Art Review: What It Is at Fountain

Fountain logo Yesterday I attended Fountain art fair in New York City, a part of Art Week there. Although I arrived under a heavy rain, completely soaked through, I was surprised to see a handful of other intrepid art-goers already there at opening time. Fountain (the name is an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s ground-breaking entry in the 1917 Armory Show, a porcelain urinal entitled “fountain” turned on its side and signed “R. Mutt”, now housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the ultra-glam and glitzy “official” Armory Show, full of blue-chip galleries, avant-garde hair, and bizarre fashions. Fountain has a DIY aesthetic (which is not to say unprofessional), with some of the artwork being finished at the show. Around 20 artists and galleries participated. In addition, there were daily live performances. Like Duchamp’s “fountain”, the show gave a middle-finger salute to the art establishment, while at the same time engaging in serious art-making and art-dealing.

The venue for the exhibits was on The Frying Pan, a rusty old barge (pier 66, at 26th street and 12th avenue) that groaned and swayed gently under your feet. At times I wasn’t sure if it was the artwork or the barge making me queasy. The normally open-air top deck had been set up with walls and tented with plastic tarpaulins to keep most of the rain out, although viewers had to side-step buckets and drips everywhere, and several of the more fragile paintings and sculptures were damaged by the deluge.

Most of the exhibitors were from New York, but What It Is is a gallery based in the suburban-Chicago home of its proprietors, Tom Burtonwood and Holly Holmes. Their booth got more of the water damage than anyone else, but I spoke to Mr. Burtonwood while his assistants performed the Sisyphean task of dumping water collecting in the tarps overhead.

Just because the gallery is located in part of their home, don’t think that Burtonwood + Holmes aren’t serious about it. For the past two years, they’ve had cutting-edge installations (open to the public at opening receptions, by appointment only thereafter) and regularly issue catalogs and other publications documenting the exhibits. Their booth at Fountain showed works by Sabina Ott, Andrew Rigsby, Lise Haller Baggesen, Stoic Swine, and Tom Burtonwood. (Much better images of the artwork can be found here.)


Composition 6.1.1 (detail) by Tom Burtonwood

Composition 6.1.1 (detail) by Tom Burtonwood

Burtonwood’s gouache paintings of polychrome geometric (and isometric) shapes are reminiscent of video games (Tetris, The Sims) and architectural renderings, but the angles are off by just a few degrees which eliminates any real sense of perspective and 3-dimensionality; the effect when seen in person is slightly unsettling, yet so subtle that many viewers may not notice.


Composition, by Tom Burtonwood. Gouache on paper.

Composition, by Tom Burtonwood. Gouache on paper. Please excuse the reflection.

His series of color studies all use the same arrangement of geometric figures (silkscreened onto the paper in different line colors) yet by changing the colors on the face of each cube-like piece yields completely different effects, with some pieces seeming to recede in certain compositions, and protruding in others. Also, I’ve seen many digital images of these paintings before which I now know don’t do them justice. Seeing them in person for the first time at Fountain, I was immediately taken in by the velvety surface quality of the gouache, and the visible brushstrokes and undertones in each of the shapes. There is something completely charming about the “mistakes” introduced through human error (like the missing piece on the right side of each of the composition color studies) in Burtonwood’s work. Work like this could easily be created on a computer using common drawing and painting programs like Photoshop™, but it would have none of the vitality that this artist has given it.

Fountain Art Fair ran at Pier 66 on The Frying Pan, at 26th Street and 12th Avenue in the Hudson River Park from March 4 – 6, 2011. What It Is is located in Oak Park, Illinois.