the most curious booths at the NADA art fair

Monsters, drag artist alter egos, and Queer Thoughts at NADA.

by Dean Kissick
15 May 2015, 2:37pm

Inside a place called Basketball City, a large indoor complex of basketball courts, yesterday's opening of young art fair NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance) in New York offers an alternative to the all-consuming behemoth of Frieze. Here a collective of smaller galleries, and some alternative galleries and artist-run spaces, show their favorite artists; many of whom you might not have heard of. The fair is free to visit, and if you are looking for something a little different, well how about…

Vaginal Davis, Rod Bianco, Oslo
This gallery stand, the strangest gallery stand in all Basketball City, is completely walled-in and can only be accessed through two tiny doorways that you must stoop to pass through. It suggests that we are entering a secret space, and also that we are all on our knees, literally and figuratively. (The artist, apparently, is very, very tall herself, too tall for many doorways.)

According to the gallerist at Rod Bianco - a Norwegian space opened by artist Bjarne Melgaard to host uncompromising exhibitions - I have now entered "a little temple to concubines and male escorts," and indeed their images are plastered across the walls. Also on display are portraits of famous historical mistresses painted in make-up, and erect effigies of male escorts sculpted in cosmetics and clay. All is glittering gold, lipstick pink, shit-and-piss yellows, as if this temple is constructed out of bodily fluids.

So this is a research assignment into how the stars of the silver screen, of the golden age of Hollywood were often also secretly rent boys, and its surprising conclusion is that this is a cause for joy and pleasure. Vaginal Davis is a drag queen, a black punk from Los Angeles who now lives in Berlin, and her artwork enjoys, really relishes its flirtation with the sex trade. Of course it is highly unexpected in the midst of all the sales and schmooze of an art fair - the comparing of dinner invitations from collectors, the chinking of glasses - to follow a little doorway through to a glamorous celebration of male prostitution, but it is a lot of fun too.

"Hop along with me," Vaginal writes on hotel paper, over scrawled crayon drawings of penises, "and take a peek into the world of the sacred temple prostitute, the high holy retarded whore, the courtesan, the hustler, and the Stricher. You wind up paying for sex one way or another. I don't care if you're leasing or renting or if you put it on layaway..."

David Rappeneau, Queer Thoughts, New York
Here are some paintings - in acrylic, ballpoint pen, charcoal pencil and pencil - of hard, highly contorted girls with braided hair in tower blocks, captured in unusual perspectives. They smoke cigarettes on a balcony, they roll joints, and they sit on bedroom floors by tossed condoms and crumpled tissues under ornate silhouettes of the outside world.

Perhaps there is nothing much conceptual to say about this work. It looks like comics, like illustrations, more than it does art. But it is drawn rather beautifully, using traditional techniques to picture a world so contemporary, so enticing, that you want to step inside the frame and hang out in its world. Everything is louche, and like the Vaginal temple there is a light seediness spread over these works.

Queer Thoughts, it so happens, is a space run by two artists Sam Lipp and Luis Miguel Bendaña that are currently in the process of relocating from Chicago to New York. They tell me that it is not a space only for queer artists, that they are happy to work with anyone of course; and also that they are hoping to help expand the word "queer," to transcend sexuality and embrace the peculiar. So this is not your average gallery, clearly, and it is all the more interesting for that.

Jonathan Baldock, Vitrine, London
At the very end of the fair is a monstrous fellow, a giant, quilted head with a long, lolling tongue that threatens to gobble up the art fair whole and everybody wandering around it. His face is suspended in the air by a large wooden frame. His eye sockets are empty, casting shadows under the lights. His eyes are stuck to the back wall in order that his gaze follows you around the room as you walk past, like a haunted portrait in a horror film. Pleadingly his long arms reach out at you from the gallery stand, offering knitted brown nuggets of his own shit.

This is Pa Ubu. He is the centerpiece of a theatrical installation that takes its inspiration from Alfred Jarry's absurdist play Ubu Roi, about a mad and bloodthirsty king. It is a grotesque, monstrous tale of greed and gluttony installed none-too-subtly in an art fair, one likely full of searching eyes and grasping hands. Of course it is on sale too.

But also it is a rather pagan artwork decorated with strange mystic objects like ceramic bones and medallions. Disembodied forms are everywhere, such as spare eyeballs made of wool or a tongue with a face of its own. What's really exciting about this sculpture is how it takes the ancient forms of idols, of magical objects, and combines them on an epic scale with the new vocabulary of smileys and cartoons. It takes words and turns them into visuals, which is very much what is happening to language today. And really if there was an emoji to summarize the feeling of an art fair, well it would probably look exactly like Pa Ubu.

Jasper Spicero, Grand Century, New York
Lastly, in a tiny, cupboard-sized space, young American artist Jasper Spicero has installed a sculpture of shoelaces and twisted wires somewhat like a spider's web, in which has been entrapped a 3D-printed abstraction of a head, and also a piece of fabric crying two embroidered tears. Below plays a video of a deserted prison from who knows where. This is weird art, very mysterious. Quiet, dense, and very obviously unsuited to the art fair format.

He is exploring the Wapato Jail outside of Portland, Oregon, a $58 million incarceration project which was abandoned before its opening because the authorities realized they could not afford its upkeep. Most of the time it is completely empty, save for the guards that keep people out. Sometimes it is rented out as a set for movies and TV shows, and somehow Jasper was able to rent himself a whole prison of his own for a few days, for only a couple thousand dollars I think. Apparently there were other people's scripts everywhere. 

For this footage he shot a few of his high school friends dressed down as janitors, looking after the forgotten spaces. Jasper has written a fascinating script and eventually he is going to film a detective story that unfolds just outside the prison walls. Also he explains that the head caught in his sculpture loosely represents a smoking detective with its sucked-in cheeks; and also, a flower. So this is a complicated project - it feels like a terrifying video game as much as it does art - but one crying out for farther exploration. If you're looking for more clues, visit


Text and photography Dean Kissick

Vaginal Davis
Dean Kissick
David Rappeneau
Queer Thoughts
jasper spicero
jonathan baldock
rod bianco