MIAMI — Since Art Basel’s Miami Beach fair set down its roots over a decade ago, Miami Art Week has become a cacophony of satellite fairs and events jam-packing the international art circuit’s calendar for the first week of December. One fair that gives the flagship behemoth a run for its money is actually its predecessor, Art Miami. An eclectic mix of galleries focusing on the primary and secondary markets inhabits this international fair, which encompasses three large tents in midtown Miami. Next door is a smaller tent that houses Art Miami’s sister fair, Context, a venue for younger spaces showing emerging and mid-career artists. Context is the MoMA PS1 to Art Miami’s MoMA: smaller, younger, and sleeker. The sheer amount of art on display at both fairs rivals any museum (though quality is a different story) and becomes a dizzying maze after awhile. The bustling VIP and press preview on December 1 was teeming with locals and tourists alike queued patiently for white wine and Perrier.
Like any large fair, Art Miami is rife with works that seem to be made specifically for their setting. Gimmicky blockbuster pieces like giant lollipop and teddy bear sculptures (Unix Gallery), a fragmented mirror (Galeria Freites), and other assorted photogenic works (think neon) pepper the fair, crying out for Instagram likes. Context has comparable works on display, such as a gold KAWS sculpture and freakishly realistic mannequins, but they don’t seem to be trying quite as hard.
The main purpose of an art fair is to sell. In case you forgot this, Christie’s International Real Estate occupies a cherry red sponsor booth next to Art Miami’s main entrance. Cleveland’s Contessa Gallery has plastered its entire booth with a deafening installation of works by Mr. Brainwash — aptly placed next to the bathrooms. One wall is replete with 15 Banksy copies (all of them literally titled “Banksy Thrower”) on sale for $12,000 a pop. Though garish “street art” will no doubt sell well, especially at a low five-figure price point, this kind of tacky and transparent work is part of the reputation that Miami’s art scene is so desperately trying to shake.
Many prominent modern and contemporary artists like Salvador Dalí, Robert Indiana, Alex Katz, and Damien Hirst appear at multiple booths throughout Art Miami. After counting seven galleries exhibiting Warhol within a half hour of my arrival, I quickly realized this was an exercise in futility. The booths of Queue Projects and Dranoff Fine Art sit across from each other in an impressive blue-chip staring contest. Among a number of Picassos and Chagalls in funky gold frames, Queue Projects is featuring a seasonally appropriate Warhol print of Santa Claus, hung on a festive red wall. Dranoff is showing an Ed Ruscha print and a petite Jeff Koons Venus of Willendorf balloon in hot pink. There are also a conspicuous number of Botero sculptures on display, including a gargantuan black sculpture outside the venue.
As is often the case at fairs, the booths with the quietest displays speak the loudest in this bazaar of sensory overload. Laguna Beach’s Peter Blake Gallery is a relaxing oasis (much calmer than the VIP Lounge near which it’s situated) offering an array of minimalist works. Among them is a sleek polychrome canvas by Larry Bell that uses a pastiche of metal and mylar to apply metallic polychrome. Bell’s technical finesse and conceptual considerations are a sight for sore eyes. C. Grimaldis Gallery is showing three geometric paintings by Joan Waltemath with lots of negative white space interspersed with subtle but calculated blocks of color. Again, it’s the subtleties and attention to detail here that captivate the viewer, inviting him to spend a few extra seconds of examination during a week when every minute counts.
Context does not have the same quantity of buzzworthy names, instead relying on the possibility of discovery and more eclectic curation, in terms of both style and medium. Binghamton gallery Anthony Brunelli Fine Arts is exhibiting a gorgeous, captivating portrait by Alan Coulson of a young muse with baseball cap and nose ring entitled “Jordan” (2014) — its impasto background looks like stone. Basel-based Licht Feld Gallery has brought a group of stark red photographs of teens by Ayakamay entitled “Unconscious Education” (2015), hanging them next to MARCK‘s “Artstudent,” a video light box which stars (presumably) an art student smoking a joint. Corresponding vapor is emitted from the side of the box, a nice touch that tempers the spectacle with technical ability.
If you spend enough time at any art fair, however, you will begin to ask yourself some existential questions about how commercial entities consider and define art. The McLoughlin Gallery’s booth was scoff-worthy, pimping Bruce Makowsky’s grenade sculptures with the logos of Hermès, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, etc. As a mid-2000s Reddit bro aesthetic reared its hackneyed head, I found myself asking: For whom is this made? For whom is this necessary in 2015?
At the end of the night, dizzied, shaky, and unwilling to pay for the Perrier that was free an hour ago, I finally heard a chipper voice come over the P.A. announcing that the fair was closing. Without these benevolent words of reason, I could have spent several more hours meandering in art fair purgatory, pondering each teeming booth and filling my bag with business cards and catalogues — the only things I could afford to collect.