Aug 19 2014

Report: Melbourne Art Fair

by Michael Young

Melbourne Art Fair 2014, held at the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific

Now in its 25th year, the Melbourne Art Fair (MAF) is still eager to shake off the perception that it is a somewhat dowdy old lady. Even Barry Keldoulis, CEO of Art Fairs Australia, which now manages the event, was circumspect when talking about the new performance art and emerging artists programs that were tucked upstairs on the fair’s mezzanine level. He later confessed to ArtAsiaPacific of the need to tread warily when dealing with the current owners of the fair, the Melbourne Art Foundation. “We have adopted a collegiate approach,” he said.

The fair’s location, the Royal Exhibition Building, is a fabulous historic venue, and the staging of this year’s edition was exemplary, as it created easy traffic flows and access even though the temporary walls did look quite temporary.

But for all its public posturing, intended to give the impression that MAF is on the cusp of becoming a must-attend event for international galleries and visitors, there remains a real sense that history might yet tell another story. At this year’s fair, the presence of gallerist Pearl Lam, doyenne of the international art world, did at least lend some international credibility and pizzazz. But she was one of only a handful of international galleries in attendance among 70-plus locals, which offers a sour commentary on the pulling power of Australia to attract quality contemporary art and collectors from abroad.

Pearl Lam raised the fair’s tone, presenting works by heavyweights such as Zhu Jinshi, Carlos Rolon and Gonkar Gyatso, as well as uber-hot Australian artist Ben Quilty, perhaps as a sop to the local audience’s sensibilities. Prices for Lam’s artists were somewhat steep, with Zhu Jinshi’s Yellow Yulan Magnolia Spread on the Floor (2013) priced at USD 240,000 and a Quilty piece at USD 55,940. Not much seemed to sell.

BEN QUILTY, 21st Century Dilemma, 2014, oil on canvas, 190 × 280 cm. Shown at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong/Shanghai/Singapore, at Melbourne Art Fair 2014. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific

Another hot Brisbane artist, Michael Zavros—who specializes in photorealist paintings that often reference high-end luxury goods—posed with the ultimate accolade of desirability, a Rolls Royce Wraith, which had been imported and installed in the booth of Auckland’s Starkwhite gallery. All of Zavros’ paintings had sold by the fair’s vernissage. Some artists really seemed to sizzle. 

In sharp conceptual contrast was Australian artist Cressida Campbell’s decorative paintings, which sold quickly through Sophie Gannon Gallery, with four of her works going for a total of AUD 140,000 (USD 130,530).

Sydney gallery Sullivan + Strumpf showed that Aboriginal artist Tony Albert was as popular as ever; it sold one of his iconographic target photographs for AUD 11,000 (USD 10,260) and a set of three edition pieces for AUD 33,000 (USD 30,770). They also sold an Albert painting that wasn’t on show, Take the Shackles Off My Feet So I Can Dance (2014), at AUD 48,500 (USD 45,210) at their booth.

MICHAEL ZAVROS, A Rolls-Royce, 2014, oil on canvas, 165 × 260 cm. Shown by Starkwhite gallery, Auckland, at Melbourne Art Fair 2014. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific

Blue Mountains-based husband-and-wife duo Ken and Julia Yonetani, whose reputation continues to build, offered a life-size grocery-store display made entirely of salt, The Last Suppermarket [sic] (2014)—a wry, worthy and curiously dull commentary on environmental degradation. At the “store,” AUD 60 (USD 56) would have bought you an oyster, while fish and pineapples were selling at AUD 2,500 (USD 2,330) upwards.

A ten-minute walk away, at the Hotel Windsor, was the inaugural satellite art fair Spring 1883, which had 20 galleries showing art in the venue’s various suite rooms. It was all a bit of a mish-mash, but certainly great fun, even though much of the art clashed dreadfully with the hotel’s patterned carpets and elegant drapes. Geoff Newton of Melbourne’s Neon Parc Gallery reported brisk trade in small woven tapestries by controversial artist Paul Yore—which started at AUD 4,000 (USD 3,730)—while Arndt gallery’s display of mechanically crafted sculptures by Mathieu Briand remained the definition of refinement, with seven pieces selling to private collectors and art institutions.  

KEN YONETANI and JULIA YONETANI, The Last Suppermarket (detail), 2014, interactive installation made from white salt, dimensions variable. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific

Installation view of woven tapestries by Australian artist PAUL YORE, in the booth of Melbourne’s Neon Parc Gallery at the Spring 1883 art fair, Melbourne. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific

Melbourne Art Fair was held at the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne from August 13–17, 2014.