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Fair Market Values 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 to buy. IP card-holders to the left, all others to the 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 preamble is not satire. It’s a fairly accurate paraphrase of a statement by a security supervisor at the December 7th opening of Art Basel Miami Beach, the greatest art event in the Americas, the Academy Awards and Super Bowl all wrapped up in a nice convenient package (and that doesn’t even include the ancillary fairs, private gallery projects, and guerrilla/freelance happenings).

As the beginning of December drew near, a convergence of factors seemed intent on whipping up the art market: Wall Street bonuses at record levels, gung-ho real estate prices, and a weak dollar that made even the recent bubble in auction sales look like bargains to European and Asian collectors.

Denial and exclusion inflame desire, and the organizers of ABMB have perfected the technique. More than 600 galleries applied for inclusion, and only 200 were accepted, 40 more than last year, representing over 1500 artists.

Art Basel Miami Beach 2006: overview. Photo by James Kalm.

After a fifteen-minute interrogation, mug shot and background check, I finally charmed my way into a set of credentials and a press packet including ABMB’s beautiful six-pound catalog, along with a half-pound of maps, guides and schedules, not to forget the notebook and pen, all encased in a white designer “man-purse” with fluorescent logo and elastic strap, (meant, I suppose, to prevent shoulder pain from lugging that hefty tome around). The pressroom was stocked with gourmet coffee, bottled water, and high-speed Internet connections, while the collectors’ lounge, glimpsed on a down low recon during the pre-opening tour, was decked out in taffeta drapes, banquettes of white lilies, and internally illuminated Lucite tables (I’ll never settle for tourist class again!).

Sam Keller, the head organizer of ABMB did a brilliant job of expanding the scope of offerings and, like Bill Gates, of assimilating all competing impulses. Younger, more experimental galleries were dispersed around the peripheral margins of the convention center under the heading of Basel Nova, where New York’s Spencer Brownstone Gallery displayed Zilvinas Kempinas’ floating loop of magnetic tape. Held aloft by the breeze from a pair of facing pedestal fans, the piece was as simple as a pocket comb but imbued with the whimsical aerodynamics of a gee-whiz Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye the “Science Guy” experiment.

Spread throughout the fair were the Art Kabinett galleries—specially commissioned selections featuring individual artists that amounted to mini-museum shows. My vote for most historically significant exhibit, organized in conjunction with Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna, was Rudolf Schwarzkogler, the Viennese Actionist rumored to be a major influence on Chris Burden. According to legend, Schwarzkogler ritualistically sliced off his penis and jumped or fell out his apartment window to his death in 1969 at the age of twenty-eight. Though myth has been refuted, the exhibition was nonetheless unforgettable, including a varied selection of his disturbing performance photos, notebooks, and drawings.

Another auxiliary venue was Art Positions, a shantytown of about twenty freight containers right on the beach, three blocks east of the convention center. Art Positions provided the opportunity for a younger crowd to frolic in the sun and view “avant” art in a less sterile, more “alternative” venue. The opening night celebrations featured Peaches singing her catchy “Shake Your Tits, Shake Your Dicks,” and “Fucky, Fucky,” which left me humming for days after.

Despite their obvious appeal, the shipping containers also presented some serious drawbacks. The unfortunate neon lighting in the Zach Feuer container was not conducive for viewing paintings, but works by Christopher Ruckhäberle and Dana Schutz seemed to come off despite it. The containers’ limited physical dimensions, however, didn’t seem to restrain Mario Ybarra, Jr.’s convincing simulation of a Tito Puente-themed Puerto Rican social club at Anna Helwing.

With the final tally of transacted business surpassing $400 million, ABMB is unquestionably the King Kong of art fairs, but however big it is, it’s only part of the Miami story, which, with the way things are divided up geographically, is literally a tale of two very different cities. ABMB acts as the epicenter in Miami Beach’s Convention Center, while a group of smaller “hotel” fairs, close enough to benefit from the foot traffic, line Collins Avenue. Just north, in the Dorchester Hotel, is INK Miami, the print art fair. I made the mistake of letting a lady at the reception desk apply the INK logo to my bicep with a “temporary” tattoo. The damn thing took weeks to wear off. Fortunately, that was not the only print that stuck with me: highlights included a Chris Johansen etching of a utopian solar system titled “This is a picture of space” at Paulson Press, as well as works by Julie Mehretu, Laura Owens and Richard Tuttle at Crown Point.

