The 2018 Texas Contemporary Art Fair, held from Oct. 4 to Oct. 7 at the George R. Brown Convention Center, debuted to great fanfare. It had outlasted both of its natural enemies, Hurricane Harvey and the now-defunct Houston Fine Art Fair. What’s more, it featured pieces from more than 70 galleries, the most in the history of the event. The fair, condensed almost entirely on a single, open floor, featured a dizzying array of subjects and styles; portraits inspired by West African Ankara wax prints competed for air against what I can only describe as a conclave of Jaeger-drinking teddy bears.
The fair, condensed almost entirely on a single, open floor, featured a dizzying array of subjects and styles; portraits inspired by West African Ankara wax prints competed for air against what I can only describe as a conclave of Jaeger-drinking teddy bears.
It almost seems like adjudicating the quality of the Texas Contemporary distracts from how much of a candyland it is, the sort of problem that can only arise when 70 galleries battle to display their flashiest, most interesting pieces. (At one point, I almost walked into a Basquiat.) Galleries featured seemingly limitless amounts of neon art, and the price tags all looked like zip codes. I guess that what I’m saying is, I took a lot of pictures.
Despite the frequent stylistic clashing, the Texas Contemporary was breathtakingly photogenic. I had to line up to take photos of the central-hall chairs. (They were massive, curved, red-and-cream-colored, and anchored by a chain to a tiny, spherical Ottoman. They were also ridiculously uncomfortable, but I’m not even going to pretend like that matters. I slapped that thing onto my finsta without remorse or hesitation.) Walking down any aisle of gallery exhibitions felt like veering into different worlds – two-foot steel hybrids of tiger sharks and AR-15s, piles of graphite seashells and British street art occupied the space.
The complete discombobulation of the art fair was both understandable and inevitable. It’s not any individual gallery’s responsibility to collaborate with its rival neighbors to provide me, a random schlub, with a unified aesthetic experience. Still, there were times when very strongly political pieces clearly and disconcertingly jarred with the more decorative, whimsical pieces that dominated the fair. When a mural of a nude woman labeled “Regulated More than a Gun” takes up residence beside abstract, geometric canvases, it cannot help but feel like a minimization of a serious theme. This seems like less of a problem with the Texas Contemporary and more of a problem with art fairs in general. By their very nature, they cater to an audience that scarcely overlaps with the groups that politically-motivated art professes to defend. That paradox sets up a lot of hard questions: Can a piece of leftist street art sold for five figures really claim to be anti-consumerist? Can it even claim to be egalitarian?
In some ways, it is almost unfair to pin this on the Texas Contemporary. The rot did not start there, and it reaches far beyond the convention center’s borders. Even anti-consumerism feels a little bit consumerist now; many of the more in-your-face pieces at the fair felt neutered by their price tags. If you came to the fair looking for evidence that art can rise above commercialization to make an authentic statement, you were definitely looking in the wrong place. In fact, the $50 ticket price should have alerted you of that even before you entered the door.
But, frankly, I wasn’t looking for that evidence. I was coming to see cool art and take good pictures, and with that in mind, I had a wonderful time. There was a wide variety of absolutely beautiful and fascinating pieces. In the first ten minutes I was there, I saw a mirrored panel converging to infinity, a few Old Masters buried in a corner, and a dealer and a young girl playing chess on a set made of bullets. It was a fever dream in all the best ways. If 2018 was a reflection of the years to come, I highly recommend the Texas Contemporary to anybody looking for good art and a great afternoon. But don’t be surprised if the hefty ticket costs, and heftier prices, blunt any sense of anti-commercialism you may have hoped for.