From neo-surrealist painting to coarse conceptualism, three frieze editors discuss the year in art
BY SEAN BURNS, TERENCE TROUILLOT AND CHLOE STEAD IN OPINION | 17 DEC 21
Terence Trouillot: We’ve been talking a lot this year about the ubiquity of painting, particularly figurative painting, and this resurgence of neo-surrealism that’s been happening as well. But I’m curious to hear of any other trends you’ve identified over the last 12 months.
Sean Burns: From my perspective, the second half of 2021 has seemed like a year of recovery from the gallery and institutional closures of 2020. This has had an impact in several ways: for instance, we’ve seen more painting because commercial galleries have been looking for safe financial bets. There have been fewer performances, which is perhaps due to social distancing.
Chloe Stead: Has there been a marked difference in London?
SB: I would say so, yes.
TT: It’s definitely also the case in New York. You could see it this autumn with the Armory and the ‘back-to-school’ shows. That’s what was so interesting about the painting dossier we included in the October issue: it was hitting at a period where painting just flourished – not only in terms of there being a necessity for commercial galleries to safely re-enter the market after the pandemic shutdowns, but also because it’s the medium of the moment.
Jenna Gribbon had a big opening at Fredericks & Freiser in September. Lisa Yuskavage had wonderful a show at David Zwirner. At Nicola Vassell, Alvaro Barrington showed these extraordinary abstract paintings – albeit quite sculptural – of concrete on Hermès blankets in a series titled ‘Cloud’ (2021). Charles Moffett exhibited paintings by Kenny Rivero, whose work I’d argue falls under this umbrella of neo-surrealism, although he’s been making dreamlike, figurative paintings for some time now. But, yes, just so much painting.
SB: In terms of the neo-surrealist dimension that you’re referring to, for me that’s a reaction to the current political and ecological context. Artists like Chioma Ebinama and Kat Lyons are turning to more fantastical visions, to mythology, to magical thinking. This has been going on for some time – it’s not exclusive to this year. But I’m also interested in how socio-economic factors feed into the ways that galleries decide which artists and shows they put on.
CS: This feels like a good segue into Black figuration, which is everywhere right now. Back in November, I attended the Athens Biennale, which featured many artists from the African Diaspora with tricky, difficult-to-sell practices, such as performance and video installation. In the catalogue, the biennial’s artistic director, Poka-Yio, basically said – talking about our current moment – that zombie multi-coloured expressionism is out and zombie new figuration is in. The quote is as follows:
‘Strangely, Black art is reintroducing and spearheading this anthropocentric figuration, reclaiming the body and its image but also capitulating to market speculation and nouveau-riche taste. Today, new figuration brings back the Black bodies as art trophies of six-figure value.’
The reason I bring this up is that, while I think there’s a certain truth to that statement, I also found it a little unreasonable in the sense that, for hundreds of years, white men – and, more recently, white women – have been making a bunch of money from painting beautiful portraits. I just felt like it was a bit disingenuous to criticise Black artists for following the market and making money from it.
TT: I agree with you. Black figuration is all-pervasive and has completely saturated the market, but I still believe there is plenty of room for innovation and novelty to come out of it. I’m thinking of the Nigerian painter Ekene Stanley Emecheta, whose Black subjects are overpainted with a pearly, translucent white. The work, as Shiv Kotecha mentioned in his review for frieze, ‘tethers the superficial conventions of European portrait painting […] to the semiotics of Blackness’.
CS: What I love about Emecheta is that he’s self-taught, which is unusual in the age where so many young, gallery-represented artists have studied on the same handful of graduate programs. The same is true of Chase Hall, who you wrote about this year, Terence. For me, one of the great things about Hall’s trajectory is that he’s reaching a level of success without having gone the BFA/MFA route.
SB: Can you delve a bit deeper into why you find Hall’s and Emecheta’s work so exciting
TT: I just think there’s something unique about it. Emecheta’s whitewashed Black figures are stark and disturbing to look at, but there’s also something alluring about them. It’s as if the artist is presenting a palimpsest of Black figures being erased from European art history, but we still bear witness to their lasting traces. In contrast, the lacunae in Hall’s images illuminate his Black figures, unearthing their stories from obscurity.
CS: Joy Labinjo, in her conversation with Claudette Johnson for the frieze painting dossier, talked about what happened when she realised that the majority of people collecting her work were white. She didn’t completely change her practice, but she didn’t want to make it easy for people either. There’s a really striking work, Terrible, isn’t it? , which depicts a white family watching a Black Lives Matter protest on television. And, as a white European, I found it really uncomfortable to look at. It takes you out of the painting and makes you reflect on what you’re expecting as a white viewer from a Black artist.
Another artist I have been thinking about in relation to this is Kayode Ojo. I am obsessed with his work: I find it so seductive, so smart and a little mean. What I find especially interesting is that you get the sense he’s going against what’s expected of him. I wonder how much space we allow in art publications – or even in fairs and galleries – for art by Black artists that doesn’t reinforce what we think it should be. And so, for me, an artist such as Ojo, who is making quite formal sculpture that’s not the easiest to read, is exciting. I love the fact that he doesn’t seem to be very interested in explaining his work either.
SB: I had a conversation with one of the Frieze New Writers about Ima-Abasi Okon’s Infinite Slippage  – an installation comprised of 11 air conditioners and a suspended ceiling with glass light fittings and soundtrack – which is now on view at Tate Britain in London. We were talking about legibility and our expectations of a work of art – whether it be pedagogical or to guide us towards a point – and his criticism was that Okon’s work was ungenerous. That triggered a debate around all the things you’re saying about the artist’s responsibility to the viewer and what our expectations are as people who are so used to being offered things – cultural or otherwise – that are easy to digest.