Saun Doyle and Mally Mallison, “Fascist Fruit Boys” (2005). Mixed media, dimensions variable. Keith Talent Gallery.

Moving south, we come to FLOW and BRIDGE which, though unaffiliated, were nonetheless housed next door to each other and seemed to function like Siamese twins. Among the memorable offerings at FLOW were epoxy resin paintings by Markus Linnenbrink at Roy Boyd’s, which push the limits of just how far you can go with lots of paint and a nice selection of power tools (drills, sanders, and routers). Next door, at the entrance to BRIDGE, visitors were greeted by “ACQUIRE ME,” a fourteen-foot-tall inflated text sculpture by Brooklyn artist Tom Broadbent. Miniature river environments in trunks by Kate Vance and Emily Roz’s color Polaroid grid of women’s breasts culled from various movies 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.

A couple of blocks south of Lincoln Road was AQUA. This two-story hotel with an open central courtyard is reputed to be the cream of the hotel fairs. Its mellow vibe made it a destination for after-hours 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 melon-headed, banana-fingered toughs stomping a cowering bag-of-fries-kid—by Saun Doyle and Mally Mallison. And if coloristically complex abstract painting that riffs knowingly on representational devices is your bag, then the works of Daniel Sturgis and Gary Stephan at Cynthia Broan fill the bill.

At the southernmost tip 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 windblown ink drawings, as well as lots of photography, but it lacked the 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 art fair) took a page from Art Basel’s Positions and circled the wagons, setting up a village of freight containers on the beach; but between the glaring sun and the baking cubicles, this venue was the most unforgiving environment for a mid-day video viewing I’ve ever experienced. 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.

The booth of Contemporary Fine Art with painting by Jonathan Meese. Photo by James Kalm.

So much for Miami Beach—the other Miami fairs, NADA, PULSE, PHOTO Miami, and SCOPE, require a mile-and-a-half road trip across Biscayne Bay to the Wynwood district north of Downtown Miami. This is a marginal neighborhood of low-rise industrial parks and ramshackle Cubano bungalows that exposes the other side of Greater Miami’s social matrix.

NADA, in the Ice Palace Studios, 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 and the drippy, broad-brushed portraits of vamping models on dark backgrounds by Katherine Bernhardt at Canada. I bumped into fellow Brooklynite art-head Chris Martin at the Ben Kaufmann booth, where we both had our sights set on the muscular abstractions of Berlin painter Matthias Dornfeld, which echoed the innocent directness of Tal R but without the sweetness.

A light gray 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 Laura McPhee’s large photo of a butchered haunch of elk hanging from a tree in a rugged mountain landscape. Also noteworthy was Joe Fig’s recreation, with a miniature Jackson Pollock action figure, of Hans Namuth’s famous canvas-eye-view of Jackson Pollock dribbling paint on glass. Jill Greenberg’s anthropomorphic monkey portraits were intriguing at Clamp Art. A particularly pensive baboon with a Kramer hairdo provoked an outright belly laugh.

Of the alternative “tent” fairs, PULSE seemed to be firing on all cylinders. Nick Lawrence of Freight Volume was overwhelmed by the demand for Brian Belott’s collage books, Michael Scoggins’ large drawings mimicking wacky junior-high notes, and the unusually vibrant freestanding collage sculptures of Pepe Mar. The long shadow of John Currin’s influence can be seen in the proliferation of quirky figures in landscapes, but Cornelia Schleime’s large, painterly female heads at Michael Schultz reveal a different trajectory through her tactile facture and sensual use of the medium.

Fountain Art Fair with sculpture by Daniel Edwards. Photo by James Kalm.

