Celebrating its 25th year, the London Art Fair (LAF) opened to the public yesterday in its usual location, the Business Design Centre in Upper Street. I’ve never warmed to the venue, which hosts an array of exhibitions and consumer fairs, LAF being one of the least corporate. The art gallery stands have to share room with scores of businesses and it’s very easy to get lost trying to find different sections of the fair. There are also, inevitably, some odd clashes between the world of art and that of the businesses trading as normal. Wandering past the VIP lounge on the preview day, some fitness freaks were stretching out in front of the gym a stone’s throw from some immaculately tailored collectors.
London Art Fair 2013. Photo: James Champion.
If the experience of walking around can be a bit giddying, the art – modern and contemporary – is always of a decent if not superlative standard. The majority of the exhibitors are from the UK, including some of the best of Cork Street and a smattering of galleries in up-and-coming/cheaper (delete as appropriate) areas of London, several of which are ensconced in a section upstairs called Art Projects. And in a section called Photo50, Nick Hackworth, director of gallery Paradise Row, presents series of works by eight important photojournalists and documentary photographers (such as Homer Sykes, below).
Homer Sykes, 'Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire', 1973. Part of Photo50 at London Art Fair.
Some of these younger galleries in Art Projects dedicated their space to an installation or project by one artist. My favourite was the stand of The Sunday Painter, a gallery and studio complex in Peckham, which handed their stand to multi-disciplinary artist Samara Scott, recent winner of the Converse/Dazed Emerging Artist Award. The London-based artist covered the floor with an exuberantly coloured carpet – whose freehand-style design was echoed by her table in the room – and placed odd, evocative objects on the floor and abstracts on the wall, all walking a tight rope between decoration and expressionism.
Samara Scott London Art Fair. Installation view of The Sunday Painter.
Another highlight was Georgie Hopton’s work at Poppy Sebire. the Yorkshire-born artist’s wool and acrylic collages on paper, representing plants and landscapes, were unified by patterned wallpaper.
Installation view of Poppy Sebire booth at London Art Fair.
Downstairs, in the main drag, the stand presentations tended to be less ambitious, bar Pratt Contemporary. The Kent gallery fabricated a darkened room in which to spotlight three large-scale canvases by the Brazilian figuratist Ana Maria Pacheco, a painter fond of the macabre and the fantastical – humans and animals merged into one in the works.
Highlights of the modern British galleries included Osborne Samuel (I would have put Terry Frost RA’s gorgeous Khaki & Emerald Green, 1963, in my bag, if only it would have fitted) and Austin Desmond, who led with an early, moody, expressionist-esque oil by Robyn Denny, from 1957, before the British artist embraced geometricism and bright acrylics. Its collision of type – seemingly stamped in letterpress – and dripped and smudged paint was so affecting it made me think Denny should have persevered longer with that style.
Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, 'Untitled (Egungun series)', 2012. Courtesy of Jack Bell Gallery.
The best thing about art fairs, however, is the opportunity to discover galleries that you have never heard about before. My best find was not from Shanghai or São Paulo, but SW1. St James’s space Jack Bell Gallery must live in the shadow of its blue chip neighbour in Mason’s Yard, White Cube, but here its stand sang out from others for its choice of four African artists: photographers Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou (see right) and Hamidou Maiga, from Benin and Burkina Faso respectively; Abidjan-raised Aboudia, who presented chaotic mixed-media canvases with scratched out figures; and Mozambique-born Gonçalo Mabunda, who welds into masks guns and other arms recovered after his country’s bitter civil war.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine