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Miami Beach: Swimming in Pigment

Focus vs. blur at Art Basel Miami Beach
Focus vs. blur at Art Basel Miami Beach

To feed Two Coats of Paint, my daily blog about painting, I comb the Internet for art reviews and commentary from all over the world. It’s an enriching process but not very tactile: online, the artwork, galleries and museums remain distant and two-dimensional. Joanne Mattera, an artist and blogosphere pal who maintains several art blogs, urged me to go to the annual Miami art fairs–headlined by Art Basel Miami Beach, the original, biggest, and most highbrow, situated in Miami Beach’s huge convention center off Collins Avenue–which she argued was an efficient and potentially edifying way to make real contact with a good number of theretofore virtual entities. She was right on both counts. Yet the Miami fairs do not play merely like a compressed series of quaintly distinct gallery visits during a brisk walk through Chelsea. The experience is unlike any other.

A solo retrospective at a small museum or gallery can be comfortably and easily absorbed. One artist’s vision is tidily articulated, often through familiar conceptual tropes or physical perspectives, in a visibly finite space that is easy to navigate. An international, curated festival like Documenta is more daunting: expansive, multicultural, unpredictable, and potentially overwhelming. The art fairs in Miami are emphatically unlike either of these established modes of presentation. The numbers involved are enough to dumbfound even the most informed fairgoer. This year, the event involved work by over 5,000 artists, from a thousand galleries, displayed at more than twenty fairs throughout the city over a five-day period.

Purged of the customary organizing principles of art exhibition—artist, school, epoch, theme—the Miami art fairs deprive the viewer of the filters through which art is ordinarily apprehended. Because of the fairs’ inclusivity and the sheer volume of their offerings, they squelch depth, reflection, and deliberation, and compel speed, efficiency, and snap decisions. These are not generally seen as constructive modes of behavior in viewing, making, or buying art. Yet, the same features also focus an immense amount of popular as well as critical energy and attention on an impressive sampling of art and only art. So, if one key aim of the broader artistic endeavor is to develop and sustain art as a unifying social force, the growth of the annual Miami enterprise audaciously represents progress.

Logistically, the art fairs are more like flea markets or antiques cooperatives than anything else. At each fair, visitors are given a printed floor plan on which all the gallery locations are clearly marked. In some fairs, like Art Basel Miami Beach itself as well as Pulse and Scope in Miami’s gallery district across Biscayne Bay in the gritty Wynwood section of town, the galleries are assigned little areas, divided by temporary partitions upon which the art is hung. Others fairs, like Aqua Hotel, Bridge, Flow, and Ink, set up shop in hotels, and each gallery gets a room. Generally, the dealers and their staffs have a few chairs arranged around tables or desks within their area, and are prepared to engage with any interested patron who might wander in. If they need to carve out some personal space, their best bet is to stare into the obligatory laptop because there’s really no physical room available. While watching dealers solicit sales is taboo in the quiet hush of the spacious galleries back home, in the crowded Miami booths, it’s the norm.

As I glided down one aisle to the next, I was stunned by the awesome quantity of artwork on display. At Art Basel Miami Beach, many of the artists presented by the American galleries were easy to identify: Warhol, Basquiat, Tuymans, Kelly, and indeed Picasso, whose paintings were aggressively displayed near the entrance. But in the foreign galleries, as at the smaller fairs, while I could identify the artists’ influences, I often had no idea who the artists themselves were. The galleries, too, were unknown. There were no outward indicators (architecture, exhibition design or strategy, the character of the neighborhood) other than the gallery’s hometown to help contextualize what I was seeing. So, as I wandered through the maze with few guideposts, for better or worse my critical eye zoned in starkly on the work itself.

I admit to initially finding the experience discomfiting. I’m a typical, overextended, multi-tasking, American woman, and I rely on the tried-and-true shortcuts of personal recommendations and reviews to save time and guide me to worthwhile work. Uncool and lazy as it may seem, I almost—almost—envied the celebrities and collectors who got to browse with professional art consultants by their sides. If I’m trying to get a bead on a good home appliance, I don’t interrogate merchants and exhaustively cross-reference consumer guides; I ask my sister (who will have done all that) what she bought. Same with blogs. I’m too busy to visit every art blog out there; I rely on testimonials from blogosphere comrades. Blogrolls are a godsend. And where would we be without film and book reviewers?

