Two eyes in Miami: Jason Ramos at the fairs

Two Eyes in Miami
text and photos by Jason Ramos, unless otherwise indicated.
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(Jason Ramos with Philip Guston painting)

Miami is hot and humid, like where I was raised in Texas. South Beach’s main drag, the Art Deco lined Collins Avenue, feels like a movie lot for a noir-ish thriller set decades ago. Percussive Latin music hazily thumps along the tropical periphery. Minimally clothed, well-tanned locals zip around on skateboards, roller blades and bicycles. The whole place feels oversexed and kind of drunk. Seductive. It reminds me of Venice Beach some. It reminds me of Vegas some. Naturally I fall a little in love with the place. I am in Miami Beach for the art world Comicon of Art Basel Week, where a global audience slit their jugulars of cash and revel in a slippery orgy of art and capital.

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Art Basel Miami Beach is a Swiss-bank funded behemoth, a super-mall of contemporary art and art symposia, the archetypal art fair. Untitled, the smallest fair I saw and liked, surreally occupied a part of the beach like a crashed spaceship. Aqua, held in the Aqua hotel on Collins Ave., featured many out-of-town galleries from American cities other than NY and LA, which was great, because I frequently wondered what great art I’m flying over every time I cross the country. Miami Project was small, new, and looked great, but not as sexy as Untitled. Scope was huge and monstrous. The work there felt like the surplus stock of what Art Basel was offering. Pulse sprawled with good work and a unique venue. It’s big, but felt more intimate than the tents and convention centers. Red Dot was atrocious. Fountain was atrocious, but in new and different ways. Art Miami/Context I don’t remember so much about; it was a “standard” contemporary art fair with some original Bansky wall pieces. NADA didn’t give exhibitors much as far as booth space, but what the exhibitors gave back seemed far less susceptible to the derivative trends in art that were obvious at the other fairs.

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(Thomas Houseago and Franz West at the Rubell Family Collection Musuem)

“Good but derivative” would be my assessment overall of the art I saw in Miami. Tumbleweeds, mirrors creating that infinity effect, and abstract paintings with stripes in them is what a lot of artists (who don’t look around at art fairs apparently) are dealing with in their work. It is difficult to focus in on one booth, much less individual art works in Miami. Assessing the vibe, market, and focus of an entire fair is easy, however. Repetition stands out. Lack of quality or contemporaneity stands out. The Philip Guston paintings in McKee gallery’s booth in Art Basel stands out. The Rubell Family Collection stands out, as does their investment in LA artists. I approach fairs the same way I approach biennials (art fairs’ “good twin”); as an artist, as an art fan, as someone who thinks a lot about art.

The last major art event of this scale I saw was Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany earlier this year. Some of the art work there was a room filled with a light breeze moving through it, and a theater production featuring mentally disabled performers choreographed by Jérôme Bel. There were no rooms with breezes or performances for sale at the Miami fairs that I could tell. However Lisson Gallery, the gallery of Ryan Gander and his 2012 piece I need some meaning I can memorise (The Invisible Pull), – the aforementioned room with the breeze – were in booth J21 at Art Basel.

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(Photo by Hrag Vartanian)

NYC RAPES MIAMI BEACH. This was the statement made on some street art seen in Miami, produced by Maria Builes and designed to resemble the marketing materials of the Art Basel fair. The New York times produced a fluffy article acknowledging something similar to Builes’ views where writer Patricia Cohen is shocked, shocked to find extremely wealthy people paying exorbitant sums for art works during the fair. The art market, as a concept, regularly invites this kind of suspicious critique. Much great art is produced as products or articulations of this critique. For me the market is a most efficient method of wealth redistribution, outside of violent revolution, but the long-term efficiency of the latter is debatable.

Every dollar a villainous corporation like Bank of America, BP, or Altria spend on sponsoring museum shows and art fairs, is a dollar they’re not spending on house foreclosures, off-shore drilling, addicting people to nicotine, or eating children, or whatever it is they do with most of that money. Media that’s more inclined to the public at large tend to focus on our rock stars – Hirst, Koons, Warhol – without acknowledging that most of the public at large actually have little idea who even these artists are, or that the majority of what was for sale, at Art Basel and all the other fairs, was produced by daydreamers with overdrawn bank accounts, rather than a handful of superstar artists. The world of contemporary art isn’t any more exclusive than the world of molecular biology, and the amount of knowledge required to be effectively initiated in both worlds is about equal.

Lots of art writers are writing about the market now. The scale of what occurs in Miami, and of the “art fair industrial complex” that is occurring in major cities across the globe has some the real world’s attention, too. There is a definitive, antagonistic strain of viewpoints in the general media towards the art world (and from within it). A superficial peek into it during Art Basel week could easily confirm the views of those looking to craft another ignorant but amusing John Stossel-style “expose” about how fucked-up the art world is. The intersection of art and commerce, of art and the rest of the world, is an achingly beautiful, profoundly enlightening, intoxicatingly challenging train wreck. And more train cars pile up on it everyday. There is no doubt to me that all contemporary art made today, by those identifying themselves as contemporary artists, is influenced in large part by that artist’s relationship (or lack thereof) to the art market. Perhaps not consciously influenced, but it sews thoughts into all artists’ dreams, right there along with sex, death, politics, family, narrative, etc. There are much easier ways to make money aside from art. The reasons for those with money who are in it are probably as crazy, romantic, and self-righteous as mine.

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Further reading: Irving Sandler on art criticism in the face of market forces.
Patricia Cohen’s New York Times piece. Some good quotes from the Rubells on the fairs, and the market in general. Contains links to other art writers and their criticism of the art market.
The website of artist Maria Builes, creator of “NYC Rapes Miami Beach” street art.


  1. Cool take on a week of crazy!

  2. Very interesting article. Good job.

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