Memories of Miami Basel 2004-2008

Memories of Miami Basel (2004-2008)

Time out for reflection, before another period of endless art consumption, another Art Basel Miami Beach week is closing in for December 2009.

I admit that I have had the privilege of going to Miami to see the art fairs, private collections, museum shows and December gallery exhibitions every year since 2005. I had read voraciously of the experiences in Miami from bloggers, newspapers, art magazines and the enthralled international press during the bacchanal fairs of ultra hip and sexy hedonistic Miami Beach Art Basel 2002-2005. Miami seemed to be a sort of mythical space that had been opened up by Art Basel for the American artworld, and especially for New York City, who was already well familiar with the balmy winter charms of Miami Beach after the end of hurricane season. I remember reading that some of the hoteliers said they had never had the level of customer that they were now experiencing. I remember reading that Miami Beach was dead during early December before the art fairs arrived. I remember thinking that Miami Basel was probably like the Armory Show.  Several of our friends went down to Miami in 2004 but my schedule was too hectic that year to get away. Once 2005 started, I went about researching everything from where to stay to where to eat, and was well rewarded for my efforts. Once December 2005 was in our midst, we found ourselves experiencing the most exciting and rewarding days of experiencing contemporary art that we had ever encountered. And we also had a dream of a time eating at so many sensational restaurants, having cocktails in divine lounges, and enjoying ourselves to no end. I consider my trips to Miami Basel my personal and well deserved reward for the hard work I’ve put in throughout the year.

I still have not forgotten getting to wear a dark green suit that was the same color as my rental car, to the early daytime opening of the Rubell Family Collection in 2005. The vastness of the space and the quality of the structure were superb, as was the stunning collection that had been created by the Rubell’s over the past year from the annual worldwide travels, this time with a focus on Eastern Europe. It struck me that the Rubell’s have about the same number of works in their collection as MOCA in Los Angeles, approximately 5,000.  On Sunday morning we visited the just opened CIFO  (Cisneros Fontenals, a former downtown Miami warehouse now transformed into a private collector exhibition space, its spectacular facade covered in blue and purple imported Brazilian coral that jutted out from the walls. What we saw was a video installation – a literal “Video Forrest”, whereby dozens of video screens were hung at various heights, and the sound of each piece could be experienced alone, or within the cacophony of voices coming from the various video works. I remember being stunned by the curation of these video works, and still till this day have not seen a more focused and dynamic video installation anywhere at any time.

The next extraordinary experience I recall was the William Kentridge retrospective, also in 2005, at the now closed Miami Art Central. This former Southeast Bell switching station had been turned into an elegant 20,000 square foot exhibition space. Kentridge is a magician of an artist who works through old traditional media – strong, inventive and bold drawing – which he then used and taught himself to animate,  and traditional black cast sculptures of figures from his drawings, and then a suite of animated films that were merely stunning. To think that I have but once seen his work in LA, but will be seeing even more of his works in West Palm Beach, in 2009, along with a show of George Segal sculptures, is for me unbelievable. Miami Basel fills in gaps in my knowledge of various artists I have read about but never seen but who are on the world stage. Another genius of an artist I’ve never seen shown in LA is Gary Hill, whose incredible video animations we saw at SFMOMA a few years ago, and at the Foundation Cartier in a pretty neighborhood in Paris. I also saw a great Jeff Koons survey at MCA Chicago, which somehow didn’t come to Los Angeles, home of the most important fabrication outfit in the U.S., and where much of Koons’ work is made.

The Russian Dreams exhibition at the Bass Museum in Miami Beach was for me the Next Wave of International Level Sculpture. That was in 2008. Again we got to see artists we had never heard of but discovered they lived in Paris and showed internationally, but were Russian. What impressed me so much was the way they went to extremes to talk about the difference between Capitalism and Communism, and how they thoughtfully punched holes in the American system of doing things, which they, as an old country, could see would be the cause of catastrophe up the road if the US didn’t get its game right. And there extremes of use of blood and oil running through one sculpture assaulting America’s Oil Greed, another showing the dead dressed in Russian upscale costumes, using photographic light boxes, something that 30 year old LA surfer artists ain’t going to touch with a 50 foot pole. Another sculpture was a Soviet tank whose barrel was covered in feathers and would loose its erection after it fired feathers. So much inventiveness and creativity.

The Red Eye exhibition in 2007 that focused on the LA Artworld was one of the few shows where I actually knew the works of all of the artists, since LA based artists do seem to have a strong presence in the LA kunsthalls, museums and galleries. I remember thinking that that the sculptural installation I created and showed at LAXART would have been a hit in Miami too. Last year I found the Issac Julien video at the Margulies Warehouse to be magisterial; the Chantal Ackerman video retelling the story of the man drug to death and to pieces by driving the same road with her camera, and the out-of-this-world-good video installation at MoCA North Miami, of the works of Anri Sala, was as rewarding as could possibly be imagined. The Margulies Warehouse has the best on-the-ground collection of photography that should be seen by every student of the medium in this country, and their 2009 show is going to be memorable indeed.

In 2008 the Scope Fair expanded and created the Asian Art Fair. It had dozens of Asian galleries and is the first time I got to see Asian Contemporary Art in depth. While I did not see a great deal that impressed me, I did see a show of exquisitely rendered fantasy paintings in which the collectors were literally tearing at each other to buy the works, so much so that as four or five works were put on the walls, they were all immediately sold and wrapped right there for the collectors to take, and then more were hung, and then the collectors tore at each other to get to the works. I have never seen this before. I understand that Asian Art Week in NYC does the same thing during the Armory Show. In 2009 the Asian Art Fair is the only fair in Miami Basel that will be expanding instead of contracting. They are taking on several more Asian galleries, thereby showing that the taste for Asian Contemporary Art is growing, despite the depression.

