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It's the last Monday in November, a few nights before Art Basel officially opens. Oscar Ascanio, owner of a fresh-hatched eponymous Wynwood gallery, stands outside his joint surveying the anemic crowds.
The backfire of a rusty jalopy startles the gallerist and the few people entering his snazzy space.
Ascanio doesn't appear crestfallen, wondering when he'll see a Bentley or Benz pull up to his place. Although this is his first gallery in Miami, Ascanio owns two others in Venezuela, and has rented booths at Art Miami in recent years, so it's not his first time at the rodeo. But tonight he seems starry-eyed and sounds a bit like a mariner arriving eight months after Columbus to claim the New World.
"This is amazing," he says. "I am stunned [by] how Miami has developed culturally since Basel first came here. There seems to be a new passion for culture. Tony Goldman is developing Wynwood like SoHo, and this area is booming with restaurants and galleries to attract people. It's the perfect time for me to be here."
Despite thin crowds, the dealer isn't worried. He sold a painting in the $10,000 range earlier, and has organized a stellar exhibit to coincide with Basel 2010.
"The Visionary Eye" features the work of eight contemporary and modern masters, including a handful of museum-quality pieces by artists who have appeared at the Pompidou in Paris, Guggenheim in New York, and El Palacio de Velazquez in Madrid. They are making their Wynwood debut in Ascanio's sparkling 3,800 square-foot showroom. Participating artists include: Jesus Soto, Carlos Cruz Diez, Alejandro Otero, Victor Lucena, Francisco Salazar, Carlos Cabeza, Victor Vasarely, and Bernar Venet.
With the exception of Vasarely, who is Hungarian, and Venet, who is French, all artists in the show are Venezuelan and represent some of that country's biggest international names.
The gallery also features an homage to Alfredo Boulton, a photographer, historian, and art critic who was an iconic figure in Venezuela and mentor to many of his compatriots exhibiting here.
A major exhibit at Frost Art Museum that focuses on Venezuelan op art and geometric abstraction has created buzz for his own show, Ascanio says.
Some examples on view at O. Ascanio's include Otero's refrigerator-sized Tablón 40 from 1987 confected from acrylic over Formica affixed to wood. The painted-tile mixed-media piece, with its bland blue, yellow, black, white, and brown hues resembles a Brady Bunch-era frumpy housewife's kitchen backsplash.
More imposing is an early Sixties dishtowel-sized work by Cruz Diez in which the artist covers the surface with bristling fissures and sundry nuts, bolts, and what appears to be a giant clothesline pin. His enigmatic Physichromie from 1961 also boasts a boiled-lobster-red fan jutting from its surface like a wild field of bamboo stalks, and is far removed from the artist's more elegant and polished kinetic work of recent years.
For his part, Ascanio will be relying more on international Art Basel visitors and wealthy Venezuelans living in Doral than local collectors to keep his ship afloat.
"People here are now starting to wake up, and there is a new respect for the value of art," Ascanio says. "There is a new generation of collectors coming here that used to go to New York, Los Angeles, or Europe to buy work instead."
A few blocks downwind at Black Square Gallery, Russians and another Venezuelan dealer are celebrating an early Christmas as well.
Anna Milashevych and Ron Kritzler have just opened "Dream Catcher," an exhibit showcasing work by the space's stable of artists, and may have well sold Basel week's first piece at their event.
Soon after doors opened, a collector claimed one of Pablo Lehmann's cut-out paper works. The Argentine artist creates delicate lace or tapestry-like labor-intensive works in which he literally carves out entire passages from books by Kafka, Freud, Borges, and Ecco on paper using a razor blade.
The seamlessly curated exhibit also features works by Switzerland's Comenius Roethlisberger and Admir Jahic; Ukraine's Nazar Bilyk, Volodymyr Kuznetsov, and Zhanna Kadyrova; and Taro Hattori from the U.S.
At the entrance to the gallery, one of Hattori's giant airplane installations greets spectators in a scene reminiscent of the attack on the Twin Towers or the crash of the Hindenburg.
Hattori has created the small Cessna-sized skeletal armature of a plane out of cardboard pieces on site, leaving what appears to be the remainder of the fuselage scattered in a pile below the imploding craft.
Also seeking to defy gravity are a few small, eye-catching The Flying Saucer installations by Roethlisberger and Jahic, who rely on industrial magnets to pull off their sleight of hand.
The pair has suspended mundane crockery above stacks of books, and the ceramic plates spin eerily, recalling the cheesy opening credits for a B-movie during the early atomic age.
Nearby, Kadyrova's White Planet and its Satellite, created from busted kitchen tiles, seems a perfect metaphor for the pristine veneer of the convention center housing Art Basel, and the danker and darker climes of its orbiting ancillary fairs.
And, not unlike the fair or a throwback sci-fi flick, it reminds one of an alien invasion and Ascanio's discovery of a shiny new world to colonize.