People are driven to sort and filter. I needed some crude protocol for selectively navigating the miles of artwork and handily determining what to embrace and what to dismiss. My first decision was to ignore everything that wasn’t painting, but since this event is motivated primarily by commerce, most of the work in Miami is painting. Additional filters were required. I wasn’t looking to build a saleable collection, so I had no interest in investment value or “getting in on the ground floor.” Thus, I could dismiss wearisome and obvious work that begged for attention and seemed to exist mainly to create buzz. New talent, fresh out of graduate school, tends to be enthusiastic but thin. Yet I found it difficult simply to wave off. I appreciated the hopefulness, the boundless energy, that the fresh grads brought to Miami, especially at the upstart Fountain fair in Wynwood, which featured several galleries from Brooklyn. Not only were the artists themselves milling about, but they were actually involved in the sales pitch. They reminded me, fondly, of teenagers who had yet to have their hearts broken.

My generally democratic approach to painting was not yielding a degree of discrimination that was fine enough to negotiate all of the artwork that hung before me. So I began dividing the paintings into my own visual categories: the tidy minimalists, the gooey abstractionists, the storytellers, the dopey figurists, the dreamy pentimenti-ists, the ugly colorists, the isolated suburbanists, the digitally-composited landscapists, the digitally-composited surrealists, the drab hyper-realists, the quick drawers, the environmentalists, the ball-point pen aficionados, the emotive minimalists, the sublime symbolists, the snide whimsy-ists, the architecturalists (interior and exterior), the found-materialists, the textists, the historical referent-ists. Miami had it all, and my makeshift algorithm for getting through it was that overwrought conceptualism was cloying, and all-too-painterly abstraction unsatisfying. Armed with those grossly generalized boundaries, I found myself whooshing past much of the work, trying to get to the next fair.

Of course, it wasn’t just me. Many other attendees were flooded with the same worry that they’d miss the best installations and the best performances, not to mention the best parties. Joanne had suggested that we organize some kind of art blogger get-together during the fairs, so I created a short informational blog for “Art Blogger Miami Beach.” Sure enough, we gathered a respectable flock. I first heard the words, “Have you seen anything good?” at our blogger klatch, and the refrain played on and on throughout the week. I monitored the art blogs and was fascinated that the near-instantaneous reports about the fairs I’d just visited often displayed images of work I’d dismissed (or simply missed) entirely. One of my most memorable moments in Miami was when artist Amy Wilson gave me a little handmade book that included a small magnifying glass for reading its tiny print. In retrospect, this was a perfect gift: a reminder that we need to slow down, take some time, and look carefully at what’s in front of us.

Eventually, as the anxious feeling that I was missing something passed, I realized that my lens, honed and scrutinized throughout the week, was largely self-referential. Indeed, it was the same unexamined lens I have always used when selecting articles and reviews to post on my blog. I am drawn to work that I might include if I were curating a show that somehow relates to my own paintings. Attempting to take in much of what the fairs had to offer, largely unmediated by parochial conceits or particular tastes, made me realize very concretely how we cope with the overwhelming pluralism of today’s art world by developing our own aesthetic biases and using them to narrow the range of artistic data that we process.

It’s too easy to scorn Art Basel Miami Beach and its satellites as a vulgar coalescence of dilettantes and profiteers. Beneath that veneer, they provide an invaluable one-stop annual inventory of the art world: a dazzlingly broad array of artwork, much of it vigorous and thoughtful, in two nearby neighborhoods geared for high-intensity viewing, through which art becomes a proud rallying point for an entire city. On an individual level, accepting the challenge of apprehending such a vast ocean of work without props, as it were, is to rediscover the very process by which you first figured out what you loved about looking at, and making, art. The opportunity to redefine and articulate your passion is a lot more than just a good party.


Sharon L. Butler

SHARON L. BUTLER is an artist and Associate Professor at Eastern Connecticut State University. She blogs at Two Coats of Paint.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2008

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