What is great art and how to find it?

Comedian by Maurizio Cattelan

Comedian by Maurizio Cattelan - Credit: Archant

With the fourth edition of Fresh: Art Fair approaching, co-founder Anthony Wardle suggests how to spot great art that has yet to find greatness

IKB79 by Yves Klein

IKB79 by Yves Klein - Credit: Archant

First, what is great art?

Is it what the critics and patrons tell us? Is it what billionaires seem happy to pay squillions for? Or is it what ordinary art lovers admire and are transfixed by in sufficient numbers to warrant the label of greatness. I have a theory that, at the rarified levels of the art world, artists and their publicists actively seek ways to challenge our perception of greatness, increasingly testing what they can get away with and sometimes sadly crossing the boundaries of absurdity.

The most recent case (illustrated) was the appropriately titled Comedian by Maurizio Catellan that was sold last year at Art Basel in Miami for $120,000. It is simply a banana fixed to the wall with duct tape. The banana is real and will inevitably rot so the owner is permitted to replace both fruit and tape without diminishing the value of the work.

So, is the art just the idea and not the execution? And if so, is it a great idea or is it an idea that anyone could have? I understand the concept of conceptual art (Tracey Emin's famous 'unmade bed' tells a story and makes us think) but is the banana stretching credibility? Does it speak to us (or is it quietly laughing)? Is it in fact a great publicity stunt and not art at all? I guess fellow artist David Datuna thought so. He ate the banana and captured the act on video, describing it as 'a work of performance art' and titled the video "Hungry Artist".

Echoes of Summer by Peter Wileman PPROIRSMA FRSA. Lime Tree Gallery, Bristol

Echoes of Summer by Peter Wileman PPROIRSMA FRSA. Lime Tree Gallery, Bristol - Credit: Archant

The banana is not alone. Think Martin Creed's 2001 Turner Prize winner called The Lights Go On and Off. It was an empty room where the lights went on and off every 5 seconds …that's it. It was described by the judges as "audacious" …too right! It was bought by the Tate Gallery and subsequently valued at £110,000. The critics were split, the public actually threw eggs at it.

Not all weird and notionally wonderful works are installations or indeed recent. Also in the Tate Gallery and painted in 1959 is IKB79 by Yves Klein. In his lifetime (which at 34 years was short) he painted 194 blue monochrome works …it was all he did. He used a roller so no brush strokes, just flat blue, like a bit of someone's dining room wall. On one occasion he exhibited eleven ostensibly identical paintings at different prices …all sold. In fairness, the type of paint and materials he used varied, but the outcome to the untrained eye was exactly the same.

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My point is that there is a lot of 'great art' out there that, in my view (and I'm not alone), has a very dubious claim to greatness. Against that, there is an enormous amount of great art out there that has achieved not a glimmer of greatness possibly through a shortage of audacity, humour or shock value, but more likely for lack of a great publicist or patron.

Lost in Translation by Iryna Yermolova. Paragon Gallery, Cheltenham

Lost in Translation by Iryna Yermolova. Paragon Gallery, Cheltenham - Credit: Archant

So the hunt is on

At Fresh: Art Fair in April you can visit 52 galleries from all over the UK and beyond, in one convenient place. You can see 6,000 works of art in a couple of happy hours with a glass of wine in your hand …nearly 600 artists including exciting new talent, award-winning professionals, Royal Academicians and even some of the big beasts of the art world. Hirst, Emin, Banksy, Blake and McLean will all be on show and surprisingly within your budget.

Among all this will be some genuinely great art, but how do you spot it? In my view you should look for original ideas, subjects, styles or media. You should look for particular skills in drawing or use of colour, in brushwork or in sculpting. Look for work that has a different take on something commonplace. Look for work that captures the imagination, that makes you think, that evokes memories, that triggers emotion. Any or all of these can make great art.

High Falls by Rod Nelson. Paragon Gallery, Cheltenham

High Falls by Rod Nelson. Paragon Gallery, Cheltenham - Credit: Archant

And you don't have to spend $120,000 (or a lifetime buying bananas). There are some truly fantastic original prints, paintings and sculptures to be found at Fresh: from a few hundred pounds to a few thousand.

Look for woodblock artist Rod Nelson exhibiting at Fresh: with The Paragon Gallery, Cheltenham. He was selected by the Royal Academy for their 2018 and 2019 Summer Shows and sold out an entire edition of 50 prints, each for hundreds not thousands of pounds.

Ukrainian artist Iryna Yermolova also with Paragon Gallery, has been selected by the Royal Institute of Oil Painters each year for 6 years to hang in The Mall Galleries. Her work is subtle yet vibrantly colourful with a wonderful eye for line and form and, while rising steadily in price, is still well within reach.

And Peter Wileman PPROI RSMA FRSA, showing at Fresh: with Lime Tree Gallery, Bristol, is widely celebrated for his bold use of colour and paint in varying levels of abstraction. He is a Past President of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

EARLY BIRD OFFER: Get 50% off your tickets

Fresh: Art Fair will be in The Centaur building at Cheltenham Racecourse from April 24 to 26 with a Private View from 5.30 pm on Thursday, April 23.

Visit: freshartfair.net

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