Melbourne Art Fair 2024

I was sitting on a chair in the Piazza Bar at the Preview of the Melbourne Art Fair (MAF), sipping a Piper-Heidsieck champagne (one of many MAF partners), and angled so I had a clear view of Anna Schwartz’s vast booth. Like many galleries she had accepted the organiser’s recommendation to show the work of a single artist. In this case it is Stieg Persson with his astonishing wall of watercolours in which text becomes image and image becomes text. Everyone I spoke to—artist, gallerists, collectors and curators—agreed this solo show approach was a good strategy, creating sublime moments of curatorial clarity rather than the shop window on the world mishmash of most other art fairs.

Particularly successful in this respect were Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne, showing the work of Yvonne Audette, GAGPROJECTS, Adelaide, with a remarkable, museum quality, presentation of the complex, intelligent yet always highly seductive black and white abstractions of Ariel Hassan, and the breath-taking (they are that physical) paintings and props of Jacqui Stockdale at OLSEN Gallery, Sydney. This is an artist whose career I have followed for many years, and she just gets better and wilder with each outing. Her large-scale oil painting Dance me (to the end of love), 2024, is from the series Angel at my Table and references all points between Leonard Cohen and Frida Kahlo, while being essentially part of her own singular vision.

Despard Gallery from Hobart presents a similar singular vision in the works of Sam Field, who they say “describes a world seemingly hypnotised by religious fanaticism, ultra-capitalism and conspiracy theories. From exiled couples and religious effigies, to fabled figures and mythological creatures, he conjures unexpected encounters, connecting history with proverb, nature with the man-made, past and future.” 

Neon Parc, Melbourne, has one of the biggest and most ambitious booths with new works by Dale Frank that drip, reflect and pull you into a psychedelic trance. The artist’s lengthy titles, by turn funny and offensive, are each slices of free-wheeling grunge poetry.

James Makin Gallery, Melbourne, has a well-placed bob-each-way in terms of presentation where he constructs a double booth with a solo show in one half and a mix of gallery artists in the other. He’s done this successfully at successive art fairs in Sydney and Melbourne (Godwin Bradbeer and Michael Vale respectively), with the solo this year going to New Zealand-based Toby Raine (all works $14,000, all bio-portraits dripping with thick impasto), and a group hang that includes Lisa Tomasetti, J Davies, Emma Coulter, and Caroline Walls.

Cool, minimal conceptualism was evident at several booths including 1301SW, Melbourne, and its partner gallery Starkwhite from Auckland, offering a range of works from Simryn Gill and Michael Zavros to Bill Henson and Fiona Pardington. But nothing pleased me more than seeing the street-smart Five Walls Gallery, Melbourne, transplanting itself from the multi-cultural streets of Footscray to the mono-cultural, gridded landscape of MAF. They ran with the idea of exhibiting a single artist in the form of the great PJ Hickman whose reductionist black and white abstractions referenced everything from Malevich’s 1915 work Black Square to visual commentary on the world’s mega-galleries: Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian, David Zwirner, Pace, and White Cube. No need to gift wrap these wonderful objects, they all come with their own designer box.

Some of the most powerful works reflected Indigenous history and presence, notably at the Alcaston booth with the late Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori and Yankunytjatjara artist Tiger Yaltangki. Also, at Tolarno’s booth with the works of Wanapati Yunupiŋu. These fabulous works, coming from a deep spirituality passed from father to son, and fashioned from engraved steel (found metal) blow hot and cool with images of marine life juxtaposed against symbols for fire. Taken as a group, or individually, they are some of the most exciting works at the fair.

At the other side of the hall, the booth of cb-One Gallery, Melbourne, exhibits the new photographic collection Emanate by First Nations artists Simone Arnol and Bernard Singleton. And they succeed in their mission to show how culture, like traditional clay medicine, can heal us all.

Nearby at the Arthouse, Sydney, booth, Walmajarri artist John Prince Siddon’s epic installation Mother Tongue resembles a theatre stage, where the artist’s sensitive allegorical paintings and objects hang on sunny yellow walls or rest on red ochre sand from the artist’s Country. Both paintings and objects are in a local and global discussion to save all living beings in the sky, on land and in water from climate change devastation. Prince’s method to preserve the world for future generations, is to paint his stories on kangaroo pelts, satellite dishes, forty-four-gallon drums, skulls, and on a variety of canvases. With many works sold at MAF to national institutions, Prince is an unstoppable art star.

