Miami Beach is an art piece in and of itself; a fitting backdrop for all the art that happens there each December during the renowned Art Basel convention. This is a subliminal thought to the observer taking in the nocturnal neon lights that outline the Art Deco architecture and the equally colorful pedestrians on their way to wherever it is that pedestrians go. I was going to SELECT Fair, one of about twenty-five alternative satellite art fairs that orbit the main fair at the Miami Beach Convention Center. SELECT Fair quite literally invaded all the rooms of the Catalina Hotel & Beach Club on trendy Collins Avenue. It was a formidable beehive of artists and galleries, each with their own respective hotel room which was stripped of its bed and other furniture and was instead adorned with artwork and business cards. “Emerging” artists were there to showcase and sell their work.
It was an impressive feat of SELECT Fair’s organizers, Co-Directors Matthew Eck and Brian Whiteley, along with Assistant Director Marc Bradley Johnson, all young New York-based artists themselves. During “the season” in south Florida, a time of year when a lot of people go on vacation there, they transformed the Catalina into a vivacious meta-gallery of cutting-edge art for their first-ever venture, through which they sold close to two-hundred thousand dollars worth of art. Complimentary champagne was poured while a DJ spun neo-disco in the lobby where Gregor Turk’s leather goods were displayed such as his handled “Courier” which resembled an erect sarcophagus of sorts the shape of the Washington Monument, swathed in jet black hide, the straps’ lines as epitaphic inscriptions.
Michael Benisty’s nearly 700-pound silver-cast skull, textured by Swarovski crystals and sapphires, glittered indiscriminately at the front door to passers-by and the fair’s attendees alike. The floor-to-ceiling windows of the lobby facing the busy avenue looked as if they were smacked by the hammers of a giant’s typewriter to spell “SELECT” in bold white font. The railings of the mezzanine above the lobby were cloaked in rainbow yarn by the crocheting “Yarn Bomber” Melissa Maddonni Haims, and Christopher Gulick’s impressive metal mobiles of rods and plates were hanging from the lobby’s ceiling, almost like alien clouds taking up residency above.
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With champagne in hand, you walk down the red corridors of the hotel to pop into art rooms. Peripherally, Neil Bender’s room blared bubbly colors of powder pink, baby blue, violet, teal and salmon, inspiring thoughts of baby dolls and candy, but upon viewing his paintings head-on, you’re greeted with an oddly mesmerizing study of human anatomy. Though detailed at their many points within, his tableaux were nebulae of belly buttons, nipples, arteries, labia, fingers, and a bunch of other parts you might see if you were Chief of Surgery at Mount Sinai just around the corner from the Art Basel Convention on the beach.
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A talented group of artists under the collective name S/ART/Q showcased an installation of a flurry of paper moths, an appealing Impressionistic series of the study of cocks (safe for work as we’re talking about roosters), a large sculptural dissection of a scrumptious slice of tiered wedding cake, a charming Hopper-esque painting of a local eatery in Somewhere, U.S.A., and a cuckoo clock which must have been magnetic and then went streaking down the aisle of a hardware store; rulers, levelers, tape wheels and more affixed to it for geometric emphasis.
Moving on to the room next door, you’re given superpowers and know what the world looks like through the eyes of the Flash as he zooms down Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, and then you pause to view a rainy Broadway in Time Square after leaving Christopher Maslow’s room of splatter and spray paint streetscapes. David Burton, who just might be related to film director Tim Burton considering the sculptor’s macabre esthetic, is in the room across the way. His many pieces offer the marriage of the color black on everything, a frame, and a mélange of rock-n-roll, Disney characters and dollar-store tchotchkes to create what might be the perfect gift for Rosemary’s baby’s first birthday. And Evan Boggess’s room displays a skilled hand that takes oil, acrylic and spray paints to turn his canvases into well-composed symphonies of broad, smooth lines and planes in unison with messy swarms of color, indicative of Franklin Lloyd Wright’s plain-colored terraces jutting into an expansive forest of greens, browns, and moving water.
