Saying that I have picked the Best of Art Basel Miami Beach to write about would be a lie (because I did not see every single thing there.) Thus, in honor of transparency, I played a little game while at Art Basel in Miami; I asked friends in art to suggest which gallery booths they thought I should visit. When I arrived at the booth destination, I asked those gallerists to recommend one other person. In a way, this game embodies the incestuous nature of the art world. Based on this little social experiment the Lower East Side was shining and South Africa won my heart along the way.
First up, I visited Callicoon Fine Arts whose Director is my good-good girl friend, Elizabeth Lamb. That relationship aside, I really do like the work this gallery shows… and apparently so does the Whitney Museum, as Callicoon artist Ulrike Müller was announced as part of the upcoming Whitney Biennial days before the opening of Art Basel’s Miami fair. Additionally, Luther Price, whose work was on view at Art Basel, was in the 2012 biennial. I think the best way to describe the art of this gallery is clean colorful abstraction with a hint of realism/symbolism. There is a harmony to the coloring of the works they represent, which means for all their conceptual value they look good in a house with a sleek couch. All this makes it easy to see why the entire booth at Basel sold out before the end of the fair. I also respect that Callicoon presented works by Luther Price, Jason Simon, and A.K Burns in the film and sound sections of the fair which were free and open to the public, making them a gallery that sells but is still of the people. That’s rare.
Another tipster friend (who wants to remain anonymous – #artdrama) recommended that I walk over to Real Fine Arts, JTT, Thomas Erben, 47 Canal, and Bureau. I fell in love with the installation of Maggie Lee‘s work at Real Fine Arts. This work had the grungy DIY feel that is frequently seen in Bushwick, an area of Brooklyn, but without the over crowded ‘I-Have-To- Show-All-My-Ideas-At-Once’ / ‘this could be a trash heap but it’s art in a gallery’ look that is all too familiar with this aesthetic. This was that go-against-the-grain look, but edited, allowing the beautiful details of the work to take center stage. This work is full of both political and personal narratives with a definite feminist bend. I fell in love. Because I found Maggie Lee’s work so endearing I figured this curator/dealer must have a good sense of where I should wander to next, surely this person shares my taste level. I was told to go to 47 Canal and Bureau.
Before leaving the area I swung back to booth JTT. There I saw the work of Becky Kolsrud. I quickly realized I had seen this artists work before and this gallery previously at NADA in NYC. Although the gallery owner Jasmin Tsou had been heralded by the New York Times as one of the four freshman dealers at Art Basel that we should all watch for, I disliked half of the paintings. They had amateurish, simple qualities that rang as more laziness than a true artistic decision. I partially arrived at this conclusion because in 2012 paintings by the same artist with the same subject matter, portraits of white women, were far more intriguing in the positioning of the body, expression of the clothing, and creating of the backgrounds shown. HOWEVER, the remainder of the works were stunning images covered by a painted grid. These did not bare the same clichés as the others. The New York Times published an image from this grouping in their article on the work. The grid challenges the viewer in multiple ways, literally a view of what seems to be a busy scene of abstracted eyes is obstructed and at the same time on a metaphoric level the gaze is interrupted, in a way that is fitting with a feminist statement on seeing and being seen. This grounding in frustratingly obstructed view is an interesting concept for a painting to take on. It is also takes a level of skill that I admire to create this work.
I was told by the gallerist at JTT to go to Nova, a special section that allows galleries to present the latest works by a maximum of three representatives of their emerging artists. This area encompassed 47 Canal(291 Grand St, NYC), Bureau(131 Bowery NYC), as well as 11R(11 Rivington) – all part of New York’s Lower East Side’s star exhibitors – and many others I found intriguing. The number of exhibitors in this section had doubled from 22 in 2015 to 52 in 2016. The work on view was quirky, installation based, edgy and statement minded. This was not art for art’s sake and yet this was art that many, many people were taking selfies in front of. For instance 47 Canal showcased Anicka Yi’s disturbing installation of new works that used animal fur and skin to explore anxieties relating to radical biotech.The area was also more crowded than others when I visited. This is where “the cool kids” were.
After reading more about Nova, I realized Callicoon was part of Positions – a grouping of emerging artists whose galleries chose them to provide solo install booths at Basel. I totally missed that memo, which is further proof of how easy it is to become overwhelmed at Basel (and then fall back on recommended viewing.) These grouping are a sales strategy. A buyer can literally find the style of art they love, or have been commissioned to shop for, in one area and go crazy in a frenzy of both planned and impulse buys.
As I mused over the Basel buying strategy I came across my most pleasant surprise of the day, a gallery I found on my own and loved. While Stevenson Gallery located in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa is known to many collectors; I was ignorant to their work, but was immediately in awe of what I saw there. Large haunting self portraits by Zanele Muholi were on display along with paintings by Zander Blum. Best known for her activist based photography of members of the LGBTQ community, Muholi’ turned the camera on herself for her recent works which were on view at Basel. The result was breathtaking.
In the end, I have to admit that analysis and following recommendations that cater to friendships is par for the course at Basel, finding what you like by accident while wandering alone is the pure magic of the fair. The “discovery” of work you did not know, and may never have known, had you not ventured forth on an unguided adventure; this is the special part of Miami Art Basel that can never be replace by a game of nepotism. Unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough time in to look at every sampling of work this purely.