Dispatch from Basel

by Madeleine Peck Wagner
This year’s Art Basel (Miami Beach) was pastiche-like in the forms and textures it consumed and belched back out. Rather like a visual counterpart to the Beatles’ Abbey Road, there were soaringly perfect highs; guttural base notes; oddball, octopus-like inclusions; and, for those who looked closely and quietly, Her Royal Majesty.
If last year’s Basel, with citywide sculptures, pop-up parks, and a luminous beachside installation, was an expansive, inclusive celebration, then this year’s scaled back, less effusive display was a return to business. The vibe, though still Miami Beach, was a little reserved, and even the art on display seemed more concerned with its own near blue-chip status. There was an almost somber Robert Rauschenberg piece and a Ryan McGinley photo that seemed to pander. As a whole, though, the work seemed more serious and subtle, and in those instances where excess or obviousness emerged, they seemed somehow out of place and gauche. Although there were a few SoBe moments, like standing at the La Sandwicherie horking down a prosciutto and fresh mozzarella sandwich after a hard day of dissecting art, and watching a red Lamborghini roar up. The gull-wing doors glide open, a perfectly appointed gentleman steps out, then helps a seven-foot goddess out of the passenger seat so they can grab grinders. It was conspicuous consumerism as high art; it was absurd and fantastic.
Lamborghini aside, even Miamians seemed more comfortable toning down the celebrations this year and doing their own, far-away-from-Basel thing. Tattoo Studio Ocho Placas hosted “Omerta,” an art show and book release party to celebrate a book of the same name. (Full disclosure: My husband, Nick Wagner, was included in the book and opening.) But in the following days, familiar faces were spotted in tents around town.
Last year’s Scope Art Fair was epic and energizing, constrasted with the conservative and quiet of this year. It seemed there was an attempt to take the long view of art history and showcase much more serious art. For example, the Jonathan Levine Gallery can usually be counted on to mount an impressive display that is equal parts playful and profound. Their 2009 A.J. Fosik display was breathtaking and ambitious.
This year, the gallery featured the underwater photography of Jason DeCaires Taylor. The former scuba instructor carves and casts life-sized figurative works, then installs them underwater in the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MuSA), the world’s first underwater museum, which will eventually provide the basis for a new reef system. In the images, it is clear to see how the sea is reclaiming the objects, and the resulting photographs are beautiful and haunting, but not terribly exciting, as one underwater image looks like another. So while there were poetic thoughts, there was little visual poetry. It was a headspace kind of display.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was the priced-to-move, slightly haphazard installation of artist Rocky Grimes. In fact, when compared with his “finer” art, the installation, with panels priced from $25 to $75, was graphic, geometrically spare, and engrossing in a way that his self-referential clip art silkscreen mashups aren’t.
But then, most artists are fairly self-referential. At the Mary Boone booth inside of Basel proper, Barbara Kruger’s huge text pieces were showcased: HOW MUCH, BLEED US DRY, and PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH. Text in art is always seductive. It is almost like script in a tattoo because no matter how often one is able to dismiss the mundane and trite, every now and again there is that perfect phrase that stops time. Kruger’s works might not be those perfect koans (this writer finds them a little outdated and ineffective), but they make the point, and do it from inside of art history. And they are worth looking at, if for no other reason than to craft an opposing reaction.
Also waving at the viewer from art history were a couple of early (authenticated) Jean Michel Basquiat drawings, circa 1978. Drawn in the bubbly, trippy style of Peter Max with a soupçon of the gruesome, the works were clearly the efforts of a very young artist with a Pop sensibility. They are an interesting and humanizing counterpart to Basquiat’s known and celebrated canon.
Aqua Art Miami, held in Miami Beach this year, had some interesting artists and works on display, but the restrictions of the space made viewing the art a little difficult and close. Because the fair was housed in the Aqua Hotel, which is built around a courtyard, each exhibitor had a hotel-room-sized space in which to display work. Not ideal, but fun nonetheless. Of note were artists Carly Waito, Misako Inaoko, and Chauncey Peck (no relation).
No visit to Miami during Basel is complete without a stroll through Wynwood. This year there was one more reason to dodge concertina wire and cement sinkholes: Jacksonville artist Shaun Thurston exhibited in a warehouse show entitled Co11ective. The show was comprised of eleven world-class graffiti artists, and Thurston’s participation was facilitated by CoRK developer Mac Easton, whose sister, Lizzie Easton-Montes, produced the show.
“One of the main reasons we decided to do the show was the excitement and energy involved in the Wynwood street art scene last year during Basel,” says Easton-Montes. “My husband [Tek6] is a street artist, so for us to be in the middle of this buzz was strategic. I mean, if you took a walk down the street on any given day during Basel, you would see 30 or more street artists working on wall. This is unheard of and exciting. And most exciting was that it was artists from all over the world, sharing energy, sharing technique.” Indeed this year, Wynwood might have been where all of Basel’s energy and positivity was centered.
Incidentally, for those wondering where the Queen was spotted, that was just my oh-so-clever way to include a dig at Mr. Brainwash. In addition to a show at Boulon of his trademark paint-splattered prints (the Queen is a favorite subject), he did a site-specific installation on Collins between Setai and the W. Titled “Under Construction,” Brainwash grouped a phalanx of cardboard cutout Stormtroopers on the tiers of an as-yet-unfinished building project. It was lazy, slapdash and boring.
Perhaps, though, the message to take away from this year’s Basel was one loopily painted on a wall at the corner of North Miami Avenue and NW 24th Street: When I Found You, I Found Love.