Tucked away in a soulless building in Islington’s Upper Street is the unexceptionally named Business Design Centre – home to the 21st London Art Fair. Look on it as the Ideal Home Show for the art world. Not as slick or suave as Frieze, nor as flea market as the Affordable Art Fair. Of all the art fairs that vie for Londoners’ attention, this one is an unashamed melting pot of 112 galleries from Europe and the UK showing (okay, selling) 20th and 21st century art from the likes of Marc Chagall and LS Lowry to Banksy’s Bristol nemesis, Nick Walker.
The work ranges from £20 “high-quality, editioned video art” to a Henry Moore for a cool one million pounds – although when you start talking figures that sound like mortgages, the ticket on the label always reads “price on application”. Jonathan Burton, London Art Fair’s director, insists that the art market is still relevant despite a looming recession. He takes the phrase “art fair” quite literally. “Art is not for a wealthy elite. The reason we have such a mix of galleries, styles and projects is to prove you don’t have to spend a fortune to own something unique,” he says. He also suggests that a downturn could be the best time to start collecting: “Galleries are more flexible with price, something they wouldn’t have been a year ago.” The heaviness of economic uncertainty seems to waft away as the serious collectors stream in for the buyers’ preview – an art world convention or condescension depending on which end of the black you’re in. The conversation drifts from “hmm” to bandying numbers while omitting the words “thousand” or “million”. Polite nodding-a-plenty coupled with saccharine smiles and power-handshakes.
But what of the art? Modern masters and the contemporary canon. Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Sir Peter Blake for the former. Gavin Turk, Jeremy Deller, Rob and Nick Carter for the latter. Art that appeals to buyers who work for banks. Of this, Burton is unashamed: “City buyers are very important to us. They’re our best repeat customers.” The art school idea of using creativity to challenge and reflect the world you experience goes straight out the window here. That is, until you ascend a few staircases, meander through a few corridors and ascend a final set of stairs to Gerry Judah’s work.
Gerry’s work stabs you. Destroyed cityscapes turned on their side on paper and canvas – meticulously modelled down to inner stairwells and water-tanks. A passing electrician commented “It’s Gaza, innit?” Or anywhere wrecked by man or nature. Despite the obvious sculptural effect that harks to his Hollywood set design days, Judah calls these paintings. “They’re directly influenced by war zones from the Middle East to eastern Europe. I’m Jewish and my family comes from Baghdad. I set out to address a feeling, not an issue – I don’t like leading people by the nose. It’s political with a small ‘p’.” Your eye, your body, your mind – all wander through the monochrome of Judah’s deliberate dystopia. Repulsed at the grotesque yet magnetized by the beauty of detail. After spending the best part of two hours despairing that the word ‘art’ had gathered the unwelcome suffix ‘market’, seeing the fragile power of Judah’s work renewed a sense that art exists beyond art’s sake.