During antiquity, those who wanted to conquer Euclidian geometry had to cross the pons asinorum, or "bridge of asses," named for the fifth proposition in Book 1 of the famous Greek mathematician's Elements, a textbook that was used well into the 20th Century.
The phrase is commonly used to describe a challenge that separates the clever from the dull, the quick-witted from the dim. It has also become a synonym for a stumbling block.
If one were to apply the daunting test to gauge if a local gallerist is defying the chaos and visual noise that accompany Art Basel Miami Beach (December 3 through 6), Anthony Spinello would ace the exam.
"Littlest Sister 09": Through December 10. Spinello Gallery, 155 NE 38th St., #101, Miami; 786-271-4223; spinellogallery.com. Wednesday through Saturday noon to 5 p.m.
The 27-year-old dealer recently opened "Littlest Sister 09," a micro-fair in his eponymous Design District digs, cinched like an Alabama tick on a bloodhound's tail next to the sprawling tent poles of fairs such as Design Miami, Art Miami, Photo Miami, Scope, and Red Dot.
The fortune cookie-size show boasts eight booths, all four by eight feet, designed by the same outfit that decks out the interiors of many of the major fairs and has adopted the trademark gray and pink colors of its big sister, Art Basel, housed at the Miami Beach Convention Center. And, unlike the majority of its larger competitors next week, this spunky affair is free to the public.
Now in its second edition, the clever little exhibit showcases more than 50 local, national, and international artists. Their works, which span a dizzying range of media, are mostly small and priced to fly off the walls and shelves.
Not incidentally, many of the works are playful and knock the starch out of the stiff-shirted, windbag art associated with the elitist veneer of Basel week.
Take, for example, these three artists, who quickly set the razor-sharp tone of the show:
Typoe's Chattering Teeth (Gold 12k) is a pair of those plastic pearlies that snap together maniacally and bounce around when wound up. Except the artist has given the choppers a gold grill, conveying not only the hype typical of many Basel events, but also the attendant bling.
For Pachi Giustinian's blink-and-you'll-miss-it opus, Valve, the artist has simply installed the type of nozzle used to inflate beach balls directly into a booth's wall. The white nipple reminds us that many of the events next week will stink of a blowhard's self-inflation and that Basel is also about our city's attraction for revelers who want to party on the beach.
Perhaps Franco Mondini's Ass Hole sums up the impish spirit at work in the space. His precious, palm-size ceramic sculpture depicts a donkey atop a doughnut, reminiscent of the over-the-top confections often sold for tens of thousands of dollars in the convention center stalls.
Spinello, who curated the exhibit, has even added two special sections called "Video Project" and "Sculpture Project," each on display in areas surrounding the tiny cluster of booths at the center of the space.
At the rear of the gallery, Kristofer Paetau's gut-wrenching and hilarious film offers a stinging commentary on the mad dash of consumption-rabid collectors on the international art fair circuit.
During the opening of the 2005 Art Forum Fair in Berlin, the artist chugged two bottles of water, each laced with a pound of salt, before strolling into the aisles packed with some of the planet's elite galleries. A co-conspirator toting a spy cam followed him and captured the following on film: As he stands inside the booth of an unsuspecting dealer talking to clients admiring the art displayed in the kiosk, Paetau bends over, clutches his gut, and lets fly a torrent of antifreeze-colored spew. It looks like a scene straight out of The Exorcist.
For a second, the stunned spectators linger as if unaware or slightly bemused before hightailing away from the puking artist. Finally, the dealer walks toward Paetau, offers him a chair, and then uses four sheets of paper to cover the vomit. Within moments, the sickly intervention is over, and the film concludes with the dazed, dry-heaving artist on his perch while people close around him eager to seal their deals. The video is also a reminder of the buffet of wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling visual excess typical of the art fair experience that cramps the peepers and bowels.
In the sculpture zone, Agustina Woodgate's I Wanted to Be a Princess is a commentary on the unassailable bastions of exclusivity one associates with the environs of Art Basel, which stridently judges applicant galleries with its nose in the air.
Based on the Grimm brothers' fairy tale Rapunzel and standing five feet tall, the sculpture is shaped like a medieval tower and has been crafted from 3,000 tiny bricks made from human hair. It speaks for artists struggling to make their mark while escaping the commercial realities of the art world.
Equally remarkable are several sculptural showpieces by Enrique Gomez De Molina that exude a skull-staving effect. His chimerical creations evoke scenes from Pan's Labyrinth, Gulliver's Travels, Hellboy, and even The Island of Dr. Moreau.
De Molina, who comes from a family of taxidermists, has stitched together an exotic animal version of Frankenstein's monster using pheasant feathers, a red jungle fowl, a red fox, a hornbill skull, and a springbuck's hooves.
The bewildering beast stands on four legs as a legion of goliath beetles and tiny spindly insects, all painted in shimmering iridescent shades, pulls at opposite ends of chains that bind the creature, trying to topple the abnormality. The fantastic scene is encased in an elegant Victorian-era dark wood vitrine like something out of a museum of natural history. It suggests the scores of Basel-orbiting satellite fairs, attempting to overturn the giant for the chance to gorge on its bloated carcass and the moneybag collectors it has ingested.
Another artist who makes a powerful statement is Zack Balber. His series of photographs of wasted Miami street walkers is a cautionary tale for artists prostituted by unscrupulous dealers at some of the fly-by-night, one-and-done galleries that spring up like dung mushrooms during Art Basel week. After the fair, most of these poor suckers end up discarded as quickly as a used condom.
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For his sensational Window Shopping Series, Balber approached local hookers and asked them: "Are you dating?" to seal the deal. He paid each of the women $10 to take their photo. He also made an arrangement with their pimps to give them a slice of the commission if he sold the ladies' portraits during the fair. Spinello still gets his 50 percent cut, but Balber will split his earnings with the pimps. The implications are evident.
On Tuesday, December 1, at 7 p.m., Spinello will host the Littlest Vernissage, a reception featuring an open bar, and his gallery hours will be extended from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. December 1 through 6.
If you're looking for a solitary pit stop encapsulating the Basel experience, this brainy show not only passes muster but also is a great example of an art dealer who is in tune with the times.