SCOPE, the seminal force that launched a dozen satellite fairs, this year ups the ante by moving out of the Townhouse Hotel and into its own huge tent in Roberto Clemente Park. Though this year’s version is bigger and shinier, SCOPE maintains its mischievous punk nature. The number of galleries showing video, digital and mechanized art emitted the constant din of a factory production floor. Rodney Dickson’s “Queen Bee,” a Vietnamese snake bar circa 1968, had a strangely attractive aura and proved a great place to hang out for a drink during breaks from 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 at 31 Grand; and a full-sized Hummer carved from recycled Styrofoam by Andrew Jung at Lincart Gallery. Dona Nelson’s raunchy Abstract Expressionist conglomeration paintings at Thomas Erben stuck in my head like lint on polyester.

Among the noteworthy freelance/guerilla projects were Pierogi and Ronald Feldman, Grendal, and Fountain. The Pierogi and Ronald Feldman space on North Miami Avenue featured a solar-powered stainless steel and plate glass freezer containing a 4.5-ton “ice cube” that 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 and Dam, Stuhltrager, and Newark’s Rupert Ravens, showed works way too big for any fair booth. 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 were impressive. Around the corner, the Fountain crew capitalized on their success confronting New York’s Armory show. Daniel Edwards’ notoriously realistic sculpture of Britney Spears in childbirth was the centerpiece of Capla Kesting’s collection. Galeria Janet Kurnatowski included gems of paintings by James Biederman and Rail contributors Ben La Rocco and Shane McAdams. Other participants were McCaig-Wells, Front Room and Neil Stevenson.

Putting my poor abused feet up to rest, I begin to sort through the various tendencies, trends and implications of this art fair mania:

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 who threw shit-loads of cash at some very “speculative” offerings.

2) Exposure: several dealers told me that more potential clients were seeing them 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, who briefly let their guard down; there’s an incredible leveling when no one’s ensconced in multimillion-dollar architectural fortresses.

4) Measuring up: it’s always good to compare just how well you’re presenting yourself and your ideas, and to catch whatever new, influential concepts are popping up over the horizon that might require an attitude adjustment. This is especially important for New Yorkers since, as the art market capital of the world, we’ve become paralyzed by financial considerations. Money doesn’t like change.

5) Gossip: damn, you see and hear enough juicy stuff to fill ten check-out-line tabloids.

Finally, how does all this affect 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” [passively observing a work] and “seeing” [focusing your perception on it for possible consideration] is made in 0.4 seconds.) Will this kill support for more subtle 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 grown so rich that it 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, okay?) to museums and institutions (funding is abundant), to collectors, (the only amenity missing from the collectors lounge were flunkies in powdered wigs and red velvet vests pealing grapes), 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 witnessing Darwinian economics at its most unregulated, a true force of nature, human nature. Love it or loathe it, that’s what makes this scene so extraordinarily fascinating and frustrating. If Warhol’s credo “Everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” captured the essence of post-war American art, perhaps the sentiment for the new millennium should be “Sooner or later everyone will be in a cubicle trying to sell something.”

Necromancy in Miami: Basel Miami and Related Affairs by Ben La Rocco

An art fair is a supreme expression of repressed necrological urges. Necromancy is the practice of predicting the future through communication with the dead. An over indulgent involvement with the past to be sure, but one means by which some can feel a measure of control over their future. Like necromancy, commodification relies on examination of the past—that which has been successfully commodified—in order to predict what will sell in the future and determine how to sell it. Art fairs are the place to observe the transformation of art into commodity. Watch carefully and you can actually see art dissolve and drain into the die-cut molds of status symbols, decorative accessories and financial investments. If any inorganic object can be said to have life, it is art. Its dedifferentiation at art fairs, though celebrated by some on democratic grounds and by others on aesthetic, nonetheless represents a sort of ritualized death.

Miami is the perfect backdrop for art fairs. It both reflects and helps to generate their mood. When the bottom fell out of the real estate market, work stopped on the city’s giant condo complexes leaving massive endoskeletons of concrete and steel hulking on the horizon. These silent structures with overhead cranes stilled emanate a hard beauty enhanced by Miami’s generally low-rise architecture. They are like an under painting for Corbusier’s lost dream of a universal architecture, but they are not utopian. They are for the wealthy who decided not to come. They are monuments to a negative cash flow. In an almost comic twist, Miami’s vultures circle regularly overhead.

