Every December a bunch of art fairs infest Miami, and every year I show up and try to understand what's going on. The main fair of Miami Art Week is Art Basel, which began life in Switzerland in 1970. In 2002 Art Basel Miami Beach was created, and its popularity birthed about 20 satellite art fairs of varying sizes, other unrelated shows, concerts, and about a million branded-content things and marketing-driven events. Art Basel exists because it's a fun way for the art world to have a reunion in a warm place, but mainly it was created to evade paying taxes on expensive art pieces. Art Basel is great; Art Basel is terrible. In some ways, it's a little microcosm of the best and worst aspects of the art world. I go every year to try to learn what I can, relaying my photos and information back to you, the VICE reader, while escaping my seasonal affective disorder. I hope reading this will make you feel like you were right there with me.
I covered Basel for VICE in 2012 and 2014. This year Basel kinda sucked. It's always a little corny, but it rained the whole week straight this year and a lot of cool people elected to stay home. Multiple friends made anti-Basel memes and then the police shot a shirtless bank robber and a lady stabbed another lady. At some point I caught a real bad flu, and now that I'm thinking about it, I really wish I'd stayed home this year. Anyway, here's how the week went.
It was raining in New York when I left it last Wednesday evening and it was raining in Miami when I arrived. The weather was so bad in New York that the flight was delayed, and I missed the Jeremy Scott party for the third time in a row. Will I ever get to meet Jeremy Scott? My host returned from the rained-out party with the Misshapes and some Jeremy Scott high heels with beach ball nozzles on the back.
One of the trademarks of Wynwood is the worst food service imaginable. I went to Panther Coffee in Wynwood, where I witnessed a staff member drop a thing and then her coworker yelled at the customers, "You're making her nervous!" Later the same girl drank a shot of espresso from the measuring glass and didn't wash it before pouring my drink. I think we all got sick from this place.
Outside we ran into Cope2, an old graffiti artist from the Bronx. My pal Greg Rivera posted a photo of him on Instagram and everyone started posting that he was an informant, racist, a pedophile, and a homophobe. I don't know anything about that.
Then it rained a lot so we stayed indoors, got high, and watched Tapeheads until I had to go out and DJ. Thursday was a bust for art-looking.
This is David from Flowers of Evil with Dee Dee Dum Dum from the Dum Dum Girls. Dee Dee and the Crocodiles played as a supergroup at Gramps, the only good bar I've been to in Miami. I DJ'ed between the bands and after. It rained almost the whole show, but it was still good.
Scope is one of the larger fairs, and it is also one of the dumbest. There are always some good pieces at Scope, but what stands out is the really audacious, offensively bad garbage made to appeal to lowest-common-denominator types who hate art but want a cool status object for their homes.
The primary themes of the pieces at Scope are vulgar symbols of wealth, guns, ripping off really well-known artists, references to social media, nontraditional basketball hoops, text pieces with the F-word in them, and shiny circles.
Here are the six worst pieces I saw at Scope. In order to not encourage their success, I have not identified the artists or galleries. I hope they all fade into anonymity.
1. In general you could tell a piece of art was bad if people were taking photos with it on their phones. People typically want to photograph art pieces on their phones when the images have no depth and are instantly understandable.
2. People loved this piece.
3. Just because Mike Kelley is dead doesn't mean you can build a career around taking his shit.
4. Why does this exist? Relying on cheap shock value is something most art schools try to break you of pretty early on. How does the person who made this justify this to their parents or to themselves? "No, you don't get it. See, the word 'fucker' is upside down. Do you get it?"
5. A lot of times you would see two or more of the common themes in one piece. Here's a giant golden bullet. It's an ironic statement about how gun violence is cool and gold and diamonds are also cool.
6. Please, no more Star Wars. I love Star Wars and Ron English. I won a Star Wars trivia contest once, and I have a big collection of Star Wars garbage, but no more Star Wars fine art. It feels like we're all swimming in Star Wars advertising and merchandise all the time; we don't need to provide more ourselves.
Here are my eight favorite pieces that I saw at Scope.
