Walking around Design Miami 2019's first day, you might find it difficult to imagine that anything in the tent across from the Miami Beach Convention Center will wind up in a human being's home. Much of the furniture, pottery, and other decorative items on display seem like they belong in an alien spaceship or another dimension.
Then you take another spin around the booths and see the brands: Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Lexus. The target demographic at Design Miami — as with most Art Week fairs — is the wealthy, many of whom have second and third homes in need of a tasteful redecorating.
At a press lunch, the fair's curatorial director, Aric Chen, mentioned a theme of "resources in the context of a changing planet." Many exhibitors seem to have taken that comment to mean "precious resources," the kind people dig out of the ground to make jewelry, electronics, fuel — y'know, the kind of things over which one would start a coup d'état. Stone, marble, and other unearthed materials are everywhere at Design Miami. At the Todd Merrill Studio booth, a center table with a glossy, paint-splattered pattern looks like a massive opal, shining like one of the crystals at the Swarovski booth nearby. Across the way, Gallery ALL displays a gold-plated coffee table.
Some of the booths are less concerned with selling furniture than with asking visitors to think about what resource extraction is doing to the planet. Near the entrance, a live-streaming feed of a coral reef plays on a wall. Nearby, artist Fernando Laposse presents the sculpture Pink Beasts, depicting a trio of sloths made of pink fibers woven by Mayan women in Mexico. The project is meant to raise awareness about the importance of sustainably sourcing art materials — the pink dye was taken from insects native to the region — as well as the role of indigenous populations in creative industries.
One of the most thought-provoking displays is by the studio Lonely Whale. Commenting on the global plastic waste crisis, the studio had collected trash from beaches around the world and fashioned them into a series of sculptures called Time Bombs. Presumably, they're ticking down the time until the Earth is destroyed and our throwaway culture has inundated the planet with garbage.
Not a lot of people seemed to take mind of the display, however. There weren't nearly as many people there as there were looking at Styrofoam chairs by artist Daniel Arsham or taking selfies with the couch stuffed with Balenciaga shirts. The crowds were so enamored with all the shiny new stuff that they didn't stop to consider whether the endless cycles of production that helped birth these works are actually good for the world. It's probable some of them will buy one of the garish new tables on display, dispose of it, and return to Design Miami next year to buy another one.
A few booths specialize in 20th-century furniture, and they, ironically, are the only pieces this writer could imagine himself living with. They're made of organic material — wood, leather, cloth — and carry the names of designers such as Jean Prouvé and Le Corbusier. There are multiple fresh takes on these old forms, such as Barbara Kruger's reskinning of the classic Artek three-legged stool with red legs and the word "kiss" in all caps bold black font on a white seat. But the originals have an undeniable appeal. They look like they were made for ordinary people, not space aliens.
Meanwhile, on the beach in an even larger tent, the Scope art fair was also having its first day. Most of the art there is bad. I say this not as an art critic, but as someone with working eyes and common sense who knows when something looks ugly. I caught myself saying, “That looks terrible,” more times than I can count.
In art circles, it’s said that with the exception of maybe five or six artists per generation, most art will be forgotten within ten years. You can see evidence of this at Scope. Walking around, you’ll glimpse many of the same ephemeral themes, such as social media, politics, celebrity, and consumer brands. A lot of it could be considered pop art, but rather than commenting on consumerism, most of the art seems to just feed it. One booth displays a ceramic pair of Balenciaga sneakers; another adds emojis to van Gogh’s famous sunflowers. Who would buy this stuff? Someone who thinks it's funny, presumably.
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Many of these works are derivative of other, better artists. Neon is big thanks to Dan Flavin, and multiple booths showcase some kind of portrait with neon lighting attached to the canvas. Cartoons are also everywhere thanks to Kaws. These pieces are produced because artists and galleries see these themes being used and assume similar work will sell. The logical endpoint of these trends, then, is a painting depicting an irate Mickey Mouse standing against a background of faded commercial logos with the phrase “fuck off” in red neon. People couldn’t stop taking selfies with it.
It isn't all bad, however. One source of relief is a gallery displaying the work of Joan Cornella, the Spanish illustrator whose morbidly humorous cartoons often go viral. Another is the special section Art China, which offers the abstract ink-wash paintings of Lan Zhenghui. There's something relaxing about simply looking at black-and-white artwork in a massive room with bright colors bursting from every direction. Even more soothing is stepping outside and looking at the sun setting over the ocean. Contrary to what many Miami Art Week patrons might believe, some things are more valuable than any piece of art.
Design Miami. Wednesday, December 4, through Sunday, December 8, on Convention Center Drive between 18th and 19th Streets, Miami Beach; designmiami.com. Tickets cost $27 to $225.
Scope. Wednesday, December 4, through Sunday, December 8, at 801 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach; scope-art.com. Tickets cost $40 to $200.