The ever-eccentric Spring Break art fair has, for the past 11 years, invited artists and curators to reflect on a general topic or idea. Mixing things up for its 2023 edition, the fair announced this year’s theme simply as “Wild Card,” instead asking participants to choose one of its previous themes to pay homage to or poke fun at, though ideally both at the same time. And in an age of far-right mobilization and fascist myth-making, what better embodiment of a wild card than a half-lizard ceramic bust donning a Ramones t-shirt?
Pointing at the lizard-man sculpture during the fair preview on Wednesday, artist Dasha Bazanova explained, “The base came first, and then I got so excited about the lizard head and this beautiful creature came out.”
Bazanova was one of just a few artists I spoke with whose works matched up with Spring Break’s unconventional guidelines this year; her fever dream of a presentation, Witch Hunt for Bigfoot, neatly fit into the popular “Fact and Fiction” theme from 2019. The show heavily promoted this year’s concept and even teased it in a so-called “surprise” salon-style show in May. It seemed like a chance for the fair to reverse its receding tide and come rushing back in full force.
Far from the clever self-lampooning we were promised, mixed results unfolded across the fair’s two floors at 625 Madison Avenue — where the air conditioning was reportedly cut during opening night in the middle of 90-plus-degree weather. A parade of kitschy and two-dimensional works on the 10th floor almost made me yearn for Jen Catron and Paul Outlaw’s giant slicing ham sculpture, whose scale alone brought energy to the 2021 iteration.
I stumbled upon an answer in the work of Saul Acevedo Gomez, based in Denver and originally from Mexico. His beguiling presentation began with a game of three card decks: “Light,” “Dark,” and “Wild.” A corresponding board-game track ran across the booth floor, charting a path through the artist’s newest works, logged under the 2013 “New Mysticism” theme. Scribbles and notes to self dotted each meticulous colored pencil drawing’s margins. One canvas resembled a mouth with bloodied teeth jutting from its wooden frame, while others had been stitched up with a latticework of threads. Acevedo Gomez said that he hoped to evoke spirit worlds and center what is often overlooked by making the back of the painting his canvas, staples and all.
“It’s a way of giving an independence to the work,” he told me. “The works don’t need you, the viewer, in order to exist.” A strangely comforting thought to keep in mind throughout the rest of the fair.
I came across the best example of a true “wild card” via a substantial dust bunny that Hyperallergic Senior Editor Hakim Bishara and I jokingly regarded as a standout work of art. Instead, we discovered it was an incidental element in an installation titled Fuck Stories, hidden in plain sight among two rows of seemingly abandoned cubicles. A bright red landline phone sat on each desk next to a post-it note instructing visitors to “pick up the phone.” Artist Patrick Bayly, bleary-eyed and dressed in a baggy suit, shuffled over to echo its request. I answered the phone to a robotic voice narrating a whirlwind hook-up story, which involved an encounter in an empty house and a tick-infested wild turkey attack.
Out of all the recordings called in by anonymous New Yorkers, artist Seth Cerrate said that this one was among his favorites. He explained that he and Bayly are part of the new collective Yea Man Spa Global that came together just three weeks ago to organize Fuck Stories. “They sent us a photo of this space and we were like, empty cubicles? Okay, so a call center!” Cerrate told me. The artists began by pasting flyers in Lower Manhattan soliciting “stories of sexual dalliance,” urging people to “call us to spill it all.”
“We put up these posters … and got people calling in every day,” Cerrate said, adding that they anonymize the voicemails using AI text-to-speech features. He noted that they’re still accepting submissions at (646) 572-6998, so if you have a juicy tale to get off your chest, give them a ring.
Others took the fair as an opportunity to test out curatorial conceits, even if the “wild card” guideline remained a mere afterthought. Transformation Sequence brought together five East Asian femme artists inspired by the Japanese manga series Sailor Moon, mirrored in the slick chrome vinyl coating the floor. Artist and co-curator Jeannie Rhyu told me that the series immediately clicked into place for the participants, whose memories of growing up watching the show spurred works meditating on heritage, gender, and pop culture representation in the time of Barbie feminism.
Over at Best Cult, an altar to queer kinship offered a quiet respite from the rest of the fair’s commotion. “It’s the best cult, ‘cause it’s not a cult,” photographer Michelle Girardello quipped, nodding to the explicit subversion of religious themes throughout the booth. Artist Zac Thompson, who co-curated the presentation with Marianna Peragallo, explained that they “wanted to make our own queer utopia,” pointing to a queer holy trinity triptych and “holy water” pooling in a floral vessel next to the door. Inside, “Ghunt Altarpiece” (pronounced “Kuhnt”) encompassed photographs, paintings, and trans artist Jay Michelle Elizondo’s “I’m A Girl” (2023) compiling home videos from her childhood, all set against a purple velvet backdrop. At the center was Thompson’s photograph of a figure wearing a shirt that reads “Protect Trans Kids,” and a prayer bench invited visitors to kneel before the altar to watch Elizondo’s film. The moving space shone as a bright spot of the fair.
Across the two checkered floors, I also came across Jiwon Rhie’s delightful automated “flower dogs” hopping around, motorized fish in a fluorescent-green pond by Lauren Murao Walkiewicz, and ceramic fingers (a classic fair staple) lined up along either side of a chess board at the “estate sale” of Brian, a fictional character conjured up by artist Lauren Cohen.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an art fair without a few head-scratchers. It’s one thing to encounter half-baked works in the context of bigger fairs whose unabashed purpose is to make money and decorate living rooms. I’ve walked away from several of these fairs in the past couple of years wishing I could erase the lingering memory of a clip-art portrait of a white woman staring deadpan at the viewer, or a painting of what I can only assume was an aggressively Republican elephant overlaid with the American flag.
At Spring Break, I similarly encountered my fair share of obligatory tufted rugs, figurative paintings in which an inanimate plant replaces the human face, and social media-fishing at its finest. Still, the gathering of curators and artists eager to showcase their experimentation confirms that this imperfect fair, though sorely lacking much of its former spark, could continue to provide a niche for artists who work and orbit outside of the market-driven fair sphere. After all, where else could you witness a dust bunny turn into a work of art?