1. It's a flat Japanese painting of a cute cat with a leg full of crazy shapes. This looks a lot like my cat who is a tabby with a short tail. His leg is normal though. This is by Katsunori Miyagi from Ohshima Fine Art in Tokyo.
2. Miniatures made by architecture majors might be corny to some people. I don't care. I love doll houses. Doll houses and little miniatures forever. This is by Drew Leshko from Paradigm Gallery out of Philadelphia. It's called Squirrel's Nest.
3. This is Burnt Ham with Flag Cake by Celeste Rapone from Elizabeth Houston Gallery. It's well-painted and doesn't rely on any obvious references to awful garbage that will appeal to awful garbage people.
4. Whereas most galleries show up with stuff that rips off classic illustration, Dan Hort Gallery shows up with actual original comic art and illustrations. This is a comic called Gordo by Gus Arriola. I like how each panel contains a different heightened moment that doesn't necessarily seem obviously connected to its previous one.
5. Here's an actual thing Andy Warhol made. It's a portrait of hockey player Wayne Gretzky. For some reason I've never seen this in any of the books collecting his work. This was at Osme Gallery from Vienna's booth.
6. Lucy Sparrow made two cabinets of stuffed and sewn versions of things that appear in men's and women's medicine cabinets called His N' Hers. I've seen people doing lumpy sculpted and sewn versions of popular products a lot in the past year, but I don't mind it. They were from Lawrence Alkin Gallery.
7. This is a big blue fake pool coffee-table sculpture. I would sooner make my own at home than buy it, but I like it. It's called Pool Table by Freshwest Design and was in the Osme Gallery from Vienna.
I asked this lady what the trends she was noticing. She said the major trend she saw was sculptures that were low to the ground.
We walked up the beach to Untitled, which is another fair in a big plastic tent. It was better than last year's.
The best gallery I saw all week was Katherine Mulherin's, pictured here with her son/assistant. She has a gallery in Toronto and one in New York and everything she was showing was beautiful. I also find a mother/son gallerist team very charming.
There were about six pieces by
Kris Knight who does these delicate, gently homoerotic oil portraits of beautiful men in quiet moments using very soft pinks and blues. I loved staring at all of his paintings.
There were a few giant oil-stick paintings by Matt Kleberg, which were also great. The concentric lines are beautiful to me, the color choices are perfect. The ways the lines are parallel to the edge of the canvas and the places where they are not are all great. The suggestion of a doorway is also neat.
There were also these perfect little four-by-six-inch oil-on-panel paintings of dreary exteriors by Mike Bayne.
Alex Bierk did a few pieces in which he simulated a wall of shitty graffiti. I might be partial to this because I love bathroom graffiti and brick walls.
The Hole from New York elected to make their booth look like using Photoshop. I liked it. The vapor-wave aesthetic was going pretty hard this year. Photoshop gray and white grids, gradients, and roman sculptures.
Devin Troy Strother had some of his fun collage paintings of him cavorting in his studio. I love his paintings.
For some reason, he is now exploring the corny world of neon art. Neon and printed tapestries are the corniest. This is an art trend that seems to be based on discovering that there's a service that will manufacture objects for you. There's all these people making printed tapestries and blankets and those cheaply made buttons from China. It's all kind of disposable and boring to me. What makes Devin Troy's stuff interesting is seeing the mark of his hand. The non-neon sculptures look good.
I ran into the Cobrasnake, and we were kind of dressed like the same guy. Turquoise shorts, hirsute bodies of the same height, snapbacks, and mustaches. I didn't know what he'd be like as a human based on seeing his photos, but he was a super cool and personable person.
This looks a lot like my bookshelf at home. (I have a Grimace doll on my bookshelf.) This is Cabinet by BGL from Parisian Laundry gallery in Montreal.
This is a big cat jungle gym covered in plaster. "Purrrr" was scratched into the middle of the inside so I think it was a metaphor for cats.
Toilet Paper Magazine made all these rugs and junk as pricy home furnishings. I liked them all but couldn't afford them.
This is Miami in a nutshell.
A big thing at art fairs is women taking photos next to art that matches their outfits or looks like them.
Why, why, why, no, no, no. No more Star Wars art, please. You're killing my enthusiasm for both Star Wars and art.
