Art Basel diary: Air-kissing South Beach on day one

Caitlin Donohue does South Beach during the country’s most excessive week of art. Check out her other Basel 2012 posts here

Faced with a daunting calendar, we went straight to the belly of the Art Basel beast on our first day in Miami: South Beach. The centerpiece of this belly, of course, is Art Basel — “Art Basel proper,” as one must call it during a week with over 20 satellite fairs in orbit around the main event.

Tip: do not try to see it all at Art Basel proper. I highly recommend doing it as Lovemonster and I did, starting out with a talk in the Art Salon. The labyrinth of galleries and their art and endless muted hush of high-level art dealings can make the whole affair seem robotic, so it was real nice to witness a coherent, out-loud discussion among human beings. 

The panel focused on Middle Eastern street art as a form of political expression. I got all fangirl about the last-minute addition of French street artist JR (level of geographical appropriateness be damned) to the talk, but was even more thrilled that the moderator was billed as ¨Princess Alia Al-Senuzzi, patron, London.¨ BASEL Other panelists included Bomi Odufunade, director of special projects at London´s outsider art mecca Museum of Everything, and Tala Sanah, author of Marking Beirut.

Conversation focused on the recent appearance of art-focused street art in the Middle East, and how it related to the political scrawls that have long served as stand-in for uncomfortable political conversations between neighbors there. I found the distinction between artists and political followers a little clunky, but the images flashed on-screen behind the panelists of Middle Eastern murals were amazing, and made me want to read Sanah´s book. JR kind of dominated the talk though, with his handwaving Frenchiness, making me wish Odufunade would moderate with a slightly heavier hand. BASEL

We left the talk early because the older Mid-West mom who sat next to us was having trouble not gawking at my pink hair. These creatures abound at Art Basel, providing quite the incongruous counterpoint to the freakish gazelles of South Beach until you realize the oldies are probably millionaires and really, who the hell am I to say that a brokeass alt-culture writer belongs in this scene any more than them? Her shoes def looked better suited to gallery stomping than my not-enough-broken in kicks, so good job lady and next time just take a picture.

Stop number two (after a brief intermission spent in a smoothie shop that was blasting techno music at 2pm MIAMI) was the massive translucent white tent on the beach that is housing Untitled Art Fair. Untitled´s a young buck in its first year of existence, and breaks from the usual fair mode in that a single dude (New York´s Omar Lopez-Chahoud) curated the whole, 50-gallery affair. The venue is flash as hell, foregoing spotlights on the art for primarily natural light, and designed to ¨flow¨ between gallery spaces.

Chicago gallerist Monique Meloche has shown at NADA and Pulse art fairs during Basel week before, but told us that participating in Untitled “is super-different. Omar calls you up and says ‘I want to do something with Justin,’ and then you pick complimentary pieces.”

Justin, of course, being Justin Cooper, whose site-specific rubber hose sculpture welcomed attendees off the beach into Untitled. A smaller creation sat on the floor in the middle of Meloche’s set-up, which also included pieces by Ebony Patterson, a Jamaican-born artist who works with mug shots of male criminals, converting them into ravishing drag queens with DIY-like touches like vinyl flowers cut from common household items. To complete the trifecta (all Untitled exhibitors were allowed three), she paired Patterson and Cooper with Iran´s Sheree Hovsepian, who manipulates dark room proofs to create deceptively simple abstracts. All three, Meloche told us, worked with elements of craft, mixing high and low materials and references. 

Throughout the exhibit you could see touches of Lopez´s personal preferences — there was a lot of abstract work, for example, although I´m not sure you could classify Paco Cao´s dead celeb tarot card prints (at $25, they were the cheapest pieces on sale at the fair) as abstract. Maybe the presentation of them, though. Cao sat in a hidey hole built with gallery walls, screaming out readings he did with the cards of fest-goers. 

Growing discomfort of my neon pink boots be damned, we made it to our third fair of the day, the free-entry (this is pretty much unheard of among Basel week fairs) New Art Dealers Alliance or NADA art fair, in the Deauville Beach Resort. We got a serious hit of hometown pride over the Bay galleries that made it to NADA — Oakland´s Creative Growth gallery for developmentally and otherwise disabled artists was showcasing William Scott´s R&B culture icon paintings, and can I just say that Cindy, Terry, Maxine, and Dawn of En Vogue have never looked lovelier. We also got to check out Oakland´s Et Al Projects, and SF´s CCA Wattis Institute and Queen´s Nails

And I know what you´re thinking and yeah duh, we´re partying too. Like, with mansions and shit. boychild (who along with another member of our SF-does-Basel crew, Dia Dear, were the subject of Marke B.´s Super Ego column last week) tipped us off to ¨The Body As Lightning Conductor,¨ a private party which turned out to be in a mansion you got to via yacht. We all stood around this Spanish-style mansion (or, y´know, ducked into the well-appointed library) housing drinks from the open bar with aforementioned Mid-West millionaires, high fashion West Coast club kids. All retired to the ballroom (!) to check out a vogue crew tear it down around midnight. 

Then, lacking a cab or cabfare, I got in a buncha strangers´ car (I think the dude sitting shotgun was a rapper), allowed them to buy me fries from the Wendy´s drive-thru, and then ditched them when they got mired in the standstill traffic going through Wynwood, charged my phone on some DJ´s powerstrip who was playing a set in a cigar factory, danced while it charged, and then made the Fountain Art Fair after-party with a buncha street artists/street art festival organizers BASEL

Chris Brown´s painting entitled ¨Chompuzz¨ is on display at hipster clusterfuck Basel Castle tonight, which is pretty much my only priority to see tonight. Center of the art world! BASEL!