"Fair Market Values, Art Basel Miami et al," Brooklyn Rail / by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

“Ladies and gentlemen, in approximately five minutes we will open the doors on Art Basel Miami Beach 2006.  On behalf of public safety we ask that you not charge the gates.  There is plenty of art for everyone.  We will be open until eight o’clock this evening, so everyone will have plenty of time to buy all the art they want.  VIP card-holders please pass through the gate on my left, all others through the gate on my right.  Once again there is plenty of art for everyone, do not charge the gates.”  The white cordons are lowered and the crowd surges forward.   

The above pre-amble is not satire.  It’s a fairly accurate paraphrase of a statement made by a security supervisor to a mob of anxious fair goers at the Thursday, December 7 opening of Art Basel Miami Beach.   In what, over the last five years, has become the greatest art world gathering in the Americas, Art Basel Miami Beach focuses the art world’s enthusiasms, angst, and passion like no other event.  With the participation of over 1500 artists, 200 of the world’s most prestigious galleries, and scores of glamorous and important collectors, curators and critics, ABMB is the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl all wrapped up into a nice convenient package, and that doesn’t even include the ancillary fairs, private gallery space projects, and gorilla/freelance art happenings. 

The beginning of December draws close, there seems to be a convergence of factors intent on whipping up the fervor of the art market.  The economy is robust with Wall Street bonuses at record levels, real estate is still strong, and the weak dollar makes recently soaring auction prices seem like bargains to European and Asian collectors. 

Denial and exclusion just inflame desire, and the organizers of ABMB have perfected the technique, with over 600 galleries applying for inclusion, and only 200 being accepted, 40 more than last year.  After a fifteen minute interrogation, mug shot, and background check, I finally charmed my way into a set of credentials.  The press-room is stocked with gourmet coffee, bottled water, and high speed internet connections.  The press packet includes the beautiful six pound catalog, half a pound of maps, guides, schedules, notebook and pen, all packaged in a white designer “man-purse” with fluorescent logo and elastic strap, (meant, I suppose, to alleviate shoulder pain from lugging the hefty tome around).  During the pre-opening tour, I made it a point to check out the collectors lounge, and was astounded by its extravagant elegance (taffeta drapes, scores of white lilies, and internally illuminated Lucite tables).  After seeing what I’ve been missing, I’ll never settle for tourist class again!

By assimilating any competing impulses, Sam Keller, the head organizer of ABMB, has done a brilliant job of expanding the scope of offerings.  Within the fair itself there is Basel Nova, a selection of younger more experimental galleries located around the peripheral walls of the convention center.  In this group, New York’s Spencer Brownstone Gallery displayed a floating loop of magnetic tape held aloft by the breeze from a pair of facing pedestal fans.   This piece by Zilvinas Kempinas was as simple as a pocket comb but imbued with the whimsical aerodynamic physics of a Mr. Wizard demonstration.

Spread throughout the fair were the Art Kabinett galleries, specially commissioned selections of works by individual artists which amounted to mini museum shows.  My vote for most historically relevant exhibit was the Rudolf Schwarzkogler show in conjunction with Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna.  For years I’d heard the legend of Swarzkogler, the twenty eight year old Viennese Actionist, rumored to be a major influence on Chris Burden, and how he’d ritualistically sliced off his penis and jumped or fell out his apartment window to his death in 1969.  Though the myth was refuted, the exhibition did include a varied selection of his unforgettably disturbing performance photos, notebooks, and drawings. 

Art Positions, a shanty town collection of about twenty freight containers located right on the beach three blocks east of the convention center, provides a chance for a younger crowd to frolic in the sun, stroll in the sand, and view “avant” art in a less sterile more alternative venue.  Though limited by the dimensions, a convincing Puerto Rican social club with a Tito Puente theme was created in the Anna Helwing Gallery booth by Mario Ybarra Jr.  Unfortunately neon lighting in the Zach Feuer container was not conducive to view paintings, but works by Christopher Ruckhäberle and Dana Schutz seemed to come off despite it.  The opening night celebrations at this beachside location featured a concert with Peaches singing a selection of songs including “Shake Your Tits, Shake Your Dicks,” and “Fucky, Fucky,” which left me humming their catchy tunes to myself for days after.

With the final tally of transacted business surpassing $400 million, ABMB is unquestionably the King Kong of art fairs, but how ever big it is, it’s only part of the Miami art fair story.  One could even say that, with the way things are divided up geographically, this is a tale of two very different cities.  ABMB acts as the epicenter in Miami Beach, a group of smaller “hotel” fairs are located along Collins Avenue, close enough to benefit from the foot traffic to and from the convention center.  Just north, housed in the Dorchester Hotel, probably the nicest facility of the “hotel” fairs is INK Miami, the print art fair.  I made the mistake of letting a lady at the reception desk apply a “temporary” tattoo with the INK logo to my bicep.  The damn thing took weeks to wear off.  Other prints that stick with me are a Chris Johansen etching of a utopian solar system titled “This is a picture of space”, at Paulson Press.  With examples of works by Juli Mehretu, Laura Owens and Richard Tuttle, Crown Point Press also impresses with its commitment to younger artists and experimental techniques.

