Sydney Contemporary 2023

I like the collegiality that art fairs seem to bring out between competing galleries. I remember at one fair, Andy Dinan from MARS gallery said to me, “I really look out for James Makin at these events. He’s so tall, if I ever have to hang something high, he’s able to do it without even standing on a chair.”

Both these Melbourne-based gallerists travelled up for Sydney Contemporary. MARS’ booth included the crazy, geometric neons of Meagan Streader. James Makin Gallery’s had the dark, sticky-carpet pub interiors of Holly Greenwood – seemingly caught in time between 4:00 a.m. in Kings Cross and mid-afternoon in Broken Hill.

But what of the other ninety-four galleries? What are they exhibiting, and hopefully selling? For every Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery that pretty much sells out of the highly distinctive Dhambit Mununggurr’s blue poles on the opening night, there are probably two or three galleries who sell nothing at all by 5:00 p.m. Sunday, when the mega-trucks start to roll in like cabs off an airport ramp, dispersing the unsold across the country. But I love the extremes found at these fairs. Utopia Art Sydney’s $1.1 million sale of an “Emily” (to a private collector), and only a short walk away a student on the excellent National Art School stand who sold every edition of every print, creating a waterfall of red dots down the wall. I also enjoyed very much the text-based works of Maddy O’Connor, also from NAS.

Personal highlights included Paul Greenaway’s GAGPROJECTS booth and the simple, Zen-like work of Sundari Carmody, part of a stunning display of all-female artists including Angela Valamanesh, Jenny Watson, and Deborah Paauwe. Jasper Knight’s shimmering yellow Coral Coast series excited and calmed at the same time, wrapping around 3:33 Art Projects’ presentation at this magazine’s stand.

Everywhere you go, contrasting styles coexist through the turn of a corner. William Yang’s Taoist costume-play at Art Atrium is very different in form from Matt Bromhead’s superb minimalist abstractions at Olsen Gallery – but with similarities in spirit. And my award for the fair’s most rigorously curated display of abstraction would easily go to Charles Nodrum Gallery, with major works by Richard Dunn, Lesley Dumbrell, and Andrew Christofides.

Booths that I know will always give me great visual and intellectual pleasure include Darren Knight Gallery with the multi-talented Louise Weaver, and the ever-weird Noel McKenna, and Niagara Galleries, showing Travis MacDonald who is seriously seductive but seems to walk a stylistic tightrope between Peter Doig and Andrew Cranston, and Dominik Mersch Gallery with Jon Cattapan and Julio Rondo.

Both Chalk Horse gallery and the always exciting Egg & Dart from Wollongong had great draw-you-back-a-second-time booths, but seemed to have a lack of wall labels to aid curious art writers (at least I couldn’t find them in the crowds), an increasingly annoying feature by a minority of galleries at all art fairs.

The very first art fair, apart from traditional Paris salons, was arguably the Cologne Art Fair and its first edition in 1967. For a long time, it had the caché now enjoyed by the franchises of multi-city fairs like Frieze and Basel. The art fair addiction soon caught on, and by the mid-1980s there was one major art fair each month – ARCO (Madrid) every February, through Chicago in May, to Los Angeles in December. There you can buy museum quality Giacomettis, Louise Bourgeois spiders, and Damien Hirst sharks. The prices commanded, across the board, tower above the Australasian art market by a factor of at least ten, sometimes one hundred. So, it was heartening to see a world class suite of works by Anthony Gormley installed at Galleria Continua, whose empire now includes San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Habana, Roma, Sao Paulo, Paris, and Dubai. A small glass sculpture Substance, by Tony Cragg was shown at Gow Langsford ($125,000), signature works by Brent Harris at Wellington’s Robert Heald Gallery, capping off a year of big museum shows by this New Zealand-raised Melbourne-based artist, and Irish artist Damien Meade at Sydney’s day01. gallery, whose weirdly eclectic work is frequently covered by the legendary Turps Banana painting magazine (if you’re curious, I’m told the National Art School library has a complete set).

Then there are the stories, the artworld anecdotes. Nicholas Thompson Gallery’s inspired choice of Brisbane-born and for many years New York-based Virginia Cuppaidge to fill his space. Her largest piece in the show, and one of the largest at the whole fair, was, I’m told, originally sold to a New York University where it was relegated to the student canteen. You can guess what’s coming. Food and drinks were thrown around with abandon, over the years. It was so badly damaged some doubted it could ever be saved. But after painstaking restoration it now glows anew, as if with phosphorescent light.

And one of the smallest works at the fair, at 1301SW and STARKWHITE galleries, is by the late, great, Billy Apple. Born in New Zealand, he became an artist of immense influence. He trained at the Royal College of Art with David Hockney, and later they shared an apartment together in New York. Legend has it that it was Apply who persuaded Hockney that they should both dye their hair blonde. Titled Portrait of the Artist in a Drip-Dry Suit (Blue), it dates from 1962, is measured in millimetres, and is a snip at $68,000. And if all that is not enough, there are the panel discussions, the artist floor talks, the Campari Bar, the guided tours, the works on paper shows, the fashionistas and, of course, the Instagrammers (to which I plead guilty).

Sydney Contemporary 
7-10 September 2023 
Carriageworks, Sydney 

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related