Culture

Arts

Shock of the Few— London

Preface

It’s a funny old game.

Brooke Shields, Frieze, Gerhard Richter, Grayson Perry, Nicholas Serota, Paul Fryer, Richard Prince, Tate, White Cube

16 October 2009

It’s a funny old game. This week in London’s Regent’s Park, the biggest, brightest and best galleries in the world installed their wares under Caruso St John’s magnificent Frieze marquee and took a short, sharp, nervy intake of breath that asks if the right set of deep-pocketed horn-rimmed glasses will rest on their paintings.

Meanwhile, in the environs of Old Street, the coolest pack of party animals with a passing interest in canvases and a more substantial penchant for cute gallerinas, loaded collectors and social mountaineering, brushed off their artfully dishevelled get-ups, practised their elegant ennui and honed their arty party patter by Googling Gerhard Richter. Barmen, DJs and cocaine dealers imagine what sort of Porsche they’ll buy with the proceeds of a week of crazy, name-your-price overtime as they taxi from gallery to members’ club to collectors’ townhouse.

Over in Bankside, the Metropolitan Police threaten the Tate Modern with prosecution for hanging Richard Prince’s Spiritual America, the US painter and photographer’s reproduction of an earlier shot of a 10-year-old, nude Brooke Shields and a key component in the museum’s Pop Life show. Oops. Just when London was all set to rock out with its cock out, it was told to put it back in and zip up for good measure. For a minute it looked as if the Tate’s director, Sir Nicholas Serota, fresh from the success of his top-three position in Art Review‘s publically dismissed, privately-pored-over Power 100 list was consecutively going to join the less coveted ranks of the Sex Offender’s Register. Only finishing first in the Power 100 could make up for that.

Prince’s picture can be read as the artist’s critique of the spirituality of the sort of America that allows its children to be photographed nude and heavily made-up for Playboy, as Brooke Shields’ mother did in 1976, earning her $450. Half the regular press have treated this as a Modern [sic] Art Shocker story that is lazily moronic: the shock is the reason for the image rather than the image itself.

Frieze leaves it to the Turner Prize to annoy the sort of newspaper editors who feel that Vermeer was a bit too racy, but the fair and its satellites did unzip itself a little to the delight of gossip-chasing diary journalists and column-inch-chasng PRs. This time, some of the would-be shockers were the most engaging works on display. Grayson Perry’s The Walthamstow Tapestry features familiar social themes in Perry’s now-familiar unflinching, graphic style: a woman (shockingly, Brooke Shields-ishly naked!) lies with her legs spread to allow a river of blood – or thread – to flow the 15 metres across the width of the work. But somehow the piece feels sentimental as well as a social commentary; Perry’s execution is as exemplary and fresh as ever.
 The Age of the Marvellous held in a grand Sir John Soane church around the corner on the Marylebone Road was a Frankstein’s lab and a Gothic treasure trove that gave pride of place to Paul Fryer’s The Privilege of Dominion, a crucified lowland gorilla. The work was made to debate the plight of endangered species and in its setting in the Holy Trinity Church, it stirs more complex emotions than being simply a gripping, gruesome cautionary tale.

A shame, then, that Jake and Dinos Chapman’s plan for a tattoo parlour to be set-up on the White Cube gallery’s stand was pulled at the last minute. A drunken wag would have surely asked for Spiritual America to be reproduced in blue ink on his forearm. Would rolling up your sleeve become illegal? Beauties, beasts and the boiling blood of a few conscientious objectors made another whirlwind Frieze week an artistic success even if gallerists have had to bat their eyelashes a little more coquettishly this year to win the admiring glances of those endangered animals, the deep-pocketed buyer in the horn-rimmed glasses. The Lesser Spotted Collector, if you will.

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