ARCOlisboa – Cordoaria Nacional

Among the countless galleries at Cordoaria Nacional, the gallerists busy in their world, the tired and enthusiastic assistants, the prying audience, the affluent and the indifferent ones, in what is closest to Christmas in Portuguese contemporary art, we woke up to a work by Richie Culver, begging for an Instagram post. He shouts out Lisbon is Boring. It provokes us directly and, despite being a statement, it asks us a question: it lays out the dilemma, true or false, that we have to decode in this text. Is it really boring?

From the thematic standpoint, little has changed in comparison with previous years: the focus continued to be on African production with the programme “Africa in Focus”, a sign of the contemporary art markets’ growing interest in these productions. This year, they prompted some of the fair’s most remarkable moments: the This is Not a White Cube show, where artists with radically different approaches presented one of this year’s most solid exhibitions – Patrick Bongoy’s heavy sculpture, between dystopia and Afrofuturism, René Tavares’ hypnotic post-colonial expressionism, and Cristiano Mangovo’s humorous but never frivolous painting. International galleries, such as the Ugandan Afriart or the French 193 Gallery, also presented notable highlights in this domain, such as the beautiful work of the veteran but still little acknowledged Sanaa Gateja or Cedric Tchinan’s pulsating new figuration. These examples shine in the overwhelming chaos of the art fair because they are immediate. They do not waste time on mystery, they are compelling or catch our attention with approaches that seem to want to escape or redefine European and North American formal impositions. They create their own uniqueness, a refreshing vision, humanised in many categories, canons, commonplaces that have become corporate beacons. Art fairs live by this. This one is no exception.

It is not rare to find stereotyped productions: the show of the Madrid-based Heinrich Ehrhardt seems to be composed of phantom compositions, original works that appear as replicas of well-known names or movements – the constructivist revival of Fernando García’s sculptures or the two-dimensional serigraphs of Secundino Hernandez, who still seems to regard Andy Warhol’s work as a point of no return. Another example could be the Pedro Cera gallerystand which, despite various names and formal means, with some interesting productions (notably the hyperreal paintings by Gil Heitor Cortesão and the beautiful drawings by Miguel Branco), has a more commercial or safe look in relation to contemporary artistic productions, in the abstract creations of Antonio Ballester Moreno or in Tobias Rehberger’s plastic emptiness, like a Koons painted in matte. But, at this fair, these are not the only cases.

There were also important names in the world of contemporary art, which we don’t always see in Portuguese museums: the imposing Elvira Gonzalez showed a work by Robert Mapplethorpe and some pieces by Oláfur Eliasson; the Austrian Krinzinger displayed a photograph by Marina Abramović; the Spanish Leandro Navarro caught us off guard by placing us in a 20th century museum, presenting works by Antoni Tàpies, Kurt Schwitters, Christo or even Matisse.

As usual, most galleries choose a comprehensive approach, making the most of the small space with samples from past exhibitions or compilations of represented artists. Others take a bigger risk, using the available room for one artist, creating micro-exhibitions. In most cases, this approach pays off: the highlights were the debutant Zeller Van Almsick and the London-based Greengrassi. In the former, we see one of the fair’s most creative pictorial approaches: the work of Dejan Dukic, where the artist is said to have pressed a paint impasto onto the reverse of canvases, pushing the fibres to the front of the pictorial body. The result is surreal. There seem to be living organisms on the canvas surface. In the last, we see Alessandro Belotti’s work, where mixtures of colours and gestures come together in portraits of comic and affirmative characters, redefining genres and identities of a pictorial act, which seems here always vital and spontaneous. But this riskier approach may not have paid off in the case of the Leyendecker gallery, where a show by Alberto Borea is composed of derivative assemblages between golds and greys, in blatant contrasts, unpleasant to the eye, bordering on kitsch. This is also emphasised by the blackness of the imposed museography, contrasting not only with the pieces, but with the other stands.

We have to mention two other sections of the fair: the return of the usual Opening Lisboa, with a set of teeming new galleries with more intimate, but no less competent shows. The highlight was the Georgian Artbeat, with small portraits by Nika Kutateladze and Nato Sirbiladze, and the Young Art Prize area awarded by the Millennium Foundation, with some interesting works by past winners, such as Fábio Colaço or José Taborda.

In a fair like this, identifying all the highlights and shortcomings is difficult. Our senses quickly become saturated. An art fair is never the best place to appreciate artistic objects, but rather to enter the ecosystem in which they are submerged, behind the scenes of that stage we silently contemplate in museums and galleries. This makes for a stirring, casual, yet exciting and fun experience. Aside from the eternal question of safe bets, the initiatives were relevant. And so were most of the galleys. In fact (and in response to Richie Culver), it wasn’t boring. There will be more next year.

ARCOlisboa took place on May 20-22 at Cordoaria Nacional.

Miguel Pinto (Lisbon, 2000) is graduated in Art History by NOVA/FCSH and made his internship at the National Museum of Azulejo. He has participated in the research project VEST - Vestir a corte: traje, género e identidade(s) at the Humanities Centre of the same institution. He has created and is running the project Parte da Arte, which tries to investigate the artistic scene in Portugal through video essays.

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