Of all the hurdles to get there- scrutinous press registration, despotic bouncers, strict dress codes, and a transit system that makes Baltimore look like Tokyo- escaping the airport is always the most frustrating. Labyrinthine warrens of moving sidewalks lead to shuttles to trains to buses. The terminal is packed with departing locals openly agape at the spectacle of arrivals' pale faces, dark clothes, and colorful hair. Every December, the art world decamps frigid Berlin, New York, London, and even- increasingly- Baltimore. Its denizens have arrived at MIA, but won't arrive in Miami until they navigate the hermetically-sealed airport. At every window, stubborn Florida sunshine battles the ubiquitous air conditioning, teasing arrivals with the promise of warmth outside. Slowly the heiress from Moscow sheds her fur coat. The artist from London fondles the keys to an ostentatious car (rented for ironic effect) with a bemused grin. The least glamorous of us make our way to the far-off airport bus.
It's Wednesday, Dec. 4th, the middle of Art Week Miami- the annual orgy of art fairs, public sculptures, museum galas, and, of course, parties- anchored by Art Basel Miami Beach, that temporarily turns South Florida into the capital of the art world. There's not much I can say about Art Basel that hasn't been said before, so I'll skip a cut-and-paste press release (or moralizing about gross commercialism or defending the spectacle on account of the quality of the art or giving advice about how to party crash and drink for free or where to see a Kardashian pretend to care about conceptual art or whatever) and just relay one of my favorite popular rumors: members of the 1 percent have to reserve private jet parking at Miami International Airport months in advance because it fills up for Basel every year. I just can't bring myself to fact-check this statement because, honestly, I'll be just as disappointed if it's not true as disgusted by the likelihood that it probably is.
Every year satellite fairs come and go, but Aqua (1530 Collins Avenue) is consistently one of my favorites. The event takes over a classic South Beach motel; every room becomes an exhibition space for smaller galleries that can't afford the hefty fees at the blue-chip fairs. This year, I was looking forward to see Baltimorean Lisa Dillin's work shown by DC's Hamiltonian Gallery. On the walk over, I thought of her installations at the Baltimore Museum of Art and how well her subversions of corporate architecture would work in the blandscapes of the larger convention center or event tent art fairs. When I saw her work at Aqua, I was pleasantly surprised at how differently it functioned.
Aqua is a context that's so charming and idiosyncratic, but one that curators rarely take advantage of dialoging with. Dillin's work- including a mirror that casts reflections evocative of sunlight coming through blinds, artificial plants, and a framed cut-out that seems to reference a window- work so well in the setting of a motel room it's uncanny. The space, which could be described as "vernacular modernism", is a simulacra of the domestic, open to a courtyard of carefully-pruned "nature". It's a curatorial marriage made in heaven... a rarity at an art fair, where the dominant strategy is to ignore (or attempt to drown out) context.
After the Aqua opening, I skipped around to a handful of parties before meeting up with some local Miami friends at the Bass Museum (2100 Collins Ave) annual Art Week party. Last year, one of them snuck me in through the alley because I didn't have a ticket. It took me over 30 minutes to realize that we were at a museum and not a nightclub. (I thought we were going to something called "Bass" as in "Ace of Bass" but it's actually "Bass" as in "Lance Bass"). This year, the lines for the open bar felt like a Walmart parking lot on Black Friday. After being shoved and elbowed by women who most certainly looked like they could afford to pay for a drink, it was a welcome change of pace to leave the crowded party and retreat to the museum's (strangely empty) galleries. I loved this series of graphite drawings on black gauche by Spanish-born, Miami-raised Manny Prieres.
Prieres carefully hand-renders the first-edition covers of books that have been banned from libraries. The series "It was a Pleasure to Burn" is refreshingly understated but says so much. I always respect work that breaks the conventions of Basel week; these drawings are introspective and quiet rather than flashy and loud... and they're exceedingly difficult to photograph (a cardinal sin for such a media feeding frenzy).
I briefly spoke to Prieres, who described his process as "a ritualistic emulation of the printing press." He usually produces an edition of 5 drawings, allowing his hand to occasionally waver; "I'm only human."
By this time in the night, I was cursing the liquor sponsors. In the past, champagne was the de-facto open bar drink. This year, every event seems to have a different "special cocktail" that usually involves a new flavored liquor and high fructose corn syrup. After going to a handful of parties, everything tastes like you've been drinking cheap white wine with a mouth full of Jolly Ranchers. I decided to head to bed early before my train of thought switched entirely from "I love this, what is the name of the artist? I'd love to see more of his work" to "I hate this. What is the name of this Elderberry-infused gin? I want to know so I never get it again."
