The Agony and the Ecstasy

Action Half Life

Scrapping for a share of the market in the lingering shadow of Art Basel, Art Miami's sixteenth installment left some exhibitors complaining the fair is against a wall and ready for a blindfold and a cigarette.

Opening January 6 through 9, barely a month after the Swiss Godzilla Basel swallowed the crme de la crme of the international art scene and generated a reported $500 million in sales, Art Miami 2006 boasted a revamped image. Approximately 50 new spaces participated, and organizers waived the customary $12 admission Friday to bolster attendance.

The four-day fair — billed as more aesthetically accessible and offering more affordable investments for the consumer, which is perhaps a dig at Basel — attracted almost twenty local galleries hoping to capitalize on a community-oriented vibe. However, most of the top-ranked Wynwood spaces didn't open for Art Miami's scheduled gallery crawl of the district, anticipating a lukewarm response.

There were some stellar additions to the fair, many of whom found themselves nestled inside the Miami Beach Convention Center between exhibitors peddling commercial dross.

"I think Basel would have been better for us," groused first-time exhibitor Christina Grasso of Monaco's Galerie GAM, who won't be returning. "I think it was better for the fair to have us here than for us to come. We have not had a single sale, and much of the work I've seen here is terrible," she rued while sitting under Marc Chagall's Fleurs, an extraordinary 1927 still life depicting a bouquet of white and red flowers in a blue vase — valued at $1,780,000.

Many local dealers who believe Art Miami suffers from being scheduled in the wake of Art Basel opted to enter the PalmBeach3 fair that ran from January 13 through 16 — citing it appeals to a different market that attracts more discerning collectors.

"Art Miami coming on the cusp of Art Basel is problematic, and they are fighting an uphill battle," observes Bernice Steinbaum, who, along with several top-tier Miami galleries, participated in the Palm Beach event, and who also had a booth at Art Miami in 2001.

"What's happening to Art Miami is that the art-collecting public has become more sophisticated, studying auction results, reading magazines, and is generally better informed. When Art Miami finds itself scrambling to fill spaces at the last moment, it lets anyone who wants a booth in, and the public will not respond to what they recognize as strictly commercial galleries. We were at the Palm Beach fair last year as well, and sales were extraordinary."

New York's Gallery of Surrealism, in its sophomore year at Art Miami, thought this year's edition was amped-up and was one of the fair's crowd pullers. It featured exquisite works by Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and René Magritte.

"Sales were better last year, but we feel very positive about the fair's sense of direction and will definitely be back," mentioned Steve Lucas, the gallery's director, after moving a rare color lithograph from Dorothea Tanning's The Seven Spectral Perils series.

One of the members of Art Miami's selection committee, Eduardo Sant'Anna of London's StART Gallery, agrees with Lucas's notion that the quality of exhibitors may be improving, but expressed disappointment with attendance and sales prospects.

"I think if you can't get more people to come when you are providing free admission, and sales remain slow, it's a sign the public here might be burnt out," he lamented. "But there is still a chance things may pick up though."

His space featured works that rarely topped the $3000 mark yet drew no buyers, even though Sarah Hall's Red Rose Cupcake Bra — fashioned from confectionary papers, sugar flower, and wire — was a steal at $500. "It seems this year the interest is lower."

Some dealers suggest Art Miami is battling an identity crisis marked by several years of reinvention in the glutted post-Basel market.

"Ever since Basel arrived, Art Miami has been struggling to redefine itself," cites Genaro Ambrosino, a Basel staple and a former Art Miami exhibitor. "If you change things once, people become excited and come to see if you have improved. You do it again, they might give you another look, but if you are constantly changing and the quality is still not there, it begins to get confusing and serious collectors won't bother again," he explains.

Three days of scouring Art Miami from bow to stern in search of compelling contemporary work did turn up several gems, but I was disheartened to learn most of these exhibitors were abandoning ship.

