The fourth instalment of the abc art berlin contemporary opened on Wednesday night at Station-Berlin. The show is abc’s most expansive to date, filling the large halls of the old railway station to the brim with artworks by 130 artists, represented by 125 galleries. The show feels mostly like a large-scale museum show, though it will run for just 4 days, and is essentially, its own distinct take on the art fair. Given the demise of Art Forum earlier in the year, many have assumed that abc will take some of its ‘symbolic’ responsibilities. But although this year is larger in scope, it is also perhaps the least ‘fair’ like.
“About Painting” is this years catchall theme. In conversation with Gallerist Alexander Schröder, Kirsty Bell suggested that “fewer than half of the artists on the list are making painting in any kind of traditional sense.” Instead, the theme functions as a lense through which to view the works on display. They traverse installation, video, photography, sculpture, while covering the full spectrum of wall-mounted works and, well, painting. Where painting is not the medium it’s the message (or it becomes the message, displayed in this context).
Reflexivity is the name of the game in a show like this. For painters, the long and central history of their medium is both a blessing and a burden. For non-painters this history is also ever-present, but can be like an elephant in the room, should it be dealt with or left well alone? Included in the show, are many artists who deal with painting directly as subject matter. Jitka Hanzlová’s photographs are new visions of old masters. She selects people to sit for portraits almost by the criteria of a Renaissance painter. The intense gaze of her subjects is one essentially ‘invented’ by painting, but made no less enigmatic through ‘capturing’ on camera. The painter Johannes Kahrs, does almost the reverse of this – rendering portraits he finds on the Internet in oil on canvas, exploiting the weighty history of painting to elevate the overlooked and mundane. Meanwhile, painter Almut Heise contends with the whole history of the museum, the spectator and the gaze in his surreal compositions, where nude models and museum statues seem to stare back defiantly.
As some artists / painters look outward, many others look inward. As you might imagine, well represented are those artists who take on the material and formal concerns of painting. André Thomkins Lackskins (1961-64) are displayed alongside a video documenting his process of dipping and marbling his canvases in pools of paint on water. Minimalist works by Daniel Buren and Tony Matelli both make use of mirrors – turning the picture plane into a distorted reflection of the space around. Indexical works, such as by Pablo Rasgado, turn the walls of the space into a literal material. The contemporary Polish artist Michał Budny creates delicate minimal works that make use of everyday materials. His abc work was a barely perceptible square layer of adhesive tape applied directly to the wall. The tacky sheen of the tape perhaps the perfect counter-weight in an otherwise formal approach.
Although already in its fourth year, abc continues to be something of an anomaly in the art landscape. Not quite an art fair, not quite a curated exhibition – people continue to either laud its originality or question its ambiguity. But, coming from the perspective of an art consumer (and not an art buyer) it felt completely familiar, fitting easily into the mega-exhibition format that so pervades the art-world. In general, art fairs are no longer pure extensions of the art market. Boris Groys writes, they are “now increasingly transformed into public events, attracting people with little interest in, or finances for, buying art.” Does abc simply go the furthest in accepting this reality? But I can’t pretend to know much about how this arrangement works in practical terms. The meandering structure created by architect Jens Ulmer dispenses with traditional ‘booth’ formats, while still delineating between galleries who have been left to install their own spaces. The result is a space that mostly feels like one large exhibition, until, well it doesn’t.
The impression I was left with (concerning both theme and format) was that of a restrained spectacle. “About Painting” is undoubtedly a full-blown spectacle (so much art, so little time!), but in theming the show around painting, it also deals with restraint. Painting remains exciting precisely because it seems restricted, at once an incredibly self-contained and self-reflexive world, yet one that continues to reflect and interpret the outside.
 Kirsty Bell, “The Good, The Bad and The Impossible: Perspectives on Painting in an Open Field, Kirsty Bell in conversation with Alexander Schröder”, in abc art berlin contemporary catalogue, Mousse Publishing, Italy, 2011, p. 23.
 Boris Groys, “Art and Money”, in E-flux, journal number 24, April 2011.