"How is it even possible that it's only Basel Thursday and I already have a Basel Sunday hangover?"
By the time I made it to the preview brunch for Pulse (one of the bigger and better satellite fairs on the mainland) the only fluids available were $5 miniature bottles of Perrier. I hated art and I wanted to die.
This cheered me up:
It's the trailer Breanne Trammell has been traveling the country in, giving people manicures since 2012. Nails Across America attempts to bring diverse audiences into an intimate space for contact and conversation with the artist through an interaction that's universally appealing and accessible. It's a great idea, but as I walked away my smile faded, remembering that I was in a private, gated event where Bank of America had reserved a super-VIP area of an already VIP brunch for an exclusive cocktail party. I wonder how differently this trailer would function parked just outside the gates, where the fair's valet parking pick-up (almost) exists in contact with the outside world (Pulse is held in the Ice Palace, a colossal warehouse located a stone's throw from Overtown, one of Miami's poorest and predominantly African American neighborhoods).
In general, Pulse is one of my favorite fairs and functions like a great snapshot of trends in contemporary art. I have to admit, I had a really hard time looking at digital work and high-definition photography... my tired eyes longed for something with less sharp edges and a less saturated palette. Thankfully, there's a trend of photography and painting that looks back on the modernist built environment with soft focus and muted colors. Of all the booths showing painterly landscapes of Corbusier-esque high rises, pencil sketches of brutalist plazas, and soft-focus photos of Case Study Houses, I loved Hosfelt Gallery's the most.
This is Grand Ensemble 1 by Algerian artist Driss Ouadahi. It's a gorgeous surface up close... I could lose myself in Ouadahi's brushstrokes for hours. From a distance, the grid and cool blues reminded me of Miami Beach's turquoise beaches and mid-century modern hotels. I think most people have a more sinister association with the modernist landscape. Maybe I just really wanted to go to the beach that day.
Galeria NF from Madrid had by far the most impressive and cohesively-curated booth. Much of the work seemed to subvert the cliche of the landscape painting as a popular art commodity and staple of the art fair circuit. Military Landscape 23 by Mateo Mate is a silkscreened pastoral romantic image composed of different armies' uniform camouflage. Mate also produced a series of photographs of rumpled beds overlaid with topographical lines, implying an attempt to chart personal space or produce an atlas of the impressions a night of intimacy makes in physical space.
On the topic of landscapes, Miami is fucking huge. It's a sprawling, insane metropolis of freeways and bridges and skyscrapers next to vacant lots and strip malls next to art museums and it makes no sense. Half of the fairs are on Miami Beach, a barrier island, and half are on the mainland. This means that you will spend at least a quarter of your Basel week sitting in a traffic jam of limousines and taxis as hundreds of thousands of people attempt to funnel back and forth across a handful of traffic lanes on three causeways.
By the time Deana Haggag (director of Baltimore's Contemporary Museum) and I made it back to the island, we barely had time to change before turning around and fjording Biscayne Bay once more to check out the opening of the Herzog and De Meuron-designed Peréz Art Museum Miami (PAMM). It's a gorgeous building; perched on the bay, framed by the skyline, and so very brand new.
We were disappointed to find out the museum was opening with the same Ai Wei Wei show we had already seen at the Hirschorn in DC last year:
(Deana, I am so sorry... but I had too)
While the Wei Wei show proved to be way-more selfie-conducive in Miami than DC (I am kicking myself for not getting video of wealthy women posing in front of Wei Wei's lists of the names of dead school children like they were a red carpet backdrop) I was so impressed by the museum's architecture and other work on display. I desperately wanted to get closer to a wall of photos by Ana Mendieta (the tragically short-lived Cuban-American pioneer of feminist/conceptual/performance work) but it was mostly obscured by a line of people who barely seemed to notice the small photos. The contrast of Wei Wei's work- where simple, performative gestures are documented and presented at a scale that feels monumental- with Mendieta's was striking. The scale of her work made me want badly to be close enough to the images to see them; forcing my body into an awareness of its relationship with her already visceral and intimate imagery.
Outside, multi-media artists LOS JAICHACKERS entertained the crowd with a dance party and video projections.
For me, however, the museum itself stole the show. It's a great piece of architecture that really speaks to Miami. The institution might have a spotty history of selling naming rights and controversial public subsidies, but the architecture is clean, honest, and "raw" while still feeling expensive and luxurious. Looking up, one sees tropical plants hanging from the roof. Looking down, one sees the parking garage the museum sits unapologetically perched atop. It's the Miami equivalent of the Parthenon on the Acropolis. Click here to see Art Basel Wrap Up, Part Two.
Read Art Basel: Part Two here.