East City Art Reviews: Superfine! The Fair, 2018 DC Edition

By Phil Hutinet on November 6, 2018
Overall view of the fair’s central corridor. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

The first edition of Superfine! DC took place above Union Market at Dock 5, a 12,000 square foot event space well suited for an art fair with its 22 foot ceilings, concrete flooring and an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling clear garage doors that open onto a rear loading dock.  Superfine! DC opened Wednesday, October 31, Halloween night, with a well-attended costume-themed vernissage.  The fair ran through Sunday, November 4 and featured a series of panel discussions, film, performances and other programing.  The organizers of the fair, Alex Mitow and James Miille, billed the fair as “Fun, approachable, and chock full of art by local and global emerging artists.”  This was the first DC edition of the fair, which also takes place annually in Los Angeles, California, New York City and Miami Beach, Florida.

Looking towards the entrance of the fair. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

Superfine! hosted 22 galleries which all came from the continental United States. Some gallerists traveled from as far away as Seattle and Miami to exhibit.  Local galleries included Adah Rose Gallery, Foundry Gallery, Gallery O on H, Monochrome Collective, Rofa Projects, Susan Calloway Fine Arts, Touchstone Gallery and Zenith Gallery.

Artist and gallery booths blend seamlessly which was one of the best features of the fair. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

The organizers of the fair also set up a vetted artist pavilion which was indistinguishable from the gallery booths.  Of the 44 non-represented artists exhibiting, 22 came from the Washington-Baltimore region, two came from abroad (Greece and Canada) and the other 18 came mostly from New York State but also from as far away as Kansas, Wisconsin and Florida.

Note the partition walls and metal overhangs that allow for proper lighting of exhibited work. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

The only local fairs Washingtonians have to compare Superfine! to are Artomatic, which is really not an art fair but a free-for-all, non-vetted art expo where all applicants are admitted for a small fee, and (e)merge, the art fair produced by Leigh Connor and Jamie Smith of CONNERSMITH gallery.  (e)merge debuted in 2011 and since the last edition took place in 2014, DC has had not had an art fair to fill-in the void. One of (e)merge participants’ main criticisms was that exhibitors did not have booths but rather, had to make use of the hotel room to which they were assigned at the Capitol Skyline Hotel.  The hotel room’s configuration limited the exhibitors’ ability to properly light and display work.  However, (e)merge’s programming, the quality of work exhibited and the diversity of national and international galleries made up for this drawback and set an incredibly high standard for any future art fair that would take place in DC.

An example of a properly curated booth: DC’s Gallery O on H carefully arranged artwork grouping each artist into discrete and visually discernible areas. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

Unlike (e)merge, Superfine! provided the type of booths found at traditional art fairs, that is, large panels connected to one-another allowing the hanging of artwork on actual walls and the use of overhead metal bars for gallery-style lighting.  While the venue setting and display panels made it feel more like a traditional art fair, immediately upon entering Superfine!, the jarring visual cacophony one experiences at Artomatic immediately came to mind. The work presented at the fair was of uneven quality. Some galleries seemed to have thrown everything but the kitchen sink into their booth and the lack of careful curation was glaringly apparent.  Fortunately, there were enough booths with high quality work and proper curation to make up for some of the deficiencies of the others.  While the location of the venue, the quality of the space and the booth equipment were excellent, the gallery and artist vetting process could have used some improvement.

An example of artist booths. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

The seamless transition between the gallerist booths and the artists’ was a welcomed change from most art fairs which do not provide this type of platform.  However, one of the issues that arose as a result of this arrangement was a conflict with pricing work.  Many artists offered work well-below what gallerists charged with prices as low as $40 in some cases for prints.  This gave certain independent artists an unfair pricing advantage over gallerists.

Martin Swift’s work is second from the right. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.
Martin swift’s figure as seen from the booth area. Note the size of the painting. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

Programming at the fair included live painting and one artist in particular, Martin Swift of DC, stood out from his peers. His larger-than-life mural of a man set against a black background immediately reminded me of John Singer Sargent or perhaps George Bellows’ handling in that  Swift, like Sargent or Bellows, uses heavy and apparent brushstrokes coupled with a simple palette of earth tones to paint his figures.  The large figure in Swift’s painting recalls the boxers in Bellows’ early 20th century paintings that shocked with their rawness.

An example of booths abutting the area in which the panel discussions were held. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

In contrast to the mural programming which was held outside on the loading dock, the panel discussions also could have used their own space. The panel discussions abutted some of the exhibition booths in effect creating crosstalk which made it difficult to either listen to the panel discussion as an audience member or to have a conversation with the exhibiting artist or gallerist at a nearby booth.

A panel discussion in progress. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

The DC metro area is home to one of the largest communities of expatriates in the world.  Thanks to their presence, they connect DC to their countries of origin through programming such as art exhibitions making DC “a window onto the world.”  Art fairs can also act as a window onto the world by allowing audiences to come into contact with trends taking place in other parts of the globe.  Only two international artists had their own booths at Superfine!, Bruce McGowan from Montréal, Canada and Fei Alexi from Thessaloniki, Greece and neither artist presented work indistinguishable from what one could find here in the Mid-Atlantic.  Since (e)merge set the bar for future art fairs in DC, it should be noted that Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith did a remarkable job of attracting international galleries and artists to DC.  As a case-in-point, the 2014 edition of (e)merge included an art gallery from Saudi Arabia which offered a rare glimpse into what art-making is like in a closed and tightly controlled theocracy.

Another view of several out-of-town galleries exhibiting at Superfine! DC. Photo by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.

Overall, the feedback from both DC-based individual artists and gallerists was decidedly positive.  Superfine! offered an opportunity for regional gallerists, artists, curators and collectors to connect and network. In as much as Mitow and Miille set out to create a fair which would be “fun and approachable,” they more than succeeded. Superfine! was one of the most intimate fair settings I have ever experienced and I mean this as a compliment. This is also the fair’s first iteration in DC and, in all fairness to the organizers, taking a risk on an emerging art market takes a lot of guts. For those who enjoyed the fair, good news—Superfine! is scheduled to return in early November 2019, to Dock 5 (same time, same place).  As many in the region sat on the fence about participating in the first edition of the fair opting for a “wait and see” approach, it will be interesting to see whom from the DC area will exhibit next year.  It will be equally interesting to see what national and international artists Mitow and Miille can attract for the second edition of Superfine! DC.

For more information about Superfine! the Fair visit their website at superfine.world