All Is Fair in the Art Market

Art Miami has grown up, with more to view than ever before

Beauty, once one of the most desired terms in the art lexicon, might be on the verge of extinction. We don't describe things as beautiful anymore. Our evaluations tend toward fleeting states of mind, reflecting habits, places, even casual encounters. Saying "fun" or "cool" does the job when we want to appear hip. "Elegant" and "chic" are favorites of the mod crowd. "Subversive" works for those with a social activist bent. The ubiquitous "interesting" remains the best way out of trouble for neophytes and experts alike.

Our use of language reflects the current reality. Art has turned into a have-fun event, a walk by and get a peek at whatever is on display. And why not? Art can be that kind of spectacle, too. Still one can make a judicious distinction between artistic fulfillment in the broadest sense and temporary self-gratification. This tension is expressed in the phenomenon of art fairs. Primarily known as a niche for crafts (which, since the Renaissance, have been displaced from the high-art spaces in museums and galleries), these trade events recently have been embraced by the art establishment, though not without some trepidation.

Art fairs provide a viable service at a time when contemporary art has become a lucrative commodity. Consequently museums and galleries have had to shake old habits. We now have ample opportunity to see the intriguing contrasts between what is serious and fun, high and low, past and present, as well as the changing role of that sacred institution, the museum, and that mobile institutional fixture of the establishment, the art curator.

Marta Maria Perez Bravo gives it up in Para la Entrega
Marta Maria Perez Bravo gives it up in Para la Entrega

Art Miami, the huge annual art extravaganza at the Miami Beach Convention Center that took place from January 18 to January 22, did show signs of development this year; it included absorbing projects, imaginative gallery presentations, and more contemporary works. Indeed Art Miami was fun, and because it came up with novel projects reflecting global trends with definite repercussions for the local art scene, the event deserves attention.

One much publicized effort was "MEGA Fino" -- or "Supercool" -- which involved artists from Miami, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Local artists such as Naomi Fisher and Eugenia Vargas, and former Miami artist Quisqueya Henriquez exhibited works. The idea behind this exhibition, according to its curator, Peter Doroshenko, was to showcase "artists who do not respond directly to the ever-recurring conflicts and tragedies of modern life." Instead, Doroshenko adds, these artists "have been moving in the opposite direction ... creating new situations or fantasies based on looking optimistically at the possibilities that exist in everyday life or in worlds of their own making." This message was precisely the premise behind the Museum of Contemporary Art's last show. "MEGA Fino" intends to sell a trend to Miami with a look that is high gloss, conceptually abstract, narcissistically figurative, and, above all, impregnated with a socially removed optimism.

Another Art Miami initiative was "Project Rooms," a series of solo exhibitions curated by professionals from Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Most of the artists shown have been successful in shaping their own particular styles within contemporary perimeters. Regardless of whether "MEGA Fino" or "Project Rooms" indicates an emergent Caribbean style, what is the case is that there are other trends in the Caribbean, and even in Miami, that reflect a different attitude toward the world but are equally contemporary. The fact that curators don't expose them is a sin.

Curators are supposed to procure for us, the public, a wide range of contemporary choices. That they seemed to converge on a kind of "supercool" consensus may reflect their own interests within the art establishments. Why do curators pick what they pick? They can, and do, shape artistic styles with the help of museums, galleries, and collectors who need their art acquisitions backed up by the institutions of prestige for which curators work. This ethical conflict seldom is addressed within forums patronized by the establishment.

During Saturday's "Art in Context" panel, those curators who collaborated with the special projects had a shot at elucidating their choices. After they justified their selections of artist and work, there were candid moments, as when Jérôme Sans pointed to double standards of those within the establishment who criticize the market, only to live off it. It seems obvious that an unfettered market doesn't necessarily produce better art. For a change I found curator Silvia Cubiñá's awareness of the Caribbean's cultural identity and the role of museums to be quite subtle.

As for some of Art Miami's best offerings, my not-so-serious criteria takes into account cohesion, imagination, and panache. In taking in the works, I favored the sum over the effect of the parts. Here are my unofficial awards:

The "Eye Catcher" prize goes to Chicago's Belloc Lowndes Fine Art for Patrick Hughes's visually shifting paintings; he builds surfaces and paints on them, creating an optical illusion. Galería Luis Adelantado, from Spain, gets the "Interior Design" prize for its paneling scheme with huge luscious black-and-white photos. The "Trashy Gallery" prize has to go to Lombard Freid Gallery, for the umbrella-dotted installation filled with made-in-Korea, bikini-sporting mannequins. Rare Gallery in New York deserves the "Multiple Personality" prize for Anthony Goicolea's photos; only actor Lon Chaney, man of a thousand faces, could hope to emulate Goicolea's photographs.

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