Earlier this month, the most elite-tier collectors descended upon South Beach to pay exorbitant prices for objects that the vast majority of people see no value in, amid a landscape of extreme decadence and self-indulgent partying. Welcome to Art Basel Miami Beach, the Miami edition of the Art Basel fair held annually in Switzerland.
The trashy glamor of Miami was heightened by brand-sponsored cocktail parties, gigantic electronic-music spectacles DJ’d by iconic veterans like the Chemical Brothers and upcomers like DJ Python, and over-the-hill celebs like Madonna throwing themselves at events to keep themselves in the public eye.
Art critics frequently charge events like Art Basel Miami Beach with reducing artistic production to the most vulgarized of luxury commodities. After this year’s fair, for instance, Kenny Schachter of ArtNet News skewered the event as a “vulgar flesh-fest, fueled by mountains of cocaine.” He isn’t wrong, but his tone betrays a remarkable idealism about the art scene writ large. In contrast to the more respectable precincts favored by critics like Schachter, Art Basel Miami Beach strips the art world of its academic and moralizing pretensions and allows attendees to see it as the money-laundering arm of the ruling class that it ultimately is.
Undoubtedly, the art-fair experience is mentally deadening. The sheer overload of visual stimuli taxes one’s critical faculties, and every singular artistic gesture is absorbed into the morass of content that we call the “art world.” It’s not an ideal setting for art criticism, nor is it, evidently, an accommodating one for those without money to throw around—unlike most other art fairs, my press pass earned me almost no extra privileges; those were reserved for the VIPs.
Despite these inauspicious conditions, I managed to encounter a few works and bodies of art that offered some small thrill or reprieve from the broader landscape of Art Basel Miami Beach, both amid the bacchanalia of Art Basel proper and at the NADA art fair, which takes place north of the bay toward Miami’s design district—generally a more soothing setting for looking at art.
Barbara Ess, Magenta Plains, Art Basel Miami Beach
The artist, photographer, and musician Barbara Ess died in 2021, and her gallery, Magenta Plains, dedicated its Art Basel booth to memorializing her most iconic work. Ess used strict limitations in her process as a means of homing in on an aesthetic and a mood. As a musician, she played primitive and crude no-wave rockist music with bands like Y Pants. In her last exhibition prior to her death, she captured stills from security footage of the US-Mexico border and turned the videos into strange and evocative landscape art. Ess created tight parameters for herself almost as a challenge: What could be created with such limited means?
This booth, however, focused on Ess’s best known work: her pinhole photographs. Ess used the pinhole camera to imbue photographic images with the unsettled and uncanny quality of dreams. Through her eye, images are stripped of direct meaning and instead become suggestive and complicated. For instance, one image captures two human forms entangled together and blurred, as if to suggest motion. They look like Francis Bacon’s paintings of wrestlers—and yet, they are actually Barbie dolls. The pinhole camera suggests motion that is not there. It’s photography as a form of trickery, or an exploitation of the trickery inherent to photography, putting the work in dialogue with the trick photography used by mediums and spiritualists in the early 20th century.
Chino Amobi, On The Rise, Art Basel Miami Beach
I only knew Chino Amobi’s name through his career as an electronic musician, so I was intrigued when I realized that the gorgeous, neon-colored still-life paintings of flowers I saw at Art Basel Miami Beach were indeed made by that same synthesizer virtuoso. What’s most often observed about Amobi is the artist’s evasion of medium-specific practice: He uses painting, electronic music, literature, and film all to realize his vision. But what spoke to me was the formal beauty of his paintings. The preferred style of painting these days is an aggressively ugly form of figuration with neo-symbolist characteristics. Amobi’s elegantly rendered still-lifes please the gaze by combining a more vintage form of art making with a futuristic aesthetic.
Samara Golden, Night Gallery, Art Basel Miami Beach
“Ew,” said my dad’s partner as we walked past Samara Golden’s spray-foam sculptures at the Night Gallery Booth. “So gross.” Indeed, the sculptures were quite gross. Lining three different walls, the artist uses spray foam that then coagulates and takes on the appearance of a river of human entrails. But what was successful about the booth was less the visceral abjection evinced by the foam objects than the way it re-contextualized Golden’s complex postmodern work. Typically, Golden’s work is seen as massive installations where urban life is caricatured and made hyperreal. Here, however, Golden’s art was operating in the abstract.
