You don't go to an art fair for your standard contemplative art experience. Last weekend's Armory Show, the world's biggest roundup of dealers in contemporary art, filled two huge Manhattan piers with a circus of buyers, sellers and gawkers, along with the mess of artworks that had attracted more than 23,000 viewers to the fair. This wasn't an occasion to admire old favorites, or even to savor new finds in depth: The show's 174 dealers put up booths that were too crude and crowded to promote sensory pleasure.
For those of us who aren't millionaire collectors out on a shopping spree -- there are more of them out there than you'd imagine -- art fairs are mostly opportunities to talent scout. Among the thousands of works on show, there's a chance that you'll spot something not seen on your normal rounds. New artists and novel works are registered for future reference, in the hope that they'll someday turn up in some more flattering setting. Christoph Draeger: One 9/11 image of the fallen World Trade Center has become almost iconic: It shows the ash-covered pile from the week after, and the jets of water trained on it to keep down dust and put out smoldering fires. Draeger, a Swiss artist based in New York and represented by Brooklyn's Roebling Hall, has had that image die-cut as a wall-size jigsaw puzzle. It evokes both how easily things can fall apart and our vain wish to get them back to how they were.Glenn Kaino: From the Project Gallery in Harlem comes a new work called "Siege Perilous," by Kaino, a young Los Angeles artist. A standard Aeron chair, famous as the high-tech high end of ergonomic office seating, sits on a white plinth inside a plexiglass box. Get too close, and the entire chair begins to spin like mad, until it becomes a blurry shadow of its solid self. Every bit of its original asymmetry is ironed out as its high-speed pirouette turns it into an almost abstract sculptural form. In Arthurian romance, the Siege Perilous was a kind of magical ejector seat that would suffer only Galahad-pure knights to sit in it. Imagine Kaino's piece as a kind of modern, boardroom update of that chair. As Kaino has pointed out, there's even a hint of Holy Grail in the shape the Aeron takes when it has nearly reached escape velocity -- or maybe that's a martini glass we see in it.Sean Duffy: Susanne Vielmetter, one of L.A.'s most interesting dealers, presented recent works by Angeleno artist Duffy. With immaculate, almost preposterous care, he's cobbled together three vintage turntables so they become a single record player. Three tonearms and needles; one spinning disk and spindle shared among them. Put on a vinyl single and lower the three arms, and you get a kind of instant polyphony. (This artwork played the weirdest version of the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" that I have ever heard.) Put on a long-playing record with many different tracks and you can get a kind of instant remix of the album's songs -- like Thievery Corporation crossbred with John Cage.Liz Craft: Marianne Boesky's prestigious New York gallery has a good track record of grabbing artists on their way up. The back wall of Boesky's Armory booth featured Craft, a 32-year-old sculptor from L.A. Taking the kind of standard astrological figures you'd find on a charm bracelet -- a lion's head for Leo, Libra's scales, the ram of Aries -- Craft has blown them up into impressive rhinestone-studded bronzes, a foot or so tall and ready to hang on any collector's wall. The most trivial of dime store trinkets have been given all the artistic weight of precious Renaissance figurines -- but with absolutely no attempt to make them any more beautiful than they started out. Or maybe they are just that goofy West Coast greeting "What's your sign?" translated into New York art world terms.Kirsten Geisler: Geisler is a German artist born in Berlin in 1949 but long based in the Netherlands. At the Armory Show, Berlin dealer Thomas Schulte was showing a piece of hers called "Dream of Beauty 3.1." Using the latest modeling and animation software, Geisler has built the ideal virtual woman -- or maybe she's the virtually ideal woman -- as per Paris catwalks circa 2003. With the help of a plastic surgeon, Geisler carved away at her figure's algorithms until they reflected our fashion ideal: a woman impossibly long-legged, slim-waisted, pert-breasted and empty-eyed. She's shown nude and without shoes, but walks on permanent tiptoe because the ideal body has come to need the posture of high heels. Geisler's animated figure, rendered with your standard futuristic silver sheen, struts toward us on the monitor like a model showing off the latest clothes. Every portion of its surface moves and flutters just as it would in life. Except that in this case, of course, the fabric that's on show is flesh. But then, were things so different when Rubens painted his full-figured ideal beauties, or Parmigianino gave us women with the necks of swans?