All of the fairs in Miami and Miami Beach are packed with these painted canvases and wood, sculptures, in addition to photography, furniture, video installations, and of course alcohol and fashionable people. Art Basel creates a perfect opportunity for all the world to see art work, and for the art world – collectors, advisors, dealers, gallerists, celebrities and artists – to promote themselves and sell their products. On display himself, I had to squeeze past Puff Daddy and his entourage so that I could observe the art without obstruction. I found it curious that Mr. Daddy could take in the true colors of the work through his tinted sunglasses, which got me to thinking about this whole art world, especially in Miami, as a legitimate thing, but my thoughts were dashed quite literally as fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger zoomed past me, his assistant rushing to keep up. Later on, Demi Moore was at one of the many V.I.P. art parties dancing like no one was watching, no one save Lenny Kravitz
who was sat next to her and looked like he’d really rather she stop.
As a native to coastal southeast Florida and its party scene, Moore’s brash dancing wasn’t surprising. From my biased thinking on Miami, where much is high-spirited and irreverent, of all the cities in the country, I wouldn’t think it to be first on the list as American host to grand international art fair. Before Art Basel, it was dance music, speed boats and bikinis – hot models on drugs, basically – that brought people to Miami. But, with all thanks due to Art Basel, Miami is now home to considerable contemporary art, and also to one of the country’s largest art communities called Wynwood.
Just east of the very busy and dingy interstate highway, I-95, prior to the annual convention, was a large and littered cluster of abandoned warehouses and factories which presently serve as kempt art studios, galleries, restaurants and boutiques. Many of the warehouses’ walls became perfect spots for graffiti and street artists to bomb. That is to say, spray paint, not detonate; at times, illegally. The side of a two-story warehouse stretching an entire city block displayed the pidgin alphabet of an imaginary Arabic language as a colossal child – a print pasted on the wall – sat in the open air and played in the dirt at the wall’s foundation. A massive mural of an old, bearded man protecting a ewe from ravenous wolves was painted on the side of an equally expansive warehouse now turned cigar workshop and art gallery. Tags and random symbols along with the smell of spray paint were inescapable. Artists hoisted themselves on scaffolding and scissor lifts to reach the heights of these warehouses. When the average height of two stories is considered as a canvas, that’s quite impressive. It was an interesting comparison to see these local artists doing art for art’s sake, while at the beach, a plain 30-by-30-inch canvas painted one single golden color was available to you for five thousand dollars. Many times in the “official” art world, I feel the emperor is completely naked.
Art Basel proper, and/or “official,” was a fantastic spectacle of all conceivable media of art, including, to my chagrin, the metaphorical naked emperor in some galleries. Galleries from the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Colombia, Brazil, South Korea, Italy, Iceland and many more countries – an Olympic gathering of artists and galleries – converged in Miami Beach to showcase well-established artists such as some of my personal favorites: Pablo Picasso, James Rosenquist, John Chamberlain, Alberto Giacometti, Henri Mattise, Fernand Léger, to name a few. But what was more interesting than seeing this recognizable art was the up-and-comers of today who created BMW art cars, a stellar sculpture of concrete and flashlights, another gigantic star made of red LEGO’s, a bouquet of limbed, futuristic steel rods shooting up through lunar rocks, mirrors and words positioned just right to create never-ending manholes to the center of the earth, a 4-inch cross-section of a sitting room sliced as if to go on a slide for a microscopic view by a giant, a long surreal scene of an animal god posing in a stormy tundra for the photographer; work that blew golden canvases out of the convention center.
From all this stimuli, what’s most exciting about Art Basel is that, with all of Miami’s goings-on, and perhaps fueled by the heat in December too, the convention and the auxiliary fairs invigorate and inspire, even through the apparent dichotomy on display during Art Basel Miami. The elite, V.I.P. crowds on the beach, through their version of expression and community, are inspired by marketability and revenue; status. The street artists of mainland Miami are inspired by expression and community fundamentally; by beauty and the taboo in tandem. Art Basel Miami, and art itself for that matter, is a celebration of humanity’s innumerable facets, and proves that art goes far beyond simply hanging something on a wall and calling it art.