MIAMI BEACH — Walking into Context, Art Miami’s sister fair devoted to emerging artists and contemporary work, the overarching trend was immediately clear: surrealism, absurdity, art that’s slightly unhinged. Of course, one always sees this kind of stuff at art fairs; people seem to love it, perhaps because so much of it is easily digestible and looks great on Instagram. And to be sure, there was plenty of flat, ugly, hokey surrealism at Context. But there was also some very good work that was wonderfully off-the-wall.
Seven Berlin galleries took over a corner near the entrance of the fair, as part of a special section titled “Art from Berlin.” Despite the severely mixed quality of work they were showing, it offered a welcome opportunity to see a concentration of galleries and spaces from one of the leading hubs of contemporary art. The highlight was the Berlin Lounge booth, curated by Haus am Lützowplatz and showing the strange paintings of Philip Grözinger. Filled with ghostly and ghastly figures in dark settings, Grözinger’s works vacillate between nightmarish and cartoonish. Their oddness makes them compelling.
Also strangely compelling is the work of Philip Hinge, who paints outlandish pictures of food. In theory, watermelon and hot dog faces like the ones Hinge conjures should be easy to write off as ridiculous. But, with their extreme patterned backgrounds, they achieve a kind of zen zaniness. In another work by Hinge hanging at the booth of Connersmith gallery, “Layer Cake” (2013), he applies the paint so expertly that it seems to mimic the properties of the frosting on the cake. Hinge clearly has an intimate relationship with food.
My surreal painting trip continued with Daniel Karrer, who was being shown by Licht Feld Gallery. Karrer had two paintings that caught my eye, both of them hazy dreamscapes in oil and acrylic on cotton that looked like crosses between Man Ray still-life photographs and Gerhard Richter’s blurred photo-paintings, with a bit more color. They may not have been the most original works at Context, but their surrealism was subtle enough to be effective.
Meanwhile, at Kim Foster Gallery’s booth, Dan Hernandez was heading into newer territory with three works from his recent show Genesis, whose title plays on both the book and the Sega video-game console. Hernandez mashes up biblical and art historical scenes using a video-game aesthetic, then takes the digital results and transfers them to panel, adding surface cracks and weathering to make them look like frescoes. The results are distinctly contemporary. It’ll be interesting to see how they hold up in the years to come, whether they outlast their cleverness.
William Immer also deals with art history, and though I wouldn’t go so far as to call his work surreal, it’s playful and patently quirky. Immer, who was showing with Aureus Contemporary, takes found artworks, most often portraits, and paints over portions of them, most often the face. Some are just silly fun, as in the appearance of a KISS mask and guitar on an 18th-century-style portrait of a lady (the title: “Lady Rock”); but Immer gets better when he adds more, such as an unrecognizably pixelated version of Kim Kardashian face on top of Jesus’ or the blotting out of ⅔ of the canvas (including frame) in black. Immer’s interventions infuse a curious life into their subjects, reminding us that even the most historical details were current at one point.
Immer sources paintings at thrift stores; Ross Bonfanti finds stuffed animals. At the booth of the Blunt Collective, Bonfanti was exhibiting a series of sculptures and assemblages: beat-up-looking stuffed animals, sometimes with spikes in them, and assemblage-style paintings on wood. But the common element in Bonfanti’s work — besides a creepy junk-art aesthetic — is concrete; he uses it to make the animals and the heads of the figures in his paintings. The latter always feature the same oval-shaped baby head, with fairly uninteresting results. The animals, however, are great textural puns, with added commentary on the staying power of stuffed animals and childhood icons.
Not too far away, Amelia Biewald also plays with materials, in a wall of work presented by Magnan Metz Gallery. The highlights are three oval pieces, their forms recalling mirrors, but their surfaces overflowing with ruffles reminiscent of the gowns and collars and drapings of Romantic-era fashion. The ruffles look both hard and soft at the same time, which is due to their combination of materials: acrylic, muslin, plaster, and dry pigment. The installation is completed by another ruffle piece, set snug into a corner, and a sculpture of a dog on a mirrored surface peering into a lacy muzzle (or lampshade). None of the pieces have a discernible subject or meaning; they create, rather, an intriguing mood and a visual mystery. Naturally, this frustrates some people: a woman standing near me at the booth turned and told me she didn’t “get” them. In response, I said that was precisely why I liked them. Biewald’s is surrealism of the best kind: an exaggeration of reality that makes us question down to the core.
Context Art Miami took place December 3–8 at 3201 NE 1st Avenue (Wynwood, Miami).