Writing Archive

Basel, Shmasel

Accent Miami, Issue 2, 2002 (April)

Art Basel, generally believed to be the world's most important art fair, was coming to Miami in December 2001 and, as Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail put it, there was great rejoicing. They could have picked any city in America: New York, still the commercial center of the art world if not the aesthetic one; Chicago, with an art scene that is vital, solid, and relatively trend-proof; Los Angeles, sunny and perpetually hip. Why Miami? Peter Vetsch of Art Miami answered: If you look at other successful art shows, they all take place in rather small cities. If you do a show in L.A. or Chicago, your event is one of a few hundred other events. In a small city, attending people will stay together, will meet several times, which is excellent for networking. Additionally Miami Beach is a city that offers a lot to the art world: great private collections and museums, a lively cultural scene, first class hotels and restaurants. People from Europe and North America like to spend time here in the winter escaping the cold of their countries.

In December 2000, one year before the scheduled opening night, there was a party to celebrate the not-all-that-imminent event. Visitors followed a long white carpet through a darkened, vacant hall in the Miami Beach Convention Center while towering white-clad models greeted them in various languages. They finally arrived at a white tent where they were plied with pale champagne, pale food (sushi, salmon frosted with cream cheese) and a pale Swiss gentleman who introduced a video of the convention in Basel and thanked everyone profusely. There was a feeling in the air that Miami had capital-A Arrived. The Swiss had dissed New York, and were coming to where the weather is fine and the scene is full of budding talents. What more evidence did we need that Miami, however small, was the Next Big Thing? Or at least that it was due for its proverbial fifteen minutes of fame?

Then September 11 happened. Art Basel cancelled until 2002, citing a double whammy of jacked-up insurance rates and U.S. Customs agents put on high alert indefinitely. The reason [for the postponement] is the unpredictable prolongation of the unsafe circumstances in the U.S. since the September 11 terrorist attacks, warnings of potential attacks in the future, the anthrax incidents, and the state of war, said a press release. The related dangers and increased difficulties in air travel as well as goods traffic and insurance render it impossible to stage the international top event in Miami Beach this coming December [2001]. The release went on to cite multiple requests from its exhibitors to delay the show. Word on the street was that no one was traveling, and Art Basel didn't want its inaugural fair in the U.S. to be an unattended flop.

It seemed clear that the only thing for the Miami art community to do was to take it on the chin and switch to Plan B, which was to carry on as if nothing had happened. That turned out to be exactly the right strategy. Everyone in town scheduled an art event to happen within one week of Basel. Chris Ingalls posted more than 40 items on the Non-Basel Week openings list on MiamiArtExchange.com. Thursday, December 13, had more openings than you could comfortably attend in three months. Basel, shmasel. Miami's status as the Next Big Thing is a function of the opinion of the rest of the country, and the rest of the country doesn't live here. The real measures of the scene are the quantity and quality of the events. This art community demonstrated that with a little coordination, it can throw enough openings at one time to pickle itself in economy-grade merlot, and in the process, put up some fine work.

The star of that surfeited Thursday was Dorsch Gallery. David Rohn, sporting a wig of blonde curls, a leopard-print dress and a handbag, passed out business cards that introduced him as Gretchen Bender, real estate agent for his installation entitled Le Chateau del Pueblo. Rohn took over the part of the gallery affectionately called the Crack House (because it was one before Brook Dorsch purchased it). He spent months remodeling four rooms of graffiti-covered walls into a hyper-ideal suburban shrine. In repeat performances s/he did the whole real-estate-saleslady-from-hell routine, talking up the installation as if it were a model home for viewers to purchase. S/he described the upholstery on a couch made from green welcome-mat turf as rare Siberian velvet. S/he talked glowingly about the designer, a fictional Waddington Van Pew (Waddy to his friends), who supposedly hand-sculpted the papier-mâché lamps into awkward figures. A gilded deer head hung over the mantle. Tablecloths, chairs, and wallpaper were stenciled with matching naive drawings. Detail after absurd detail combined to form a hilarious but scathing criticism of suburban values.

In the main Dorsch space María José Arjona performed in her installation, Nomad Territory. Four-foot twisted ficus roots hung from the ceiling over a 30-foot wide rectangle of flour, which was lit only by a DVD projection of water on the sidewall. Eggs were set upright in the flour, and Arjona ritualistically broke some of them to form balls of dough. A great majority of performance art devolves into bad theater, bad poetry reading, or bad dance. Arjona, though, has the knack, and I've liked everything I've seen of hers so far. She can be serious, touching, and beautiful without being overwrought.

Also opening that Thursday was globe>miami<island, whose title had better not represent a trend or soon we're going to be seeing shows called unpronounceable symbols á la Prince. There was a piece in this show by Tao Rey, in which blah was written repeatedly in white paint on a white wall. Damarys Ocaña, art critic for Street, described it as subtle and satirical. Satirical of what, she didn't say. In a review I wrote of Skins at the Dorsch Gallery in August 2001, one that earned me my first hate mail, I commented on a work by Bert Rodríguez by remarking, Good art does not make you say to yourself 'blah, blah, blah' while looking at it. Hmm. Rebuking critics can be the stuff of art, but this thing was so dumb that it might have been about me, and I still couldn't be made to care.

globe>miami<island was curated by Robert Chambers, an artist who is as close to being an international art star as Miami has. Chambers has a penchant for mayhem. He was the driving force behind last year's anarchic Sears Building show at the House, which was more of a happening than an exhibition. Deliberately hung salon-style, globe>miami<island was Chambers' attempt to present what he thinks is a representative slice of Miami's art scene in a manner that conveys a sense of the city's energetic chaos. My aim has been to sample the diversity of contemporary art in, from and of Miami as intensely as possible—and celebrate it! exclaimed Chambers in his catalogue essay.