The Rubell Family Collection always, always does a blowout show every single year. Each year they travel the globe looking at and for serious art. A few years ago they did a show of Polish painters, which is where I first saw the works of William Sasnal, who is now one of my favorite artists. The Hernan Bas installation at the RFC in 2007 was one of the most amazing installations I’ve ever seen by a young artist, and then of course in 2008 we saw Hello Meth Lab in the Sun in a condo building where no one had yet moved into. This year the Rubell’s have the name for the show they have planned on their website, but no artists names, which automatically induces hysteria among the collectors  – as the Rubell’s are superior taste-makers, and whomever they buy, the pack follows suit. So this  December will be one of the most exciting ever, especially as the Rosa de la Cruz Collection opens this year, and the even larger Craig Robins Collection building opens in 2012, when the new Miami Art Museum opens. This year the Rubell’s are teasing the artworld by posting the Title of their 2009 show on their website, but nothing more as to the participating artists or the theme of the exhibition. The Rubell’s supposedly are showing among other things, an artist whose works have only been seen by three people. The show that just closed – 30 Americans, will be doing a nationwide tour.

Notice I haven’t mentioned the fairs. Art Basel speaks for itself. I recalling seeing a fantastic large-scale photograph of a skiing scene by Andreas Gursky that may be the most incredible photographic image I have ever encountered. The perspective shifts in the picture in the way that only digital photography can provide, and it is still an unreal picture in its demonstration of the fantastic. There are always spectacular works at this fair. I love the Photo Fair. The AIPAD photography fair came down from NYC a couple years ago year and hasn’t returned. We love NADA, Scope, Pulse, Art Miami, Aqua. And the cool art party mood on Saturday night in the Design District.  If only LA could have live music on the street corners and cafes during its art openings!

I have to admit that I enjoy the private collections the most because of the vetting process that has taken place with those collections. I also like to see the personal taste of each Major Miami Collector. And I like that Miami’s restaurants have high levels of service, something that one can find completely lacking all too often in LA. I also enjoy their theatricality. And I must say that LA has finally started to open destination restaurants that represent the city well.

The sense of salon-style competition generated by the secondary fairs is what I feel is their greatest asset. Over the years some galleries have moved up the totem pole, some even getting into the main fair, others joining forces with the more powerful secondary fairs. This year it seems that there will be fewer Miami Beach hotel fairs than ever, as Aqua has decided to do like Scope did before it, and shut down the hotel fair and put all of its energies in the Miami Midtown based fairs, which started out in Miami’s Wynwood but over the past few years have found that a coordinated assault of several mammoth secondary fairs in the Miami Midtown district is the way to go. This translates into their being but one venue in South Beach – the Verge Fair (formerly the Bridge Art Fair), that will be hosting emerging galleries. Now that NADA is uptown in the Deaville Hotel, that should be interesting, especially the one person shows they have planned.

The MAC is no longer programmed, the MOCA Goldman Warehouse has closed. Despite this, we have some guaranteed treats to look forward to this December, from the Rubell’s show to the new Rosa de la Cruz Collection building, and the Bass Museum’s presentation of the Jumex Collection! And we’re going to get to see if foodie pizza in Miami is coming along as swimmingly as has been reported.

See you in Miami and Miami Beach.


Deville Sign

Deaville Motel sign, downtown Los Angeles, by Vincent Johnson

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles

Biography July 2010

Vincent Johnson lives and works in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited at Las Cienegas Projects, LAXART, the P.S. 1. Museum, the SK Stiftung, Cologne, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Adamski Gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen, the Sacramento Center for Contemporary Art, 18th Street Arts, Santa Monica and the Boston University Art Gallery. His photographic works engage both significant and neglected historical and contemporary cultural artifacts and is based on intensive research of his subjects. Upcoming is a group show at the Kellogg Museum of Cal Poly Pomona.

Johnson received his MFA from Art Center College of Design in 1997. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was nominated for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 nominated for Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Vincent  Johnson Artist Statement

Vincent Johnson’s work is a form of sustained cultural mining that explores the depths of his subjects. His photographic works created from 2001-2007 delved into architecture as fantasy, from the vernacular architecture of Los Angeles to that found throughout the American West. He has documented several of the no longer extant commercial vernacular structures in both South Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley that came into existence during the birth of long distance family travel by car. In 2007 he presented a fully fabricated work of sculpture – a 12 foot long six-foot high replica of a 1956 Chrysler Air Raid Siren. This project developed as he was both researching and documenting a former military corridor in the San Fernando Valley that included a retired military airfield. His newest photographic works, all created in 2008 and 2009, are large-scale photographic montages, each of which confront significant cultural figures and several dramatic signal events of Cold War era Western cultural history, including Television, the launch of Sputnik, the Soviet Space program, American home-based bomb shelter  program, and Vietnam. He is working on large-scale photomontages of the several major American political figures of 1960’s, including Martin Luther King, the Kennedy family, and Malcolm X, as well the representations of both Communism and Capitalism, Hollywood and Los Angeles and many related Cold War era subjects. Johnson’s photomontages can take several months to create as he captures hundreds of images from online sources, before selecting those which most well index a particular historical moment, personage or event. The creative juxtapositions and scale shifts of the found images is what he most relies on to develop his potent and illuminating photographic works.

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