Although many dealers were expecting a good show of support from clients, few were taking chances with their displays. As David Mach, the sculptor, put it: 'The recession has made them bring out the good things.'
Minimalism and Conceptualism, and art giving new meaning to everyday objects, are out. Even the drains and coat-hangers used by Sir Anthony Caro, one of Britain's leading sculptors, in his latest work unveiled on the Annely Juda stand, are gently disguised beneath layers of pressed, rolled and folded, heavily textured Japanese paper.
Several visitors to the Business Design Centre in Islington, north London, yesterday noted that few dealers were prepared to risk a one-man show and that this was the time to be trying out a range of artists - something for everyone and anyone.
The overall quality is widely felt to be an improvement on last year, and there is no shortage of strong works. Benjamin Rhodes has striking silhouettes of figures in which Zadok Ben David plays with movement and balance; and the Francis Graham-Dixon Gallery has vibrant explorations of geometric form by Oleg Kudryashov, a former Soviet underground artist. William Jackson has faces made entirely of matchsticks by David Mach, at the William Jackson stand.
Buying began even before the official opening. Leslie Waddington, a leading dealer in modern and contemporary art, had first pick yesterday - with the benefit of a dealer's discount, he bought an pounds 8,000 sculpture by Mach, a toy-town Greek temple made entirely of Dinky toy car wheels and superglue, from the William Jackson Gallery. 'If my wife doesn't like it, it'll go into the gallery,' he said.
Several dealers complained of the high cost of taking a stand. Ian Barker, of Annely Juda, a newcomer to the fair this year, said that they would be paying pounds 10,000, including the costs of transport.
If previous fairs are anything to go by, Nicholas Treadwell's stand is set to be the biggest crowd-puller - though the most disturbing and brilliant sculptures both repel and attract.
Mirella Paganuzzi's Thou Shalt not Suffer Fools Gladly, Dog Food Company, a steel structure peopled by tiny, nude figures modelled in plastic, is a hell on earth straight out of Hieronymus Bosch's imagination.
Each of the figures is so grotesque - bodies so flabby and skin so blotchy, it makes onlookers feel rather good about their own bodies. For the artist, the figures represent an attack on society. The sculpture is priced at pounds 5,400.
On the same stand, Graham Ibbeson's Kissing Corner, 1992, a gruesome Quasimodo and Esmerelda in glass fibre, has been priced at pounds 8,000. Mr Treadwell said that it was the sort of work that would sell to 'oddball' individualists.
The four-day fair will end on Sunday.
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