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Art Basel Wrap Up, Part One

December 9, 2013

Of all the hurdles to get there- scrutinous press registration, despotic bouncers, strict dress codes, and a transit system that makes Baltimore look like Tokyo- escaping the airport is always the most frustrating. Labyrinthine warrens of moving sidewalks lead to shuttles to trains to buses. The terminal is packed with departing locals openly agape at the spectacle of arrivals’ pale faces, dark clothes, and colorful hair. Every December, the art world decamps frigid Berlin, New York, London, and even- increasingly- Baltimore. Its denizens have arrived at MIA, but won’t arrive in Miami until they navigate the hermetically-sealed airport. At every window, stubborn Florida sunshine battles the ubiquitous air conditioning, teasing arrivals with the promise of warmth outside. Slowly the heiress from Moscow sheds her fur coat. The artist from London fondles the keys to an ostentatious car (rented for ironic effect) with a bemused grin. The least glamorous of us make our way to the far-off airport bus.

It’s Wednesday, Dec. 4th, the middle of Art Week Miami- the annual orgy of art fairs, public sculptures, museum galas, and, of course, parties-  anchored by Art Basel Miami Beach, that temporarily turns South Florida into the capital of the art world. There’s not much I can say about Art Basel that hasn’t been said before, so I’ll skip a cut-and-paste press release (or moralizing about gross commercialism or defending the spectacle on account of the quality of the art or giving advice about how to party crash and drink for free or where to see a Kardashian pretend to care about conceptual art or whatever) and just relay one of my favorite popular rumors: members of the 1 percent have to reserve private jet parking at Miami International Airport months in advance because it fills up for Basel every year. I just can’t bring myself to fact-check this statement because, honestly, I’ll be just as disappointed if it’s not true as disgusted by the likelihood that it probably is.

Every year satellite fairs come and go, but Aqua (1530 Collins Avenue) is consistently one of my favorites. The event takes over a classic South Beach motel; every room becomes an exhibition space for smaller galleries that can’t afford the hefty fees at the blue-chip fairs. This year, I was looking forward to see Baltimorean Lisa Dillin’s work shown by DC’s Hamiltonian Gallery. On the walk over, I thought of her installations at the Baltimore Museum of Art and how well her subversions of corporate architecture would work in the blandscapes of the larger convention center or event tent art fairs. When I saw her work at Aqua, I was pleasantly surprised at how differently it functioned.

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Aqua is a context that’s so charming and idiosyncratic, but one that curators rarely take advantage of dialoging with. Dillin’s work- including a mirror that casts reflections evocative of sunlight coming through blinds, artificial plants, and a framed cut-out that seems to reference a window- work so well in the setting of a motel room it’s uncanny. The space, which could be described as “vernacular modernism”, is a simulacra of the domestic, open to a courtyard of carefully-pruned “nature”. It’s a curatorial marriage made in heaven… a rarity at an art fair, where the dominant strategy is to ignore (or attempt to drown out) context.

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After the Aqua opening, I skipped around to a handful of parties before meeting up with some local Miami friends at the Bass Museum (2100 Collins Ave) annual Art Week party. Last year, one of them snuck me in through the alley because I didn’t have a ticket. It took me over 30 minutes to realize that we were at a museum and not a nightclub. (I thought we were going to something called “Bass” as in “Ace of Bass” but it’s actually “Bass” as in “Lance Bass”). This year, the lines for the open bar felt like a Walmart parking lot on Black Friday. After being shoved and elbowed by women who most certainly looked like they could afford to pay for a drink, it was a welcome change of pace to leave the crowded party and retreat to the museum’s (strangely empty) galleries. I loved this series of graphite drawings on black gauche by Spanish-born, Miami-raised Manny Prieres.

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Prieres carefully hand-renders the first-edition covers of books that have been banned from libraries. The series “It was a Pleasure to Burn” is refreshingly understated but says so much. I always respect work that breaks the conventions of Basel week; these drawings are introspective and quiet rather than flashy and loud… and they’re exceedingly difficult to photograph (a cardinal sin for such a media feeding frenzy).

I briefly spoke to Prieres, who described his process as “a ritualistic emulation of the printing press.” He usually produces an edition of 5 drawings, allowing his hand to occasionally waver; “I’m only human.”

By this time in the night, I was cursing the liquor sponsors. In the past, champagne was the de-facto open bar drink. This year, every event seems to have a different “special cocktail” that usually involves a new flavored liquor and high fructose corn syrup. After going to a handful of parties, everything tastes like you’ve been drinking cheap white wine with a mouth full of Jolly Ranchers. I decided to head to bed early before my train of thought switched entirely from “I love this, what is the name of the artist? I’d love to see more of his work” to “I hate this. What is the name of this Elderberry-infused gin? I want to know so I never get it again.”

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