Our coverage of Art Basel Miami Beach appears below in a series of vignettes, reviews, and interviews with six Atlanta-based artists and gallerists visiting Miami. Enjoy!
Review: The SEVEN sleeper sensation
Not only was it exceptional in terms of artistic quality (and the fact it was a legitimately planned-through curation, instead of a hodgepodge), the SEVEN side-exhibition during Art Basel Miami Beach was also one of the only fairs that was absolutely, unconditionally free to the public. When fellow critic Cinque Hicks and I entered the building, nobody stopped us to check our press IDs — the little plastic badges that saved us hundreds in entrance fees over four days of nonstop art-viewing across South Beach and Miami’s Wynwood arts district.
The show had its flaws, of course. But these were OK considering that it was a collaborative effort by not one, but seven, galleries who banded together to do their own thing. It was another Frankenstein’s monster, but at least steps were taken to elegantly hide the stitches between body parts.
Inside were some artists we’ve already seen in Atlanta, including cold-as-ice filmmaker Janet Biggs and estranged-family photo-documentarian Chris Verene. Other works were recognizable from back issues of Art Forum, but most of it looked fresh. These were shown in cell-like mini exhibits that flowed continuously in what felt like walking through a sequence of squared-off spirals.
In one of my favorite works of the show, a video titled I Hate Karl Marx, Austrian-born artist Rainer Ganahl delivers a nearly six-minute speech — entirely in Chinese — disparaging a stone bust of the Bearded One himself. The scene heralds a future where Marx’s egalitarian dream becomes an ironic reality: Everyone in the world is a citizen of Communist China! Ganahl’s acting conveys both ridiculousness and dread, echoing just how mixed up the world can feel today.
“You know, I used to think of things in sort of revolutionary terms,” said Cinque Hicks afterward during a late-night chat. “But then I realized the world is much more complex, and interesting, than just black and white.” I appreciated the anecdote.
One expansive section was completely devoted to video; the next contained sculpture and a long salon-style wall of framed pictures. Here, we heard raucous laughter erupting from the final room. Huh?! Turning the corner, I discovered a workshop/performance called #Rank where artists were sharing rejection letters from galleries that think their art stinks. A half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s was clearly visible on the table. Still, for all the havoc, everything in SEVEN seemed professional and running according to plan.
Interviews: Why should more Atlantans go to Miami?
“The past several years [of Art Basel Miami Beach] have been so overwhelming in terms of the number of galleries and fairs,” said Christina Caudill, associate director of Atlanta’s Saltworks Gallery. “I wish the fairs would scale down and be more selective, as they were in the beginning. I thought the SEVEN fair was clever.”
This is the trouble with Art Basel: The trade-show format means that artwork is stuffed into booths, one for each dealer present. 250 international dealers represent over 2,000 artists at the Miami Beach Convention Center alone. Multiply that by more than a dozen pop-up fairs each with their own associated armies and one-word “designer” names (PULSE, PooL, Aqua, and so on), and you might understand why over 40,000 attendees flock to Miami every December. Plus the weather makes it a snowbirds’ paradise: cool nights and highs up to 79 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.
There’s too much to see. There’s a lot of junk. And, even though the good stuff is plentiful, everything becomes lost in a scatological mess of sensation. The trick is to figure out what you want to see and make the convention work for you. Who do you want to meet? What kind of art interests you the most?
When asked what was her favorite show, Caudill responded, “I really loved Design Miami. Tejo Remy‘s rug designed for the school for autistic children was clever and touching. It was constructed from quilts and patterned after brain activity.”
“This was my first extended trip to Art Basel, because in the past I had to teach on Thursday, Friday, and Monday,” said Whitespace artist and Emory University physics professor Fereydoon Family, who we discovered eating lunch at SCOPE. “I found the market pretty busy and vibrant, but the artworks are getting safer and safer.”
“With a few exceptions,” Family continued, “I would be happy to never again see most of the contemporary artworks that I saw in Miami.” The exceptions he mentioned include Shoja Azari’s work at ZOOM, a fair dedicated to the Middle Eastern diaspora.
“We can’t pay to get into the main fairs, and, anyways, everything we want to see is outside,” said Monica Campana, co-organizer of last summer’s Living Walls Conference. Campana carpooled to Miami with a crew of fresh-faced, but penniless, Atlantans primarily interested in seeing Wynwood’s famous graffiti.
