew (b. 1924) chronicle American vistas with calming touches that exude a deep love of the natural world.

There are stumbles at Independent—presentations of Miró and De Chirico are interesting, though neither artist has a place in a show that aims to expand the canon—but it deserves to be applauded. The focused nature of the fair and its booths provide captivating history lessons and, more important, reminders of just how much great art is out there, waiting to have our attention drawn to it.

Uptown, at the Javits Center for the second time, the Armory Show takes a less radical approach than Independent when it comes to tweaking the standard fair model. This year it has increased the number of galleries included in its Presents section to 40. That portion of the fair highlights emerging spaces, and the decision to cater to more upstart exhibitors is a welcome one, especially in light of the perennial criticism that major fairs are rarefied arenas in which only the most financially healthy—and programmatically conservative—galleries can participate.

No surprise then that the most interesting work came from this area. The large-scale paintings of Cambodian-American Tidawhitney Lek at Sow & Tailor’s booth spoke to the joys and difficulties of immigrant life in America with dark undertones encroaching into quiet interiors: a clothes closet with ghoulish hands reaching out of its inky blackness; a mother and child sleeping on a couch as one of those hands crawls over the armrest.

There’s an eerieness, too, in Dale Lewis’s paintings at Edel Assanti, a series of grotesque scenes said to have taken place during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee weekend earlier this year, like a drunk passing out in a kebab shop. These revelations of the ways that political and social revelry can easily be perverted have taken on an extra level of sadness in light of the Queen’s death on Thursday. And Nick Angelo’s paintings at Sebastian Gladstone also flicker with the sinister. His imagined scenes of a Manhattan luxury condo building overtly critique greed, commingling stunning skylines and posh furniture with biohazard bags and a depiction of a pill mill. One is reminded of Balzac’s bon mot that behind every great fortune lies a great crime.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the stained and stitched-together canvases of Claire Oswalt at Broadway are quietly reflective abstractions. The lush, natural hues here—rich merlot, vibrant fir green, quenching navy blue—radiate serenity. The works also point to a larger trend at this year’s Armory: a turn away from the figuration that has been so popular in painting in recent history.

That said, Armory was largely disappointing. For one, it had too many exhibitors—over 240 from more than 30 countries—so just trying to make it to each booth, let alone actually engaging with the work on view, felt nearly impossible.

Worse, the maximal approach also extended to many of the booths themselves, especially in the main section of the fair. Too often, it felt like a trade show, with galleries bringing lots of work that they thought would sell and hanging it without any regard for how one artwork would commune with another shown alongside it.

There were some strong solo and group presentations. At Nino Mier, Jake Longstreth’s paintings of the beauty of nature interrupted by the ugliness of human constructions—a parking lot in the middle of rolling California hills, for example—employed impressive technical skills in the service of a subtle environmental message. At Grimm, the brushy work of Matthias Weischer complemented the softer painting of Caroline Walker, and the meditative nature of both meshed well with the metaphysical sculpture of Arturo Kameya.

But these largely proved the exception to the rule here. At Independent, restraint carried the day. At Armory, there was a feeling of gluttony, of too-muchness. It’s a grim vision of the future, one that other fairs would do well to avoid.

—Mr. Kelly is the Journal’s associate Arts in Review editor. Follow him on Twitter @bpkelly89.

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