Fuyuhiko Takata, WAITINGROOM, NADA Art Fair
Video art is at its most indigestible in the art-fair setting. But to my surprise, Fuyuhiko Takata’s work mesmerized me. Takata is a Tokyo-based artist and filmmaker who apparently makes surreal dreamscapes inside the confines of his small urban apartment. In one video, The Butterfly Dream, the artist dreams of a butterfly, which then becomes a pair of scissors that cuts off all of his clothing. Butterflies in dreams can represent longevity, romance, spiritual metamorphosis, and creative epiphany—and all of these possible meanings could also be attributed to the thematic content of Takata’ bizarre films. And what better setting to make them in? The small apartment is, after all, the repository of dreams. It’s a place where we live and dream in when we have our eyes set on the future. It’s the place we never feel truly at home in, because it’s merely what we can afford at that moment in time. These ambiguous notions, as well as oodles of perverse images, define Takata’s cinematic practice. I couldn’t stop watching.
Alison Peery, Sebastian Gladstone, NADA Art Fair
Alison Peery’s quilted paintings treat opiate and pharmaceutical addiction and the way that affliction often runs into the creative personality, a subject I’ve written about. There is also another layer to them: autism and neurodivergence, which the artist claims informs her practice. Peery’s work has an almost childlike aesthetic that at first suggested to me the stunting of emotional maturity consistent with opiate addiction. But it also very directly seems to be addressing the stunting of female maturation that is typical of female autism and attendant internet over-consumption. Between all of these themes and more, Perry’s vision is unflinching in the face of some of the most humiliating and self-debasing realities.
Jonah Koppel, M. LeBlanc, NADA Art Fair
Jonah Koppel’s oil paintings are elegantly rendered and evoke the kind of occultism or mysticism once explored by early UK industrial and experimental bands like Coil or Current 93, but I worry that this comparison cheapens the artist’s canvases. They blur figures and landscapes with symbols of esoterica—Hellenic, pagan, or otherwise. What most interested me about these was learning that Koppel uses no source imagery. Everything in his paintings comes directly from his imagination. Perhaps this accounts for the elegant symmetry they display, almost as if there is a movement up and down the canvas consistent with the direction of imagistic thought itself.
Charlotte Thrane, Galerie Parisa Kind, NADA Art Fair
The German artist Charlotte Thrane recently received a large amount of money to decorate the new Balenciaga store in Miami that, as you can imagine, is deliberately designed to look like garbage. It’s safe to assume that Thrane has nothing to do with the recent controversial photoshoot that has resulted in the fashion house suing a different designer for $25 million. Even so, it makes sense that Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia would find Thrane an interesting addition to his new store. As evidenced by her work here at NADA, Thrane takes used garments and materials and repurposes them into sculptures that evoke both putridity and the cycles of industrialization. But there is also a sublime quality in her work that’s almost inexplicable. I’ve seen junk, and I’ve seen “junk art” before, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen “junk art” look so beautiful.
The clichés around Art Basel Miami are true. It’s gross. It’s cheesy. It’s the closest that the elite wing of the art world gets to being fully absorbed into the luxury-lifestyle industry. But why spend all that energy complaining about it? It’s not like the art world deserves to be defended. And Art Basel Miami, for better or worse, puts on no pretense. It’s the only time of the year when the art world stops presenting itself as the highfalutin defender of taste and moralistic arbiter of social change. No, Art Basel Miami is all about the Benjamins, baby! The dealer who makes the most money and sells the most art reigns supreme.
For anyone who appreciates the demystification of ideology, Art Basel Miami is a welcome change of pace. And once you come to terms with all of this, you can kick back, soak up the rays and the decadence, and look at the most elite contemporary artists of our day as they are cannibalized by a voracious ruling class looking to offload some liquidity and acquire some hard assets.