While heading to the next art fair, I came across this handsome muscleman taking photos with some locals. He asked me who I was photographing him for, and when I told him he said, with both thumbs up, "Oh! VICE is soo-pair coo-el!"
Aqua is a small and easily digested art fair in a former hotel in South Beach. The setting is charming, and the fair is small enough to digest it all without feeling exhausted at the end. Unfortunately most of the exhibiting galleries are lame and show work that's underwhelming or corny.
The best gallery at Aqua was Morton Fine Art, who managed to maneuver from last year's location, shoved into a back corner, to a room on the top front left corner.
This piece is called Mirror by Vonn Sumner, and he's done a few different versions of this portrait now. I'm not sure if it's called Mirror as a reference to the trend of mirrors being used in art or that everyone's just thinking about mirrors.
This is by William Mackinnon, an Australian painter also represented by Morton Fine Art. He does great landscapes, which he describes as being more like self-portraits. They all seem to suggest a story that the viewer is free to invent. This painting is called The Great Indoors.
Here's another Wiliam Mackinnon painting called Trouble Will Find Me (The National). The gallery rep mentioned that he puts a road in all of his paintings.
The other artist who I thought was great at Aqua was Whitney Nye from Portland. There's a lot going on in these dripping colorful squares. It takes a lot of skill and vision to be able to make drippy colorful squares that have this much impact.
And of course there was some shitty art that referenced Star Wars. It was inescapable. This painting is Bad News from the Stars by Denis Mikhaylov. If you had $12,000 and no taste, this piece may be in your home right now.
Here's the crowd from the Quintron and Miss Pussycat show at Gramps on Friday, which I DJ'ed at before and after Quintron performed. Quintron kept complimenting me on my song selections, which was nice. It's nice to get compliments from people you admire.
The Quintron and Miss Pussycat show began with a beautiful and funny puppet show in which a princess is desperately trying to find a one-room studio apartment. Loyal VICE readers may remember her Trixie and the Tree Trunks puppet-show series from VBS a few years back. She does a new show for every tour, and she doesn't document them.
We had a long talk about whether it's more important to create a lasting record of performances or to focus on them as things that you experience at the time that they happen. Is it healthy to not try to memorialize beautiful things? Is it wrong to let beauty be remembered only in our memories and stories? It makes me sad to think that there are Miss Pussycat shows that I will never see, but I guess it makes them more valuable to the people who got to witness them. We also discussed the artistic validity of Disney movies and how great they are.
Following the puppet show, there was a Quintron performance in which Quintron performed with his organ, which looks like a car, and a couple cymbals and the drum machine he invented, the Drum Buddy. The image above is a T-shirt with the Drum Buddy on it. The Drum Buddy makes drum rhythms by reading light and converting that into sound somehow. He punches holes in metal cylinders, and inside the cylinder is a lightbulb. Light readers detect when they see a light and produce a sound. At one point you could buy a custom-built Drum Buddy and come and stay with Quintron and get Drum Buddy lessons if you had the dough.
In 2014 Quintron and Miss Pussycat were chosen to be artists-in-residence at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, where Quintron invented an analog weather-controlled drone synthesizer that he named "Weather Warlock" and Miss Pussycat made an inflatable puppet stage that was small enough to fit in her purse. I could sing the praises of QT and MPC for days.
On Saturday I headed to NADA, which stands for the New Art Dealers Alliance.
This year NADA moved from its previous location to the very fancy Fontainebleau hotel, where they shot the Jerry Lewis movie The Bellboy in 1960.
The dominant themes of NADA as always are cloth pieces and rugs, oversized clothing, vapor-wave shit, and tropical shit.
This is Taraka and Nimai Larson from the amazing music act Prince Rama. We have run into each other at NADA or Scope every year for the past four years. I love them. They are the coolest. I wish I was the third Larson sister.
The lady on the left is Chloe Wise, who is a famous artist. She paints great paintings and makes the bagel purses. She was in an artsy remake of the movie Grease called Greece as Danny Zucco. She used to model for Mishka way back when, but now she is the nicest person in the realm of mega art stars.
Here are the best art pieces I saw at NADA.