Set in opulent South Beach, Basel Miami is the most prestigious of the roughly 17 fairs held simultaneously in the city. Nobody sweats there. The lugubrious reality of the fairs (and of Miami itself) is felt as an undercurrent. At the lesser known fairs in Miami, as locals refer to that part of the city that is not South Beach, the level of exertion is feverish. Everyone is there—Chelsea, Brooklyn, the critics and the artists. Everyone is fighting for attention. They are exhausted from selling, socializing and substance abuse. They have rings under their eyes. The artists exhibit to maintain the respect of their peers and keep some money in their pockets. The galleries must sell just to stay in business. This is their bread and butter and the overhead they incur can spell the end for them if they do poorly. Excitement and desperation mingle in the air. No one must admit to doing poorly. Everything is just terrific, the best year yet and drinks are free.

Basel Miami is set up in a nearly perfect grid of cubicles spread out beyond the edge of visual logic in the Miami Beach Convention Center. From the skywalk the whole thing can be seen from above, each cubicle supplied with power by a fine cable hanging from the ceiling nearly 60 feet above. It’s a picture of infinity, the kind of thing Andreas Gursky would get very worked up about. And it is striking in its beauty, as though everyone suddenly got Sol LeWitt’s point. The grid is the fundamental tool against which we define form and its formal elegance is enhanced by its functional application at Basel. Within its protective confines each gallery lays out an array of objects, like specimens under a microscope, for comparison with like objects in neighboring cubicles. Basel Miami illustrates our use of regular, structural distribution to organize our environment. It is cold and clinical in its familiarity, like an autopsy.

Imagine a structure composed of two pyramids, one inverted and balanced on the tip of the other. Now imagine this structure embedded in the earth so that only the inverted pyramid is visible above ground. Imagine that the buried pyramid is full of dead artists with the longest dead buried on the widest bottom-most layer, and the most recently dead artist perched just below the surface of the earth at the pinnacle of the submerged pyramid. Now imagine the above-ground pyramid to be composed of art fairs, with the largest and most glorious spread across the top of the base facing the sky. At the very tip of the inverted pyramid, nearest the most recently dead artist is the most inconspicuous, least known art fair. In this case, that fair is the little-known Grendel. Organized by Dam, Stuhltrager, Jack the Pelican and Rupert Ravens Contemporary, Grendel is composed of aggressive work installed in a dimly lit, abandoned shopping mart just down the street from the famous Rubell Family Collection. Just clearing the space for Grendel meant days of work and there was no plumbing or electricity for the opening. Not coincidentally, it is the best of the art fairs I saw in Miami. Considering the fair’s relative position in the diagram, it is clear why. Good art has to do with awareness of death. The arrangement of this fair puts the artists’ concerns first. Measured financially, its place is marginal, but aesthetically, it is critical.

This diagram illustrates the proportionality of death to financial gain as a headlong deficit. The longer an artist has been buried in the pyramidal crypt below ground, the more reliable his work’s financial standing on the high plateau of the greatest art fair. It also has the benefit of illustrating the edgy proximity of the least known art fair to the realm of the dead. There may be some fluid exchange possible within the heavy pyramidal structure. Recently dead or still living artists may jump to the higher levels of the art fair pyramid though their standing will always be precarious. Likewise, long dead artists may sink so deeply that they disappear below ground altogether.

Art fairs are no place to see art. I can’t imagine a worse environment. The videos whine, the paintings glare and the installations spill out at your feet. Everything is gleaming white. It is hallucinatory and disorienting. And yet this is where most art gets bought and sold these days.

At museums, the nausea factor is mitigated by architectural refinement, careful consideration of space by curators and attempts to recreate period environments. No such efforts are made at art fairs. Each white cube looks just like every other. Needless to say, the standards of quality at an art fair are substantially lower than that of a museum. Even at Basel Miami, it’s absurd to think that most of the work there will stand the test of time. But who cares about time. There’s no tomorrow at Basel Miami. There aren’t even any windows. It just goes on forever with a big bar in the center.


James Kalm

JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene.  In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.

Ben LaRocco


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2007

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