MIAMI BEACH — Maybe it’s watching our democratic institutions threatened with dismantlement on a daily basis as a rich egomaniac with autocratic tendencies prepares to assume the US presidency, but I had trouble concentrating at the 2016 Untitled art fair. An air-conditioned, art-filled tent on a beach (in a city that’s sinking but refuses to reckon with climate change) is basically a physical manifestation of the neoliberal art world bubble; as someone without a stockpile of money, I did not feel reassured being inside it.
That isn’t Untitled’s fault, per se — almost all the art fairs have tents, and this one is perfectly nice. But it didn’t help that the fair this year feels safer than editions past. There’s a lot of geometric abstraction, a lot of colorful sublimity, and, as happens at almost all art fairs, the better and the worse manifestations of these styles get lumped together and flattened out into a uniform wave of marketplace security. President Donald Trump is coming, but we’ll keep making and selling art, right? It’s all going to be OK, right?
It’s not, though, and at Untitled I found cold comfort. Beyond a couple of visceral pieces by Molly Crabapple in the Postmasters booth, the closest thing I saw to a political statement was Tomas Vu and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s T-shirt silkscreening shack, where, for $20, buyers can mix and match one of seven self-knowingly ironic platitudes with one of eight celebrity images. If “THE DAYS OF THIS SOCIETY IS NUMBERED” printed atop a photo of David Bowie as Aladdin Sane is how we think art will save us, we may as well give up and go home.
I did take solace in a handful of booths devoted, more or less, to single artists. Not much connects them beyond my taste, but all of them feature unpretentious works that encourage close looking. The three displays are about human lives and narratives and the way those can be processed through art. That feels more crucial than ever in a time of gross inhumanity.
Carlos Arias at Marso (Mexico City)
I should start by saying that this isn’t, technically, a solo presentation; there are a couple of pieces by other artists scattered throughout the booth. But Marso’s space is, essentially, devoted to Carlos Arias, which is as it should be, because his work is stunning.
As the gallerist explained to me, Arias is a Chilean artist who lived on and off in Mexico for decades before finally settling there in the late 1980s. He married a Mexican woman, a fellow artist, but soon after came to realize that he was gay. “Through embroidery he kind of found himself, using this medium that’s mostly done by women but from a male, gay point of view,” the gallerist told me. Arias had a lot of success in the ’90s, but grew tired of the art scene and withdrew from it. He didn’t stop making art, however, and when the staff of Marso visited his studio, they discovered more than 20 years’ worth of largely unseen work.
Some of that is on view in the booth at Untitled, most notably “Legacy,” a piece that Aria began working on in 1995, when he was still married, and finished in 2014, by which time he had come out. It’s a large, understated embroidery in which the artist sews the trajectory of his identity, from being a baby in his father’s hand, in the top left corner, to a gay man with his partner, on the far right. Along the way, a beautiful clarification happens, from the busyness of his early life to a later simplicity. “Legacy” is joined in Marso’s booth by a number of other pieces by the artist, all of them carefully balancing the intricacies of embroidery with straightforward figures and shapes and an honest exploration of self.
Patrick Angus at Galerie Thomas Fuchs (Stuttgart)
Like so many gay men who lived in New York City in the ’80s, Patrick Angus died young: in 1992, at the age of 38, from AIDS. He had some success before he went, seeing three solo shows and a book devoted to his paintings within the last year of his life, but it was hard won: previously, his figurative paintings of the city’s underground gay scene — bath houses, male burlesque theaters, hustler bars — had been shunned by gallerists and collectors. Among his early fans was the playwright Robert Patrick, who nicknamed Angus “the Toulouse-Lautrec of Times Square.”
The work on view at Galerie Thomas Fuchs’s booth ranges from those more sexually explicit scenes to intimate portraits, along with two self-portraits in pencil. Whether they show a teenage boy sitting at a table or a stripper strutting down a catwalk, Angus’s paintings are infused with a palpable melancholy, a deep sense of isolation. My favorite, “Two Dancers in the Changing Room Backstage at the Gaiety” (1991), is a gorgeously quiet observation of male performers that feels like a homoerotic update of Degas.
An eager representative for Galerie Thomas Fuchs told me that he’d been curious about Angus’s work ever since seeing the 2009 film An Englishman in New York, which features some of the artist’s paintings. But he couldn’t find a single gallery that represented Angus, and it was only by contacting American museums that he connected with the artist’s estate. An exhibition planned for next December at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart will include artworks kept by Angus’s mother in her Arkansas home. “She said she’d been waiting 20 years for this phone call,” the gallerist said.
Sadie Barnette at Jenkins Johnson Gallery (San Francisco)
Sadie Barnette’s dad, Rodney, was an impressive man: a founder of the Compton chapter of the Black Panther Party, a member of the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis, and he opened the first black-owned gay bar in San Francisco. It’s no wonder she would want to explore his influence.
She does so in some of the works gathered for Jenkins Johnson Gallery’s booth, among them pages from the FBI’s 500-page surveillance file on her father that she’s doused in sparkly splashes of pink and purple. They’re set against a pink wall covered in the pattern of a chain-link fence — which is itself a fairly apt summation of Barnette’s aesthetic meld: cute and tough, domestic and street, personal and political. Although a few of the works fall flat (the world could do with fewer reflective surfaces), the smartest ones — say, an image of a Honda soaring through the air above a Martin Luther King Jr Way street sign — are puzzles you want to spend time putting together.
Untitled 2016 continues at Ocean Drive and 12th Street (Miami Beach) through December 4.
Correction: This article originally misstated Patrick Angus’s first name. We regret the error. It has been fixed.