Celebrity, Real Estate, Fashion—
Oh, and Art—in Miami Beach
By: Mario Naves
Few people play the zipper quite like Ken Butler. Tucking a microphone down his
pants, the Brooklyn-based musician counter- rhythmically zips and unzips his fly
to a soundtrack of pre-recorded beats. He plays other instruments: His head doubles
as a bongo drum, and he “scratches” a toothbrush across his teeth
as adeptly as a D.J. working the turntables.
Mr. Butler also cobbles together instruments from anything he can get his hands
on. Among the most elaborate is a stringed contraption fashioned from a tennis
racket, a hockey stick, a metal comb and God knows what else. Listed on the credits
of his “Greatest Hits” CD are the Push Broom Cello, the Brush-Axe,
the Cane Racket and the ominous-sounding Octavator.
The resulting avant-noise doesn’t lend itself to quiet meditation, yet its
ingenuity and gusto are self-evident. Mr. Butler’s performance at Aqua Art
Miami, one of the many art fairs that recently descended upon that sunny locale,
was diverting, funny and, in the end, irresistible. His neo-Dadaist gizmos and
unprepossessing charm put to shame the juvenilia being peddled at the “new
alternative art fair.” Do young artists look to inspiration outside of tattoo
parlors, slacker quilting bees and the pages of Barely Legal? Apparently not.
The art featured at Aqua couldn’t compete with the faded environs of the
hotel that housed it. How can umpteenth-generation punks hope to compete with
the honest kitsch of 1960’s décor, artfully arranged surfboards and
a decorative hammerhead shark? That didn’t stop collectors, artists, students
and curiosity-seekers from filing through, just as they would through Pulse, Scope,
Bridge, Flow, Ink, the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) and grassroots affairs
like Grendel and Fountain.
The Mother of All Art Fairs, the source from which all these other, smaller events
spring, is Art Basel Miami Beach, which has transformed this city into a major
player of the international art scene. Blue-chip art dealers began selling their
wares in the city five years ago, partaking of the temperate weather, party-hearty
atmosphere and access to capital. Since then, Miami Basel has blossomed into a
veritable Roman orgy of discretionary spending. Are there really that many people
with that much money who can keep such a staggering enterprise afloat?
And is the current and seemingly inexhaustible fascination with art a signal of
our culture’s sophistication or its insecurities? Certainly, big money is
a draw, as is the scene’s increasing rapport with the worlds of celebrity,
real estate and fashion. Keanu Reeves was spotted eyeing objets d’art. The
Sun Post, a local alternative paper, featured a not-so-alternative 60-page pullout
titled “The Art of Real Estate.” The clientele at Miami Basel sported
extreme nips-and-tucks and alarmingly abbreviated mini-skirts. Future sociologists
will have their work cut out for them when studying the art subculture; Miami
is sure to constitute a significant chapter.
As a media event, Miami Basel is an undisputed success. A friend likened the crowds
rushing the gates of the Miami Beach Convention Center to the masses stampeding
through the doors of Wal-Mart on Black Friday. The comparison only goes so far:
Art Basel shoppers command big bankrolls. Critics rue the Machiavellian nature
of it all—one wag suggested that if a governmental agency dared to investigate
the art world’s privileged quarters and shady dealings, an Enron-style scandal
would ensue. Still, art lovers could take solace in the quality of the work on
Dreck may have prevailed at Miami Basel, but the good stuff was good indeed: works
by Giacometti, Morandi, Klee, Soutine, Lyonel Feininger, Helen Frankenthaler,
Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, H.C. Westermann, a lone painting by Neo Rauch and
two canvases by Gerhard Richter that gave this detractor pause. Marketplace scorekeepers
will note that a lot of work by Hans Hofmann, Donald Judd and Alice Neel was up
for sale. Ultimately, though, the amount of stuff on display was more than the
eye and the psyche could withstand. When a litany of names turns into a blur of
experience, it’s hard to keep focus on aesthetics.
Young artists were the chief focus of the attendant art fairs around town, and
the energy level among them was palpable, even if most of the art could barely
muster a head of steam. The Container Show—two dozen or so galleries exhibiting
their wares in shipping containers—had the benefit of a picturesque South
The same can’t be said of Pulse, Scope and Nada, each of which was located
in Wynwood, a neighborhood with some shockingly poverty-stricken corners. Locals
shouted out bemused greetings to the artsy, well-heeled hordes straggling wide-eyed
through their community. It didn’t take a diehard Marxist to detect culture
A glut of art lends itself less to specifics than to generalizations. Was there
any contemporary work that rose above the haze? At Miami Basel, the young Dutch
artist Jacco Oliver’s Community (2006), a video narrative created by filming
consecutive states of an image painted in oils, possessed a winningly poetic élan.
Dam, Stuhltrager, a gallery located in Williamsburg, stole the show at
Scope with a kinetic sculpture by Ryan Wolfe and drawings by Michael Schall. Constructed
from circuitry, small plexiglass boxes filled with gravel and blades of long grass,
Mr. Wolfe’s installation twitched, flicked and flowed with a mesmerizing
lyricism—like three-dimensional calligraphy. Mr. Schall’s intensely
realized works in graphite depict hushed post-industrial dreamscapes somewhere
between Caspar David Friedrich, Giorgio de Chirico and Dr. Seuss.
At Pulse, the Polish artist Piotr Nathan resourcefully contrived a neo-Constructivist
sculpture from a fragmented, graffiti-strewn door. How much is gained by learning
that this musical array of arcing geometry was once the door of a public restroom
known for hosting fleeting homosexual encounters is, I guess, worth considering.
Still, Mr. Nathan’s unerring eye for rhythm, space and interval is self-sustaining
and trumps any political subtext.
There were additional attention-worthy artists—the names Piero Dorazio,
Hester Simpson, Julie Evans, Lindsay Walt, Mark Wagner and John Duff are scrawled
across my notepad—providing welcome breaks from the sideshow atmosphere.
The most telling image was at Scope: A pair of devil’s horns mounted on
a hefty dollar sign. Money is the root of all evil—didn’t you just
know it? The painting was, of course, for sale. Therein lies the hypocrisy, if
not the isolated glories, of Miami’s art-fair madness.
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