Moving south we come to FLOW and BRIDGE which, though unaffiliated, were none the less housed next door to each other and seemed to function like Siamese twins.  At Roy Boyd’s, I enjoyed the epoxy resin paintings of Markus Linnenbrink. The pieces always have a spirit of pushing the limits of just how far you can go with lots of paint and a nice selection of power tools (drills, sanders, and routers).  Some of the hallways and spaces were claustrophobic, but a video presentation of swimming polar bears in the lobby reduced anxiety.  Next door at the entrance to BRIDGE, “ACQUIRE ME” a fourteen foot tall inflated text sculpture by Brooklyn artist Tom Broadbent, greeted visitors.  Miniature river environments in trunks by Kate Vance and a grid of color Polaroids of women’s breasts culled from various movies by Emily Roz caught my eye at Front Room’s room.  A group of “sled” sculptures, accumulations of exotic ethnic brick-a-brack by Newark New Jersey artist James A. Brown at Rupert Ravens Contemporary, were raw and demanding and seemed to challenge the slick “easy listening” work that is endemic to many of these affairs. 

Situated a couple of blocks south of Lincoln Road was AQUA.  This two story hotel with open central courtyard is acknowledged as the cream or the hotel fairs, and its mellow vibe made it a destination for after hour partying.  London’s Keith Talent Gallery presented small paintings of misanthropic snowmen by Dave Humphrey and a near life size sculptural tableau called “Fascist Fruit Boys”, a group of rampaging vegetable-headed cartoon characters stomping a poor bag of fries kid, by Saun Doyle and Mally Mallison.  If coloristically complex abstract paintings that riff knowingly on accepted representational devices is your bag then works by Daniel Sturgis and Gary Stephan at Cynthia Broan fill the bill.

At the far south end of the Collins Avenue art strip is POOL, the only fair with rooms booked by independent unrepresented artists.  It included everything from eccentric ceramics to wind blown ink drawings and lots of photography, but lacked the kind of over the top self deprecating humor that made last year’s FRISBEE fair such a memorable goof.  Across the street DIVA (the digital and video fair) took a page from Art Basel Positions and circled the wagons, setting up a village of freight containers on the beach.  Between the glaring sun and the high temperatures of the baking cubicles, this venue is perhaps the most unforgiving environment for a mid-day video viewing I’ve ever seen.  Still, Adam Bateman’s book washing tape at Boreas was choice as was Jillian McDonald’s zombie on a subway, Adam Simon’s video portraits and Marcin Ramocki’s “ 8 BIT”  at artMoving Projects.

So much for Miami Beach, the Miami fairs NADA, PULSE, PHOTO Miami, and SCOPE are another matter and require a mile and a half road-trip across Biscayne Bay.  Generally located in the Wynwood district north of Downtown Miami this is a marginal neighborhood of low rise industrial parks and ramshackle Cubano bungalows and when compared to the Collins Avenue vicinity, exposes the other side of the Greater Miami’s social matrix. 

NADA has again set up shop in the Ice Palace Film Studios, a labyrinth of high ceiling bays, with the attractive bonus of a front yard with hammocks and an open air café.  With over 80 galleries from 20 countries, NADA still exudes a New York attitude with its tough internal politics and focus on Chelsea fashion trends.  I liked the urgent griminess and all inclusive notational drawings of Dominico McGill at Derek Eller.  Drippy broad-brushed portraits of vamping glamour models on dark grounds create a dichotomy of means in a work by Katherine Bernhardt at Canada.  I bumped into fellow Brooklynite art-head Chris Martin at the Ben Kaufmann booth.  We both had out sights set on the muscular abstractions of Berlin painter Matthias Dornfeld which echoed the innocent urgency of Tel R with out the sweetness. 

A light grey shuttle van was provided for the five minute jaunt north to PHOTO Miami, a fair as slick as a glossy photo finish.  Business looked brisk at Bernard Toale where I contemplated a large photo of a butchered haunch of elk hanging from a tree in a rugged mountain landscape by Laura McPhee.  Joe Fig’s recreation of the famous Hans Namuth’s picture of Jackson Pollock painting from underneath a pane of glass includes a miniature Pollock action figure dribbling paint on glass attached above the photo.  Anthropomorphic monkey portraits by Jill Greenberg at Clamp Art were riveting and a particularly pensive baboon with a Kramer hairdo provoked an out right belly laugh.  Of the alternative “tent” fairs, PULSE seemed to be firing on all cylinders.  Nick Lawrence of Freight Volume was overwhelmed with demand for collage books by Brian Belott, large drawings that mimic wacky junior-high notes by Michael Scoggins, and the unusually vibrant free-standing collage sculptures of Pepe Mar.  The proliferation of quirky figures in landscapes shows how ubiquitous the shadow cast by John Currin is today.  Large painterly female heads by Cornelia Schleime at Michael Schultz though of a related sensibility, diverge on a different trajectory through her tactile facture and sensuous use of the medium.