Other artists were more omnivorous in catching multiple scenes. “I enjoyed PULSE, Art Basel, and Wynwood arts district,” said video artist Ben “Bean” Worley. “If I had to choose, I would say the DIY, craft, and street artist exhibitions were the most enjoyable.”
Worley’s first trip to Art Basel wasn’t a normal vacation, since he was also working as a promoter for Pabst Blue Ribbon, in addition to staging a live video performance at Basel Castle. “This is an amazing weekend,” he added.
Reviews by veteran Basel-goers were mixed. “To be honest, I didn’t see a lot of work that really jumped out at me,” said artist Scott Ingram, when asked what he thought has changed since previous years. “I was disappointed that some of my favorite places to eat on South Beach have closed. However, all of the dealers I spoke with were having a lot of success. Hopefully, this means things are coming back.”
“Yes, the show was successful for us,” said Malia Schramm of Jackson Fine Art about their participation in Art Miami. “There was a steady stream of collectors and curators coming by the booth. We had a great response.”
“When you are exhibiting, it is hard to get out and see other shows since the hours are sometimes the same,” Schramm continued. “I did, however, get to spend a little time at [Art Basel Miami Beach] and PULSE. I was only able to breeze in and breeze out for less than 45 minutes.”
Jackson Fine Art was the only Atlanta gallery that exhibited in a major fair this year.
“When I went down to Miami in 2007, Marcia Wood Gallery, Romo Gallery, Krause Gallery, Solomon Projects, Jackson Fine Art, and Saltworks all did fairs or shows,” said Lloyd Benjamin, artist and owner of Get This! Gallery. “This year, there were seven San Francisco galleries in Aqua alone. The fact that there was only one contemporary art gallery from Atlanta down there representing our scene is a very bad change.”
“As an artist, I think it was very important to let people know that you are still alive and working after the economic crash,” said Ingram in a fitting summary. “I’ve also always gone to see what is out there in terms of new work, figuring out how my work fits into the bigger picture. The social aspect is great, too. The sun doesn’t hurt, either.”
Travel diary: The other side of Basel
Monica Campana was literally jumping up and down in fit of utter glee. “They’re here!” she exclaimed.
Someone in Wynwood had just tipped us that a Peruvian street-artist posse was working little more than a block away. After walking five minutes, Campana confirmed they were Entes and Jader, part of a group she had contacted and invited to Atlanta last year. Entes and Jader were unable to enter the United States until after securing the proper visas, but, now, here they were, standing before their half-complete mural underneath the Florida sun. A long business-like, but passionate, conversation soon erupted in Spanish.
“Is graffiti illegal?” a little girl asked as her family passed on the sidewalk. “Not if you’re paid for it,” replied big sister. Touché indeed: A surprising proportion of murals in Wynwood are commissioned by local businesses.
Two hours earlier, Campana took me on a tour of the area close to 5th Avenue and 24th Street. For several square blocks, the neighborhood was silent and empty, all except for the surreal echoing murmur of an ice cream truck and the stir of dozens of kids spray-painting on ladders. I say “kids,” but it truly was an all-ages affair. Paradoxically, despite the counterculture atmosphere, it was one of the most peaceful places I visited during Art Basel.
A sedan pulled up with its driver’s side window rolled down. Lionel Flax leaned out, his elbow and chin protruding into the open air, and issued words of encouragement before muttering something about a “paint emergency.” Flax, the Atlanta entrepreneur behind Sam Flax arts supply, was in Miami providing financial support to muralists.
I should pause for a moment to clarify that graffiti usually bores me. The subject matter tends to be juvenile and is rarely more original than a teenager’s sketchbook: monsters, babes, and stylized signatures. But what I realized that day is that, if street artists are given knowledge and resources, we might see something different.
Through research and exchanging notes with other travelers, Campana and her cohorts have developed a staggering familiarity with their field. They spent much of the day identifying pieces by sight. And this is how she made Art Basel work for her.
Check Hyperallergic for more photos and words about SEVEN.
Or read Paddy Johnson’s mammoth Art Basel roundup to learn more about fairs not covered here.