The Independent, more inclusive than ever
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The Independent, more inclusive than ever
Independent New York, 2015, photo: Etienne Frossard, courtesy of The Modern Institute.

by Martha Schwendener

NEW YORK, NY.- If you were holding your breath for another art fair filled to the steel-girder ceilings with contemporary painting, you can let go. The Independent, the local-brand fair that features art ranging from emerging to the radical old-guard, is not it. The current edition at Spring Studios in Tribeca, which opens to the public Friday, includes 69 exhibitors from 11 countries, lots of photography and ephemera, idiosyncratic installations, and career resets — and yes, a healthy dose of painting.

You do feel a shift here, though. This fair feels more thoughtful, even reflective. Artists of color are celebrated and several presentations focus on older artists, trying to refine old narratives and biases. Here are some of the booths and tendencies that caught my eye.

Representing Race and Indigeneity

Nonwhite artists are under no responsibility to make work that considers “identity,” oppression or racism, but several artists here celebrate their origins, tribes and families in notable ways. (Forty-one percent of the fair is devoted to presentations by artists of color.) A number of booths are devoted to Indigenous or First Nations artists, like the Apsáalooke or Crow artist Wendy Red Star at Sargent’s Daughters (Booth H. 1) or Rande Cook at Vancouver’s Fazakas (Booth D. 7), who riffs on the Formline tradition of the Pacific Northwest First Nations peoples.

Kimathi Donkor, a London-based painter in the sprawling Sharjah Biennial, uses a figurative approach to upend myths about African history, at Niru Ratnam (Booth E. 1). Another London gallery, Harlesden High Street (Booth Y. 6) is devoted to artists of color and individuals otherwise excluded from art world spaces. Here, the work of Savannah Marie Harris, Emmanuel Shogbolu and Ruby Dickson is installed in a zone cordoned off by a chain-link fence, reinforcing this sense of historical exclusion.

Joseph Olisaemeka Wilson presents paintings that wildly scramble African diasporic narratives, at Derek Eller (Booth D. 5). D’Angelo Lovell Williams’s color photographs and handwoven textile works at Higher Pictures (Booth E. 7) champion Black heritage, familial bonds and roots. Otis Houston Jr. at Gordon Robichaux (Booth R. 6) has received plenty of recognition, but his story — an art career begun in prison and still creating street performances on the Lower East Side — as well as his electrifying collages, are worth highlighting.

Reconsidering Careers

Several artists here are well represented in museums, art history books and beyond. But the freewheeling art fair expands our understanding of their origins. The exhibition at Specific Object and Susan Inglettt (Booth J. 5), titled “An Assault on American Prudery,” showcases objects by Yayoi Kusama, Lynda Benglis, and Beverly Semmes — all of whom hijacked sexuality and representations of the female body in the 1960s and ’70s. At the Independent, you can see rare handmade T-shirts from Benglis’ Artforum project, images from Kusama’s brief nude-photography-studio project and Semmes’ pictures made by painting over pornography.

Two other artists getting a refined look are Stan VanDerBeek at Magenta Plains (Booth B. 6) and Eleanor Antin at Richard Saltoun (Booth C. 6). VanDerBeek’s recreated “Movie-Drome” (1964-65) of projected images is in “Signals: How Video Transformed the World” at the Museum of Modern Art and a current show at Magenta Plains. However, his collages, made for his animations, are potent art works on their own. Antin’s photographic-conceptual project “100 Boots” — black rubber boots photographed in public spaces — is terrific, and Saltoun is showing “100 Boots Head East” (1973), in which the boots sit like eerie, funny witnesses and participants around New York.

Self-Taught Artists

The universe of self-taught artists is a vast one. The common thread tends to be objects that ignore or shrug off conventions and academic strictures. Abe Odedina at Los Angeles’ Diane Rosenstein (Booth S. 5) is a Nigerian-born, London-based artist who studied architecture before switching to a collage form of painting. One of his works, “Blow by Blow,” draws inspiration from Nkisi power figures, which had nails pounded into them for protection. Odedina’s assemblage includes all manner of hardware inside the outlines of a rough self-portrait. South Carolina artist Will Thornton at Ricco Maresca (Booth D. 6) makes elegantly crafted paintings depicting odd shapes and figures, which turn out to be sculptures he’s crafted in fabric or clay.

Julian Kent, a recent discovery by Kerry Schuss (Booth O. 5.1), is a young New York artist who paints everyday scenes with Black people with thick, flat planes of pigment. Demonstrating how “self-taught” hardly implies unsophisticated, Kent reveals his inspirations: films by Mike Leigh and Edward Yang; Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Toni Morrison; and Jacob Lawrence, Chaim Soutine and Alice Neel.

Beyond Painting

If you just really want a painting to go over the couch, you will find one here. But many works thoughtfully question what painting is today, its history and relevance. Dutch artist Kinke Kooi’s “Mutual Friends” (2023) at the Portland, Oregon gallery Adams and Ollman (Booth Q. 5) is a triptych made with acrylic, gouache and colored pencil on paper that answers back to Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (1490-1500). Like Bosch, Kooi’s work includes strawberries and other earthly delights, but also feminist motifs, like a cartridge of birth control pills nestled in the vegetation. Tamara Gonzales’s tapestry-like grid of paintings at Klaus von Nichtssagend (Booth G. 5) conjure spirits of the Indigenous Americas alongside Kemar Keanu Wynter’s abstract canvases, whose titles have referred to delectable Caribbean dishes from his native Jamaica.

Finally, at the London and Basel gallery Vitrine (Booth A. 1), Danish artist Cecilia Fiona’s painted marks spill out from the canvas onto a folding screen, and even costumes she has created for a performance on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Here, the artist and a cohort will perform in the booth, wearing the hand-painted costumes and masks inspired by her recently deceased grandmother, who came to Fiona in a dream, as a bird. Call it painting, ritual or séance, there’s something poignant about this in an art fair in Tribeca, where performance art used to be quotidian, rather than the exception.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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