Nina Menocal, whose eponymous Mexico City gallery has long been a regular at Art Miami, informed she would not return next year. "It has been very slow, and I was frankly surprised by the low quality of some of the galleries."

Her booth, among the most elegantly configured spaces at the fair, featured striking large-scale mixed-media works on canvas and paper by Cuban artist Agustín Bejarano, and included a video of the artist at work in his Havana studio. His scheduled appearance was nixed by U.S. Immigration.

The owners of Galerie Lausberg out of Dusseldorf and Toronto have participated in Art Miami for the past three years, hoping to bank on the "Miami Miracle" touted by the Basel publicity machine. Although they were pimping some of the Convention Center's juiciest work, they also found the fishing hole empty.

"If you go around the fair, you'll find very few red dots indicating sales. For us this has been worse than last year, but we are writing it off as a holiday and don't plan to return. It has been very frustrating," dealer Bernd Lausberg intoned.

Eight-year Art Miami veterans from the Juan Ruiz Galeria in Maracaibo, Venezuela — and one of the sharpest exhibitions at the fair — suggested that those expecting the consumptive frenzy associated with Art Basel failed to grasp the true nature of the Art Miami fair.

"What one comes to understand is that the collectors at Art Basel buy work in a frenetically paced environment early on, where collectors here steadily show interest and often buy late in the game instead," explained Maria Gabriela Soto de Ruiz.

Although I observed scads of exhibitors packing up early during the final day of the fair, Soto de Ruiz — whose gallery is on the selection committee — insisted the fair has improved dramatically. "Collector interest has been positive and growing each year."

Her space showcased several luscious inkjet prints on canvas by Russian collaborative AES+F from its Action Half Life series, in which what look like elementary school-age Benetton models are toting futuristic weapons and posing on foreboding landscapes as flying saucers buzz the sky.

Ida Pisani's Prometeogallery from Milan was Art Miami's grittiest attraction and gave weight to the argument the fair has the power to attract box-office muscle.

The fresh-to-the-fair exhibitor flexed some of the rawest work executed by the contemporary art world's emerging stars, including photography and video by Regina José Galindo, who received the Golden Lion Award for an artist under 35 at last year's Venice Biennale art exhibition.

Galindo's stomach-churning video Himenoplastia featured close-up footage of the Guatemalan artist undergoing an operation to reconstruct her hymen as a commentary on medieval backwaters demanding virginity from young girls. Her work produced mixed reactions.

"I had to take it off the screen because some people couldn't handle the work," Pisani said, expressing uncertainty about returning next year. "I think the crowd here is not too familiar with the provocative nature of some contemporary trends."

Another video, Who Can Remove the Traces?, showed Galindo walking through Guatemala City carrying a bucket of blood, stopping periodically to soak her feet in it, and leaving bloody tracks on the pavement. Galindo is captured as she winds her way to the steps of the nation's constitutional courthouse. The performance is breathtaking.

Christa Schubbe of Germany's Galerie SchubbeProjekt showed a pair of Franz Burkhardt's nifty Japanese carp made from fireworks shells, and Mathias Koster's lip-smacking neo-impressionistic oil-on-aluminum painting depicting Nicole Kidman slurping a spaghetti strand from a brunette bimbo's bee-stung lips.

"A lot of visitors have told me that my booth is the best at the fair, but they all have cement in their pockets. I did have galleries from Miami, New York, and Venezuela express interest in working with my artists, but it is hard going back and telling them we had no sales."

According to Schubbe, some Art Miami organizers attributed poor attendance and sales to a lack of media coverage, in spite of receiving a positive preview in the New Times and wide play in most of the area's other publications.

Hurrying toward an exit when the fair wound to a close, I noticed that Ramon Cernuda of Cernuda Arte, whose stall was one of the few flushed clean by collectors, had sold a painting by José Bedia depicting a sleek stylized character karate-kicking a tsunami. Titled Futile Fight Against the Wave, it was my parting impression of Art Miami.

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