Art Basel Miami Beach—the self-proclaimed “most important art show in the United States”—started off not with a bang, but a thrash: Iggy and the Stooges played a free concert called Art Loves Music. There’s a certain pleasure to be had in imagining a mosh pit of well-heeled collectors subjecting themselves to Iggy’s shirtless ministrations. What better way to celebrate doling out a fortune on a work of art?
Whether the artworks are as significant a contribution to world culture as “I Wanna Be Your Dog” remains to be seen. The Stooges’ well-versed nihilism was a momentary corrective to Art Basel’s defining obsessions: prestige, class and money. As for art—it’s the spur, not the core, of this mind-boggling international phenomenon.
A headline in City Link, a South Florida alternative newspaper, promised to counsel its readers on the best ways of “Surviving Art Basel.” With all the guerrilla-style art fairs that have sprung up around the main event, it’s a wonder that anyone leaves Florida with their love of art intact. It’s the commercial overkill that’s fatiguing—so much art, so little time and not enough money. (The relentless influx of artsy types into the Wynwood Art District was undoubtedly the subject of much discussion among the year-round residents of this barren, poverty-stricken neighborhood, where nearby construction sites promise “super lofts.”)
For those of us who balked at paying five bucks for a lukewarm can of Coke at the concession stand, it was a wonder how art flew from the walls of blue-chip galleries at the Miami Convention Center. At dealer Reena Spauling’s booth, Merlin Carpenter’s scrawled paintings advised clientele, “Die Collector Scum.” You just know some collector scum snapped it up, love at first sight.
Visitors wearied by the Art Basel spectacle contented themselves with people-watching and amateur sociology. Shameless dealers toadied up to Dennis Hopper, and, in a moving scene of art-macher introspection, dealer Matthew Marks chewed the lid of his coffee cup while poring over art magazines.
THOUSANDS OF YOUNG artists hoped to hit the big time at smaller venues like Aqua, NADA, Bridge, Red Dot and Scope. In an effort to forestall art-overdose and keep the masses primed, dealers distributed freebies with a fervor bordering on aggression. At Bridge, for example, a cadre of long-legged waitresses decked out in plush red outfits practically wrestled visitors to the ground if they refused the Amstel beer on offer.
There were Picassos at Art Basel, and Warhols, and works by the ubiquitous Takashi Murakami, and 13 exquisite, museum-worthy Mirós. The Nolan/Scheibler booth displayed a winning suite of Mel Kendrick’s playful riffs on Constructivist sculpture. And the hot-and-cold painter John Walker was in top form at Knoedler & Company. The work of unsung French modernist Auguste Herbin was there in abundance—now that he’s commercially viable, can a retrospective be far behind?
At Aqua, Brooklyn-based William Powhida, whose work was at Seattle’s Platform Gallery, garnered attention through sarcasm. His pieces are painted lists of art world potshots. Here’s his take on the rise of dealer Zach Feuer: “Open Gallery Sell Shitty Paintings.” In reference to a Miami Basel panel discussion, he takes even the noble cause of art criticism to task: “This should be a bunch of bullshit. Make sure I’m up for this one.”
Viewers unfamiliar with art world minutiae were likely puzzled by Mr. Powhida’s insider musings. That probably wasn’t the case with Patrick Berran’s curious architectural abstractions at Heidi Cho’s showcase, particularly his meticulously rendered, heart-stopping drawings. Gregory Klassen, a student of Gerhard Richter and represented by Essen’s Galerie Jurgen Kalthoff, locates a moody twist on stain painting. Doug Parry’s paintings, seen at Brooklyn’s Art 101, are enigmatic narratives featuring clowns, lovers and what he calls “DFS”—drinking, fucking and smoking.
Artists exhibited at Art Basel’s satellite shows often proved more interesting than those at Art Basel itself, if only because they haven’t suffered from overexposure. The Irish sculptor Graham Hudson, for example, whose work was shown at Monitor Video & Contemporary Art, contrives whimsical, almost Calderesque assemblages from saws, crowbars, tape measures, hammers and other hardware store merchandise.
Over at Layr Wuestenhagen Contemporary, a gallery exhibiting at the NADA Art Fair, sculptor Fabian Seiz does something similar with materials gleaned from the lumberyard, creating absurdist contraptions that are part Rube Goldberg, part Vladimir Tatlin. And Kirk Hayes’ trompe l’oeil paintings at Dallas’ Conduit Gallery were baffling: Even after realizing that his plywood and cardboard “collages” are the purest illusion, we still don’t believe it. Out-of-the-way finds like Mr. Hayes are, in the end, what make Art Basel’s machinations palatable.
Many dabble in painting, including those renowned for different artistic endeavors—John Mellencamp, say, or Anh Duong. It’s tempting to dismiss them as amateur enthusiasts—just don’t peg Byron Dobell, whose drawings, watercolors and paintings are at First Street Gallery, as one of them.
Mr. Dobell earned a significant reputation as an editor, holding important posts at Esquire, Life, New York, The Washington Post and American Heritage. Norman Mailer, Jacques Barzun, Tom Wolfe and Rebecca West all encountered his red pen. How did someone whose schedule didn’t encourage art-making do it all the same?
The answer: persistence and weekends. Instead of escaping to a country home, Mr. Dobell headed to the studio. A student of the caricaturist David Levine, he’s established himself as a professional portraitist. It can be a thankless job: Betty Friedan insisted that Mr. Dobell destroy his portrait of her; his refusal eventually landed it in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
Mr. Dobell’s skills are in evidence at First Street: A deft hand for anatomy; a keen attention to proportion; and, in Scottish Landscape (2006), an appreciative eye for the vagaries of light and atmosphere.
Mr. Dobell is unapologetic in his traditionalism: A friend of his remarks that “Dobell believes all important art ends with Degas.” Indeed, Mr. Dobell would rather pay homage than engage in commentary. Bronze Roman Youth (2006) makes deference to the classical world. Elsewhere, he applies oils, watercolor and various drawing media with an ease only someone experienced in the rigors of craft could achieve.
Byron Dobell: Recent Works is at First Street Gallery, 526 West 26th Street, until Dec. 22.
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