TT: There’s something so seductive about Ojo’s work. It’s esoteric, strange and shiny. The found materials he uses – plastic chandeliers, handcuffs, mirrors, music stands, objects with reflective surfaces – create a visual language that’s specific yet irresistibly obscure.
I recently saw his work in ‘Greater New York’ at MoMA PS1, where they’re showing his installation You need to prove to me that I can count on you to be loyal  alongside his photographs. A few of the photographs are of an afterparty at the Jane Hotel in 2016 for the launch of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s group exhibition, ‘Mirror Cells’. In a similar vein to his sculptures, the photographs are mysterious and flashy: the images are overexposed; the faces are often obscured in some way. His work absurdly mimics the enticement of consumer culture, but leaves you bewildered.
CS: I wonder whether, rather than meanness, it’s a purposeful ungenerosity. So, he seduces people with all these shiny surfaces but then gives his works these super-weird titles and puts them together in an esoteric way. There’s a definite push and pull there, in terms of engagement with the viewer.
SB: Yes, I think we’re tuning into something here that is true of lots of contemporary sculpture. It’s not slovenly or depraved in any way; it’s about attentiveness. And it’s insisting that the viewer also brings that level of attentiveness to break the deadlock of what we might call ungenerous.
A lot of artists making these kinds of sculptures – like Rhea Dillon and Jack O’Brien – have this very attentive approach that still doesn’t leave you with a unified idea as to what their message is. It’s about spotting the clues and threading them together.
TT: This reminds me of SoiL Thornton’s work and something you mentioned, Sean, in an earlier conversation we had about this idea of an economy of materials. This seemed apt in terms of thinking about Thornton’s work, which is so simple: Bench/Barrier (314 lbs) , for instance, is just a compressed cube of aluminium foil. With all the attention on painting at the moment, there’s something quite exciting about this coarse brand of conceptual art – just an artist making work with whatever they have at their disposal, lending a sense of urgency.
CS: There’s a certain kind of confidence on show in these types of works. I’m thinking of Cudelice Brazelton IV’s assemblages or Ser Serpas’s installations of found objects. And again, I know it’s so obvious, but I think it needs to be said: this has been the privy of white male artists for so long. Just chiselling a square out of the wall and being like: ‘That’s my artwork; deal with it!’ So, I love this idea of making a work simply from tinfoil.
SB: As you say, Terence, I think about this in terms of an economy of means. There are so many demands on our attention and time, it seems rational to me that this return to close-looking and slowing down, using what’s around you, would be appealing. It’s a desire for sensitivity, as well.
CS: Another artist I’m excited about is Lydia Ourahmane. In her recent exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel and Triangle – Astérides in Marseille, she also used things that were lying around but to very different ends. Stuck in Europe during the first lockdown of the pandemic, she had the entire contents of her apartment in Algiers – approximately 5,000 items – shipped to her. It was an amazing feat of administration to get everything through customs.
TT: Catalina Ouyang is another artist making highly personal work, which I wasn’t too familiar with prior to her show, ‘White Male Allyship’, at Lyles & King, New York, this autumn. Questioning white allyship, the show ranged through sculpture, installation and drawing. One work, Devotion (2016–21), dealt directly with the artist’s personal trauma of being raped by a white man. All of Ouyang’s work is powerful, intense and deeply personal, but it can also be incredibly opaque and strange – most notably her small abstract sculptures carved out of soapstone, such as Pronoun of Love (I SAW THE HATE GO OUT OF HER EYES) .
CS: We’re all trying to find something that cuts through the noise, right? Throughout the pandemic, I’ve just had this feeling that there’s so much content, more content than ever. So, finding something that grabs you – whether for its meanness, ungenerosity or emotional rawness – is vital.
SB: That links back to this idea of sensitivity and attentiveness, of trying to make things more human because everything’s digital nowadays. One way to manifest that is by introducing elements from the artist’s personal life.
TT: We’ve talked about painting, sculpture and installation but is there any video or photography work that you’ve found exciting this year? I know he’s quite well known, especially in Europe, but I’m so enamoured by the work of French-Algerian photographer Mohamed Bourouissa. I saw his video The Whispering of Ghosts [2018–20] – originally commissioned for the Liverpool Biennial in 2018 – at the Swiss Institute this summer. Bourouissa’s work seems inspired by the Pictures Generation – appropriating found imagery and re-staging or manipulating them in various ways – while also mining the surface of mass media through concerns around race, colonialism and social exclusion. The film follows Bourlem Mohamed – a former patient of Frantz Fanon at the psychiatric hospital in Blida, Algeria – who uses gardening as a form of occupational therapy to deal with the trauma of having been a freedom fighter in the Algerian War [1954–62]. The video tracks his progress as he builds a garden at the hospital, which was then re-created in Liverpool for the biennial. It’s such a beautiful work.
CS: In September, I saw Sara Sadik’s work in Munich at Various Others, which is a gallery-share programme. I had seen images of her work online before and thought it wasn’t for me, but then I saw her video Khtobtogone  and was completely hooked. Everything she makes is inspired by what she calls ‘Beurcore’, which is about the lives of North African-descended youth living in French suburbs. The video, which is set entirely within the game of Grand Theft Auto, is a love story centred on a young man named Zine. I thought it was such a singular concept and vision – and a good example of how art can still surprise.
SB: It’s neither a single video nor a photograph. Still, it would be remiss of me not to mention ‘War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights’, curated by Tottenham Rights, Rianna Jade Parker and Kamara Scott at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, last summer. It was an excellent example of how curators and community organisations can work with institutions to build exhibitions that are investigative art forms in their own right. I hope we see more of this next year.