Turn the corner, and in the next row of booths is Kalli Rolfe’s solo presentation of the late Howard Arkley’s work, including the much-anticipated final painting, rumoured to be on sale for $1.5 million. At the time of writing there is no red or black dot next to it, but the fair still has two more days to run, and surely a museum purchase can’t be far away.

At COMA’s, Sydney, booth Shan Turner-Carroll photography shown with a single carved shoe created during his residency in Iceland were magical works. I am looking forward to seeing more of his works.  

But what lifts art fairs out of pure commercialism and febrile networking into the world of art and ideas is the whole ecosystem of subsidiary events. MAF does this better than most fairs, whether in Miami, Basel, or New York. Within “Jeff’s Shed” there is much to choose from, including Victoria Lynn interviewing Julie Rrap, recipient of the Melbourne Art Foundation Commission. Or you could listen to Patricia Karvelas interviewing Jennifer Higgie, former editor of Frieze magazine and graduate of the VCA, about her book The Other Side: A Journey into Women, Art and the Spirit World (2023, Weidenfeld & Nicolson). First Draft, Sydney, and Gertrude, Melbourne, art spaces both presented project rooms, and a large-scale video screen rotated between five different artistic presentations, selected by Tamsin Hong, curator at London’s Serpentine Gallery: Buhlebezwe Siwani (Madragoa, Lisbon); Rebecca Agnew (Jacob Hoerner Galleries, Melbourne); Joan Ross (N. Smith Gallery, Sydney); Geng Xue (Vermilion Art, Sydney); and Amala Groom (Blackartprojects). Elsewhere, Shelley McSpedden, Senior Curator at ACCA, presents the Beyond section, comprising huge installations dealing with space and the environment. This section comprises solo presentations by Louise Paramor (Void, Melbourne), Jazz Money (The Commercial, Sydney), Dane Mitchell & Keiji Haino (The Renshaws, Brisbane), and Sanne Mestrom (Sullivan and Strumpf, Sydney, Melbourne).                                                  

Much is also happening across the city with MAF embracing several venue partners in a way that the NGV Triennial, say, does not. On Thursday night I went to the After Party at the legendary Kelvin Club on Russell Street which had the feel of a basement bar in Soho. Tonight, I am going to see Andrew Sibley’s Berlin works, presented by Jacob Hoerner Galleries in Carlton. And last night, Buxton Contemporary partnered with MAF to present a panel discussion on “collecting,” alongside one of the best shows in town—Nadine Christensen’s massive double-floor survey Around. One of the collectors recounted the excitement of buying her first Christensen painting, and then passed on advice she’d been given by the late James Mollison, founding director of the National Gallery of Australia. “Buy in depth,” he said, “and always buy the most difficult work.” It seemed to work well for him with Blue Poles, 1952.                                                                                                                                                   

Finally, Andy Dinan at MARS Gallery brought us the paintings of Dani McKenzie, hovering somewhere between Edward Hopper and Eric Fischl, with an imaginary soundtrack as if by Joni Mitchell or Tom Waits. Dinan summed up the excitement, tension, and down to earth fun of these art fairs when she posted on Instagram after the gala opening, “Vernissage and preview day at Melbourne Art Fair was a true celebration. Fabulous to catch up with so many artists, curators, collectors and gallery directors all in one afternoon. We sold out! We celebrated, and although exhausted cannot wait to do it all again tomorrow.”                                                                                                                                                   

But not everyone was happy. Editor Una Rey ended her Artlink magazine email to readers and art collectors from the art fair, “If you’re at Melbourne Art Fair, come and tell us your secrets! You’ll find us on the perimeter outside the entrance proper, because MAF has yet to develop a democratic ‘media partner’ space.” Maybe that needs working on before next year. And yes! MAF will be back in 2025. From now on, Australia will have two major art fairs every year. How will that go? Stay tuned.

Melbourne Art Fair 
22 – 25 February 2024 
Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

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