SCOPE, the seminal force that launched a dozen satellite fairs, this year ups the anty by moving out of the Townhouse Hotel and into its own huge tent in Roberto Clememte Park.  Though this year’s version is bigger and shinier, SCOPE maintains its mischievous punk nature.  Because of the number of galleries showing video, digital and mechanized art, there’s a constant din at SCOPE like the production floor of a factory.  Rodney Dickson’s circa 1968 Vietnamese snake bar, the “Queen Bee” has a strangely attractive presence and is a great place to hang out and have a drink during breaks in art viewing.  Notable offerings included: scruffy target-like paintings by LA artist Mark Dutcher at Solway Jones.  Eerie photos of a pair of hooded girls in Children of the Corn type landscapes by Christa Parravani resonated at 31 Grand.  A full sized Hummer carved from recycled Styrofoam by Andrew Jung was impressive and was presented in the art-yard by Lincart Gallery.  Raunchy Abstract Expressionist conglomeration paintings that stuck in my head like lint on polyester by Dona Nelson were shown at Thomas Erben.

Though I made a point of visiting every fair listed as well as several freelance/guerrilla projects that weren’t, there are just way too many to mention.  Some worth note were: Pierogi and Ronald Feldman, Grendal, and Fountain.  Pierogi and Ronald Feldman’s space on North Miami Avenue featured along with a roster of gallery regulars, a stainless steel and plate glass freezer in an open bay displayed a 4.5 ton “ice cube”, which artist Tavares Strachan traveled to Alaska to have cut from a frozen river and sent back to the tropics.  There’s got to be an easier way to chill our Chablis. 

“Grendel”, a collaborative guerrilla exhibit organized by Williamsburg provocateurs Jack the Pelican, Dam Stuhltrager and Newark’s Rupert Ravens showed works too big for fair booths and featured a massive mangrove tree fashioned from colorful knotted fabrics by the artist team Guerra de la Paz, and a room sized installation of light activated gizmos by Mark Esper.  Around the corner capitalizing on the success received from confronting New York’s Armory show was the Fountain crew.  Daniel Edwards’ realistic sculpture of Britney Spears giving birth was the centerpiece of this collection from Capa Kesting.  Galeria Janet Kurnatowski’s selection included gem like examples of small works by James Biederman, Ben La Rocca and Shane McAdams.  Other contributors were McCaig-Wells, Front Room and Neil Stevenson.

Putting my poor abused feet up to rest after this marathon I begin to sort through the various tendencies, trends and implications of what all this art fair mania means.  1) Money: whether we admit it or not, artists and galleries run on money and ambitious ideas can get expensive.  Miami brought out the hedge fund types and they were throwing shit-loads of cash at some very “speculative” offerings.  2) Exposure: several dealers told me that they were being seen by more potential clients in four days than in four years in their home spaces.  3) Contacts: this was a chance not just to sell and meet clients, but to catch up with fellow artists, dealers, writers, and collectors.  People’s guards are let down briefly and there’s an incredible leveling when no one’s ensconced in their multi-million dollar architectural fortresses.  4) Measuring up: it’s always good to compare just how well you’re presenting yourself and your ideas, and whether new influential concepts are popping up above the horizon that might require attitude adjustments.  This is especially important for New Yorkers since, as the art market capital of the world, we’ve become paralyzed with financial considerations, and money doesn’t like change.  5) Gossip: damn, you could hear and see enough juicy stuff to fill ten check-out-line tabloids.

 Finally, how will all this effect art?  With an ever higher percentage of yearly gallery income derived from fairs, will dealers pressure artists to design work for the “quick kick”?  (One “scientific study” states that for art fair visitors the initial decision between “looking” and “seeing” a work is made in 0.4 seconds.)  Will this kill support for more sublet work that might require a few moments of quiet reverie? 

“You will be assimilated” like this threat from Star Trek’s Borgs, Art Basel Miami Beach has become so rich that they can buy the good graces of darn near anyone, whether influential critics (we’ll fly you down first class, limo you to the convention center, and put you up in a four star hotel, just show up for your half hour lecture) to museums and institutions, (funding is abundant) to collectors, (the only amenity missing from the collectors lounge were Nubian slaves with ostrich feather fans) to dealers (bring bushel baskets and pitchforks to scoop up the cash)!  Is the whole Basel Miami 2006 thing an anomaly?  Has the saturation point finally been reached, or will 2007 see 50 fairs?  I doubt it.  We’re seeing Darwinian economics at its most unregulated, a true force of nature, human nature.  Love it or hate it, that’s what makes this scene so incredibly frustrating and fascinating.  Welcome to our brave new art world.