MIAMI BEACH — In the cycles of art fairs, there are some that are going up and others that are on a slow decline to what seems like oblivion. In the former category is Untitled, which debuted last year and has since generated a lot of buzz because of its South Beach beachfront location (which was copied this year by Scope art fair) and the crop of galleries it appears to have lured away from the once “too cool for school” NADA art fair further uptown. Considering the price for a commercial gallery booth at Untitled this year was double what it was at NADA ($15,000 vs. $7,500, according to one gallery source), the location of Untitled is undoubtedly a lure for participating galleries. Only time will tell if it will emerge as a must-watch fair.
In general, Untitled was a pleasant environment but more of a mixed bag than last year, when the curatorial vision was noticeably more coherent. In 2013, Untitled was a little more open in its aesthetic vision, but it did feel like a Frieze New York wannabe (without the food options), rather than something wholly new.
Nature Gone Wrong
If the Untitled fair was more embracing of difference this year, it also felt more stylish, which in the art world isn’t always a good thing. One theme I noticed in some of the best work on display at the fair was the notion of nature gone wrong. This pop-up art souk in South Beach was a perfect locale to watch the age-old conflict between the manmade and the natural play out on the pristine walls of gallery booths.
The paintings on view at Curro & Poncho by Mexican artist Luis Alfonso Villalobos, which feature modernist homes floating perilously on the sea, were a perfect visual respite from the whiteness of the fair. Painting a Theo van Doesburg architectural maquette or the first modernist house in Mexico, Villalobos casts these rectilinear structures out to sea, where the austere formalism of modernism looks ill suited — absurdly so — to withstand mother nature’s powerful waves.
Like Villalobos, another artist, Ken Gonzales-Day, showing at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles gallery, has injected a scene with a high dose of discomfort to create the chilling mood that pervades “St. James Place (The Wonder Gaze)” (2013). Only when you realize that the photograph is of an early 20th-century lynching of a black man in California — his body has been removed from the image — does the work stop you cold; the historic photograph is revealed to be a disgusting spectacle of human depravity with a seemingly barren tree mysteriously at the center. The blackness of the night sky and the overexposed men in hats in the foreground make this manipulated example of early flash photography stark. Nature seems removed from the scene, and we can only assume the people shown have pushed it away.
Alun Williams’s “White Prize Cow” (2013) similarly pushes the limits of comfort for the viewer, as a bloated beast seems poised to overtake its frame. This canvas draws on the rich history of bovine portaiture that suggests a different relationship to nature from our own, though it is one equally in flux, as the ultimate domesticated creature, the cow, represents the human will to change the world to suit our needs. Here the cow seems on the verge of collapse as the result of some mysterious force beyond the frame.
At Auxiliary Projects‘ booth I found a similarly erie sense of natural dystopia, which seemed to emanate from Arielle Falk’s 3D-printed flowers planted in florist foam and plastic pots and placed on plinths next to oscillating white fans without blades. The surprising stillness of the scene generated a surrealist air around the faux foliage that will never grow or wilt. It’s an image of nature best suited to our hermetically sealed homes and lives. Unlike Williams’s scene, which is obviously monstrous, here Falk’s domesticity looks surprisingly genial and welcoming.
But my favorite take on our increasingly domesticated and deformed nature came at the Bitforms gallery booth, where Clement Valla’s “The Universal Texture (39° 6’58.57”N, 84°30’5.00”W)” (2012) was propped against a wall like a fallen Icarus. Based on screenshots from the world of Google Earth, Valla’s piece focuses on the distorted imagery of a world captured in two dimensions. The process of making these flat images into something sculptural creates a disorienting space where fact and fiction are one in the same. While Google’s image may be a glitch, Valla’s work makes it seem like a dizzying Futurist visual poem aspiring to something greater.
Untitled Art Fair (Ocean Drive and 12th Street, Miami Beach, Florida) took place December 5–9.
Editor’s Note: A pr representative of Untitled wanted to point out that Untitled’s price per sq. ft. is actually $50, while NADA’s is $52.