Can an Art Fair Ever Be More Than an Art Fair?

Devon Dikeou, “Not Quite Mrs. de Menil’s Liquor Closet” (detail) (click to enlarge) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MIAMI — NADA art fair has a reputation in Miami: it’s thought of by a lot of people as one of the best, most interesting art fairs in town. It upholds its claim to newer and more cutting-edge work on its website: “Each December in Miami, NADA runs a renowned art fair to vigorously pursue our goals of exploring new or underexposed art that is not typical of the ‘art establishment.’”

NADA is, in fact, a welcome alternative — or perhaps the better phrase is “accompaniment” — to Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) and the other blue-chip fairs. But at the end of the day, an art fair is still an art fair — and NADA is one. Which is to say: there are some very good, striking, thoughtful works on view at this year’s NADA, and there are also a lot of boring ones.

The fair actually seems surprisingly similar to ABMB in its penchant for 2-D works; painting, in particular, is present in strong doses. Quirky, self-conscious plays on geometric abstraction can be seen every two or so booths, which struck me as something of a throwback. A few examples stood out, all of them practices that deviate from the rules by playing with and calling attention to their materials: Joe Fyfe‘s collage pieces incorporate fabric shapes alongside painting; Shila Khatami uses lacquer on aluminum to create unconventional surfaces; and Jess Fuller turns lines into blotches and rectangles into patches, as well as shredding her material selectively but mercilessly.

Work by Jess Fuller at Martos gallery
Tomoki Kurokawa’s paintings at Nanzuka gallery

Like these works, much of the best art at the fair seemed to have a sense of humor. Not to the point of shtick, mind you, but there’s just so much seriousness, and self-seriousness, in Miami, that the artists avoiding it were the ones who drew me in. Tomoki Kurokawa‘s small paintings at Nanzuka gallery, for instance, borrow visual tropes from manga but remix them into something surreal. One of my favorite pieces was an installation by Estonian artist Marko Mäetamm at the booth of Temnikova & Kasela Gallery. Mäetamm created blue watercolors and accompanying text for a series called Our Daddy Is a Hunter, and while the story sings the praises of the unnamed father, with his hunting gun and knife and big pants, the images show him hunting and ultimately netting his family. It’s dark stuff, but also funny; as the gallerist told me, “You know, it’s Estonia, not Greece. They don’t take everything so seriously.”

Marko Mäetamm, “Our Daddy Is a Hunter”

Another fantastic installation came from artist, collector, and Zing magazine editor Devon Dikeou. For NADA, Dikeou created a standalone, walk-in installation called “Not Quite Mrs. de Menil’s Liquor Closet.” The piece is inspired by, and very loosely modeled on, famed collector Dominique de Menil’s liquor closet, in which she apparently keeps miniature artworks mixed in with the glasses and drinks. Dikeou has created her own version of the closet, its mirrored shelves filled with bottles, glasses, and artworks from her own collection — drawings, postcards, photographs, and more by the likes of Marcel Dzama, Dan Colen, and Sarah Staton. Despite its hodgepodge nature, everything comes together perfectly. I mean it purely as a compliment when I suggest that this is what many people wish their Tumblrs and Pinterest boards would be: a portrait of the creator by way of a curated showcase of her aesthetic sensibility.

The exterior of Devon Dikeou’s “Not Quite Mrs. de Menil’s Liquor Closet”
Inside the faux liquor closet

A handful of other galleries are showing work that similarly springs from clever or smart ideas, with great aesthetic results. Justin Berry‘s mini solo booth at Interstate Projects, in the Nada Projects section of the fair, features three digital prints. For one of them, Berry photographed two covers of the same book side by side and then digitally manipulated them to remove the text. The resulting, nearly twin pictures are pastel landscapes that in any other context would probably look cheesy; somehow, here, they’re entrancing. His two other photos appear at first glance to be simple black-and-white landscapes, but it turns out they’re nature scenes shot within video games. Virtual space has rarely looked so real.

One of Justin Berry’s video-game landscapes

John Houck is also moving from the digital realm to the physical, and his mesmerizing prints command a wall at On Stellar Rays. Houck has a long, intense process for these works: He uses software that he wrote to generate every possible combination of a given number of rows, columns, and colors. He then uses another program he wrote to create an index print of the combinations on a single sheet of paper. Finally, he creases the paper, lights it, and photographs it a number of times. The final print looks like an infinitely dotted, striped rainbow, and it contains both illusionistic creases and real ones.

Work by John Houck at On Stellar Rays

Houck told me that he enjoys transforming his digital process into more traditionally tangible art objects, since he often doesn’t really know what the works will look like until they’re printed. “That was the best part — that it had to live outside the computer,” he said. But it seems notable that some of the best and only “digital” art at NADA exists on paper. Maybe for now, at least, there’s only so alternative an art fair can get.

NADA Miami (The Deauville Beach Resort, 6701 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach) continues through December 9.

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