This is by Rob Thorn, who comes up with his fantastic concepts for paintings while driving a truck. He also paints trucks. This was at the Bill Brady Gallery area.
This is a giant shirt by Amanda Ross-Ho from Paramo Gallery from Guadalajara. I imagine her sneaking up a beanstalk into a giant's castle and foregoing the golden goose and just stealing his giant paint-stained clothes.
I like that the Journal Gallery attendant appears to be turning into the broken doll art behind him.
This was a long, giant power strip that anyone was welcome to use. It was a one-of-a-kind object and cost $5,000. I thought it was pretty funny the way it both aided and degraded the participants. It was made by Rob Chavasse and was at the Sunday Painter gallery's booth.
Tropical shit is a big thing now.
This painting has a message, and that message is "I like to kill monkeys."
Greg Mishka, our friend Mason from Urban Outfitters, and I headed over to the Larry Gagosian/Jeffrey Deitch curated show called Unrealism. There I met my future self, and we embraced.
This is famous painter Joe Coleman and his wife Whitney standing in front of the portraits of them that Joe spent the last eight years working on. I admire Joe Coleman a lot and was really trying hard not to meet him out of fear of fucking up and annoying him or saying the wrong thing.
These paintings were done with a single hair brush and feature modeled life-size portraits in front of teeny-tiny imagery and text about their loves, interests and memories.
The paintings were painted without a plan, and the compositions were figured out as they were painted. When it was time to leave, I got sad that I wouldn't be able to hang out and stare at the paintings for longer. The photos don't really do them justice.
Then I took part in a mural contest, where I opted to paint DJ Uncle Al, the Miami bass legend who was murdered in 2001. It's the somewhat realistic portrait of the guy with the goatee in the middle. He's one of the great legends of Miami music whose notoriety isn't as wide as it should be. If you don't believe me, listen to "The Uncle Al Song."
Trying to paint was a total shitshow. I was trying to paint this reverential thing and some guy on the other team kept running by and throwing paint and painting over my piece. Someone else poured a full beer over it and washed it away at one point. Then some other douche walked off with my paint. The seats were so close that I couldn't step back and see what it looked like. By the end I was covered in paint, I could feel the veins in my neck throbbing, and my Air Maxes had gone from fresh to beaters.
Later I got some messages from DJ Uncle Al's eldest son, Uncle Al, Jr. He had shown the painting to Al's whole family and told me that they all loved it. This was maybe the best response to any art I ever did.
This is Elle, who does a lot of street-art stuff inspired by Swoon and was on the opposing team in the mural contest. I carried her all the way to the DMX show that Bacardi put on.
Then DMX came out in a bucket hat, and the crowd lost their minds. I didn't really know what to expect, but DMX did one of the best rap performances I've ever seen.
When DMX removed his hat, the crowd really lost their minds. DMX thanked the audience eight times in a row, and then told the crowd that he'd fucked a lot of women and had a lot of good pussy. But no pussy was as good as the love of the audience.
Then he got down and did 50 pushups on stage before yelling, "Where the motherfucking hood at!?" and launching into the next song. The show ended with DMX and Swizz Beatz hugging for a solid minute. I was left awed by one of the best rap performances I've ever seen. At 44, DMX is an unstoppable dynamo, jumping around the whole stage, getting emotional, rapping like crazy. He infused extremely dark and personal content into rap music early on, and it's good to see that he's still at the top of his game. If DMX is reading this, I love you, I think you're a genius, I hope you live forever.
Then we went home, got high, and watched The Peanut Butter Solution on VHS.
On Sunday, I finally headed over to Art Basel, the big giant show that makes the most money. While trying to find the press check-in area, I ran into the Cobrasnake again. His shirt matched the carpet so he laid down on the floor to camouflage himself from predators.
Here are the ten worst things I saw at Art Basel.
As with every art fair, cell phones, social media, and shit like that was a major trend. It's weird that we have these devices that can deliver all this information and culture into our hands but there seems to be more of a fixation on the device itself than the things it shows us.