He did a good job representing the important galleries, schools and teachers who have had a major local impact — omissions were inevitable and the show was too full as it was. But in a party this crowded, fights are going to break out. Robert Theile's solemn expanse of thick, darkly-painted wood and Paul Ramírez Jonas' arrangement of self-playing percussion instruments were mutually annihilating. Ursula von Rydingsvard's monolithic Ocean Floor took out the merely big The Power of Legba by Charo Oquet, who is usually much better than this. And Rey's piece was next to Bahkti Mar Baxter's untitled arrangement of pine needles on top of the Bass's entrance ramp wall; putting them near each other was like melting Velveeta over a coq au vin. Artists whose work needed wall space and viewer proximity, such as Nina Ferré and Annie Wharton, were lost on the not-quite-fully-lit walls around the ramp entrance.

Other work both held up and co-existed, though. Sharyar Attaie did a video piece of a Japanese doll, rendered semi-transparent on a computer, which spun in slow circles in front of a colorful biomorphic background. Ward Shelley's The Cube was like one of those playground sets at fast food places, but for artistic adults; you could crawl through it as it beeped and bathed you in colored lights. Quisqueya Henríquez did a series of photographs of frozen clothes that had real presence. The balls of frost-covered shirts and the like were recorded as if they were asteroids. Emilio Pérez's Untitled (Blue/Green Scrape) was a satisfying composition of interlocked ovals made from abused layers of paint. Edouard Duval Carrié's altar of white objects floated above the combat between the surrounding art like a holy vision.

There was a piece by Cooper entitled Untitled (This stuff would all look much better if it was falling out of the sky, or exploding from a barrel, or burning in a bucket, or tumbling down a hill). (Cooper only uses one of his names. Like Bono.) Consisting of a ladder, a large soundhorn emitting beehive noises, two video monitors, and some straw, the piece was well-crafted and ambitiously scaled, recalling both Martin Puryear and Nam June Paik. So what's with that title? He could have called it Beehive and signed it Brian Cooper, but that would have failed to direct attention away from the work and toward his person, which, I believe, was his goal. Also in this category were Wendy Wischer's Extension, a dress made of hair extensions surrounded by photographs of the artist, dressed in same, looking soulfully out the Bass Museum windows; Naomi Fisher's You Can't Fight Mutha Nature Series, photographs that showed her wrestling and/or getting it on with plant matter; and William Cordova's stack of records with its gratuitous pornographic title. This please-pay-attention-to-me attitude neutralized the stronger work in the show and pulverized the weaker.

Amy Cappellazzo, who contributed an essay for the show, said 'globe>miami<island' carries a torch for Miami, manifesting the love many artists feel for this place, but also positioning Miami as a glistening signpost. She wanted glittering, I think; glistening implies a wet or slick surface. But then again, it may have been apt. Something about this show was oily. The party atmosphere was an unctious distraction that implied a lack of trust that the work could hold up on its own. Indeed, much of it couldn't.

When the Art Miami convention rolled through town a few weeks later, however, the best work was in local galleries and by local artists. Federico Uribe outdid himself with a giant aquascape filled with urchin and plant forms, all with organic-looking surfaces formed from doll hands and plastic forks. The scene was dominated by a spherical sunburst of yellow rubber gloves. Gavin Perry's strapping abstractions, as sleek as chrome, dominated the Ambrosino Gallery space while Vickie Pierre's little paintings, reminiscent of Arshile Gorky, but happier, fluttered nearby.

Adriana Carvalho, a Brazilian newly arrived in Miami, had a traffic-stopper of a sculpture in the space of Chicago's Aldo Castillo Gallery. It was a two-thirds life size formal dress made from brass wire. The bust was covered in brass rose blossoms and the dress was a cage. Hovering inside the dress was a pair of golden panties covered in sharp spikes. I took it as the outfit of a beautiful and wrathful female deity.

While Art Miami has brought up its low end over the years, the top seems to have fallen. A few years ago, I remember seeing loads of dreck: heartless realism, motel room abstraction, Romero Britto and worse; but among it all was an exquisite Lucien Freud portrait and an Edward Hopper etching. Now there's much less dreck and Fernando Botero's exomorphs didn't seem to have been brought in by the truckload like last year, but the knock-your-socks-off work was harder to find.

Coming close was Diana Lowenstein's space, which featured excellent seven-foot-high abstract paintings by Eduardo Hoffmann of Argentina. Hoffmann's vitreous passages of color over screenprinted dots had a simultaneously floral and industrial feel. That Art Miami could take itself seriously was due largely to the better local galleries: Lowenstein, Ambrosino, Bernice Steinbaum, Casas-Reigner and Kevin Bruk. It might keep this in mind as it decides what to do to prevent Art Basel from taking the wind out of its sails next winter. In the meantime, the local scene can give itself a pat on the back.

Word count: 2075

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