Eddy Frankel

Paintings dominate – the good, the bad and the very ugly: Frieze London 2021 reviewed

Most of the fair is choked by the smog of commercialism – but there are pockets that hold out

Dutch Golden Age art for people with Instagram attention spans: the paintings of Issy Wood at the Carlos/Ishikawa stall at Frieze London 2021. Credit: Courtesy Linda Nylind / Frieze

There’s a faint scent of desperation wafting through the Frieze tent this year. Pre–pandemic, this was where you came to see gallerists and artists at the top of their game, knocking back the Moët with collectors to toast another big-ticket sale. But it’s been a tough few years. No art fairs, paltry sales and now there’s a limit on visitor numbers to the fair and travel restrictions are keeping international buyers at bay.

So, wandering around the gleaming alleys of the fair, you feel like prime meat being eyed by starving lions. Sadly for them, my bank account is more spam than filet mignon.

The first visual thing that hits you about Frieze London 2021 is the near overwhelming amount of painting. There’s always a lot of it around, but this year it really is everywhere, and the reason is simple: paintings sell. Right at the entrance you’re struck by a big wall of swirling pointillist abstracts by Jennifer Guidi at Gagosian, dark, dramatic paintings on velvet by Issy Wood at Carlos/Ishikawa and trippy semi-figurative vistas by Lucy Bull at David Kordansky. It’s a really clear opening statement: we are here to sell paintings, and you’d better be buying.

One stand looks like a Camden Market lamp stall and most of the rest is totally forgettable and utterly safe

And lots of the painting here is great, so why complain? Issy Wood is already a young superstar, and for good reason: her paintings are dusky, tactile, odd things, full of hazy, half-remembered references to popular culture, like Dutch Golden Age art for people with Instagram attention spans. Gina Beavers delivers big, gross 3D canvases of lips and burgers and cosmetic surgery, terrifyingly reflecting a lot of the faces of passing mega-rich collectors. Appropriately vile stuff. Martin Gross’s static, almost-digital works on paper are a stand-out too, and Catherine Hoffman’s images full of shadowplay and pink bodies twisting and morphing into new shapes are sensual and fun.

The ‘Focus’ section of the fair, reserved for younger galleries, is normally where you find the best stuff, but it’s a bit of a letdown this year.

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