I never would have considered myself the sort of artist that would actually enjoy an art fair. From what I had read about them, they were places where the dollar is king, where people who don’t really know anything about art go to buy it, and the newest, hottest young artists are displayed like some kind of mounted trophy. All of this was, to some degree, present at Sydney Contemporary, but I was relieved to find that there was so much more.
First of all, I have to note that I was never a hot young thing. No curators deigned to come to my undergraduate exhibition, and I didn’t experience commercial representation until I was thirty. This has given me a certain level of reticence toward the commercial gallery system. When, for example, an artist younger than you is picked up by a gallery on the basis of doing what you do but with paint, you can understand that a certain level of cynicism, and an understanding that not everyone can have the refined level of taste that you have, is necessary. So I really did come at this event with the wary perspective of the ‘submerging artist’ that I have long adopted, which is ‘I am making this work whether you buy it or not’, which is reasonably good armour against the more tiresome pecking and bitching of the so-called art-world hierarchy. The glitterati can have it, if you want me I’ll be in somebody’s studio with a beer, talking shop.
I had a table at Sydney Contemporary with my father, as well as some other artist friends of his, in the works on paper section of the fair (somewhat oxymoronically called Paper Contemporary). This was advantageous in two ways, the first being that we were near the entrance, and those that stumbled, blinking, into our nerdy morlock tunnels, did not yet show the signs of complete art fatigue that they would have on the way out. This was also helpful in safeguarding our wonderful community of freaks and geeks from the big-game art hunters (though they surely missed out on some big game) and trend-watching art pundits (though they surely missed out on some trends).
To put it this way, one apparently well-respected art critic who shall remain nameless waltzed past our booths and tables without deigning to take a look at anything but some kind of fixed point, hovering about three metres in front of him, just overhead. I mean, don’t do us any favours, mate.
Conversely, Reg Mombassa came in to oversee a print of his being made at the Cicada Press booth, and hung around for a number of hours, chatting with everyone he knew (and he knew many). One of the managers of Glenfiddich, the fifth-generation descendent of William Grant, a six-four Scotsman replete with dreadlocks and a kilt, came along (twice) to check out the action (I showed him through my work and gave him a copy of Sneaky. He gave me a few nips of the Glenfiddich 20-year-old, which is heavenly). And a fellow that looked suspiciously like the Sandman (‘90s Triple J, not the comic) came in. I say this is a good sign.
The atmosphere was warm and friendly, not at all like the cool and dazzle of the art fairs that I had read about. The money was there, certainly, but people mostly seemed happy to be there and have a chat. It was basically a massive shop tailored to art collectors and art nerds, which is probably a lot more fun than it sounds.
One woman, upon looking upon a particularly brassy drawing by Robin Wallace-Crabbe, announced to her child ‘look, a penis’, which almost made me choke with laughter. If only all of the penises, and other assorted ‘rude bits’ were so well-received. As ever, I was greeted with either ‘this is a little bit too erotic’ or ‘I wish I could afford this’, mostly upon sightings of boobies and doodles. Story of my life.
The days were long, and I didn’t sell a thing, but there was a real sense of community in the air in our Paper Contemporary haven. At around 4.30 the wines would start to appear, seemingly from thin air, and we would breathe a collective sigh. Outside, the fashion show that is expected of art fairs was in full swing, but we were too busy talking paper and having a sneaky red to really notice.