Here's a guy talking on a phone that's screen-printed onto a mirror. I was trying to convince my friend Johan about the positive aspects of technology, saying that smartphones were a window onto the world. He disagreed and said that cell phones are mirrors, not windows. We choose what we look at and follow and find things that fit with our worldviews and often times just post photos of ourselves for approval.
Being a major art critic for an international big-deal magazine can be hard. How do you know if art is good or bad? The surefire sign that a piece of art is bad is that someone is taking their picture next to it, or taking a photo of their reflection in it. I thought this painting was pretty good, but this lady was taking a photo next to it because it matched her dress. That makes it bad.
More symbols of wealth and conspicuous consumption. In the movie Goldfinger, there's a scene where they crush a murder victim in his car and when that movie came out people were shocked that they destroyed an actual car on camera.
The text-based art is the worst. Some people call it word art. To me, it's more like bumper sticker art or Twitter art. The value of this stuff is that it's impossible not to understand. It appeals to the worst people. It is the opposite of art.
Although text art is petering out a little as a trend, concave, reflective serving dishes have become huge. Check out this one.
Here's a really big one.
This one's red. Every art fair I'd gone to had at least one of these silver concave dishes, so there's no way they're all being produced by one artist. Everyone is just fascinated by their own goddamn reflection so much that they think a funhouse mirror is good art.
The neon shit is so lazy and corny. It was lame when Dan Flavin did it a million years ago, and it's lame now. It's never been good or interesting. It's just desperate. Gold leaf, mirrors, lights; these are the techniques of Times Square advertising, not good art.
I feel exhausted just looking at it. Is there any value to beauty or effort? Enough wallowing in shit, here were my favorite pieces I saw at Art Basel.
This David Hockney painting is the best thing I saw at Basel. This is The Conversation, from 1980, and it was being sold by the Richard Gray Gallery. It's one of those paintings where seeing it in person adds a lot of value. I had one of those "I get it" moments, and then wished I had the room or money to make large oil paintings.
This is a painting by Francis Bacon from his Man in Blue series, from the best gallery at Basel every year, the Van De Weghe Gallery. They show up with a couple Basquiats, a few Warhols, a Calder, and some other pieces you might not have seen before by eight or so of the biggest names ever. They're like the Yankees of art galleries.
There was a really good short film by Pauline Boudry and Renata Lorenz as shown by Marcelle Alix from Paris. Is video art still a thing now that everyone seems to shoot video with basically the same technology?
Damien Hirst made some giant drugs. There was a catalogue in the 1980s that my parents liked that would sell giant versions of everyday items. They sold a giant toothbrush, a giant eight-foot-long wristwatch you could hang on your wall, and all sorts of other junk. My mom bought a giant martini glass that came with a wax olive. I liked all that stuff in the catalogue as a two- and three-year-old child, and I suppose it's the same part of my brain that responds to this. I like it, but I kinda know that this stuff is just decoration. You can get them from Paul Stolper.
This is a monoprint by Lisa Yuskavage called No Man's Land. I like the ways that she adheres to and rejects the rules of anatomy for her stuff. Also the colors. With this piece she does a lot of neat things with figures in different areas of the middle ground. Universal Limited Art Editions were selling it.
This is a neat Frank Stella piece that Paul Kasmin Gallery was selling. Frank Stella's thing is just the circular painting on the back wall, but I liked the whole presentation. The gallery had made their booth look like a little temple.
And those are the good things I saw at the Art Basel fair. Then they closed the fair with loud, haunted-house sound effects and kicked everyone out.
Outside the Miami Convention Center was what appeared to be the same un-shoed muscle man I'd seen earlier in the week, only this time he was marbleized. My mother used to hand-marbleize all the cheap secondhand furniture we had when I was little. I would pay a thousand dollars to have whatever's left of my marbleized childhood dresser.
I hung out with this guy for half an hour while I regrouped, and we watched the marbleized muscle man go off with some older art patron gentleman. We both realized that he was probably a prostitute at the same time. "Well, it looks like he finally got what he was after…" Then I sashayed away and came down with the Basel flu and returned to a dark New York.
P.S. The marbleized muscleman is, in fact, not a prostitute. If you would like to learn more about what he is into, follow his Instagram.
Follow Nick on Instagram.