South Florida

Appreciating art at Art Basel is not easy. Here’s why you should do it

Sand Shelf No. 1 by Nicole Wermers at Art Basel.
Sand Shelf No. 1 by Nicole Wermers at Art Basel. Miami Herald

Appreciating art is not easy. While artists suffer for their work, art lovers do, too.

Art Basel places Miami at the center of the art universe for one feverish week. The fairs and events revolving in its orbit compound the sensory overload. It is a beautiful thing for our onetime cultural backwater that now seems to have as many contemporary art museums, collections and galleries as cafecito windows.

But Art Basel is tough on the nerves, the wallet, the feet and the eyes. The average fairgoer — and we’re not talking about the VIP in the chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce shopping for a $3 million painting for the Hamptons beach house — must brace himself with the fortitude of a starving artist slaving away in some un-gentrified warehouse and hoping to make it big like kitsch king Jeff Koons, who sold his Balloon Dog sculpture for $58 million in 2014.

Want to do Art Basel, and visit additional fairs in Miami Beach plus Art Miami, NADA and the action downtown, the Wynwood scene, the Design District and Little Haiti? It’s an odyssey. Trust a reporter who has hit a dozen spots — including a concert, a film, an opening and a party — and desperately needs the stress relief of splattering paint on a large canvas, Jackson Pollock-style.

paper cups on wall
Plastic cups, ‘Heaven (Vielmetter Version)’ by Pope.L at Art Basel.

There’s the traffic. Jams on the causeways, on Biscayne Boulevard, on Northeast Second Avenue and everywhere in between, compounded by out-of-town drivers who don’t know where they’re going, clashing with local drivers who don’t know how to drive, not to mention Uber and Lyft drivers stopping in the middle of the block to drop off and pick up passengers. There’s the parking, too little to accommodate the influx. Figure your normal travel time and triple it. Figure your normal parking price and triple it. Notice the preponderance of crushed, scrunched and wadded metal art pieces that look like something the artist appropriated from a car crash scene or junkyard? That is art speaking to the devastating effects of wasted time in our vehicle-dependent cities.

There’s the crowds. People-watching and eavesdropping is amusing — until it becomes annoying. The look-at-me clothes, the stilettos and fuzzy Gucci slides, the pretentious eyeglasses, the cleavage — these are the pretenders. The real cognoscenti are wearing jeans.

There’s the ripoff admission fees. It’s up to $60 for Art Basel, $30 for Design Miami, and $25 for some satellite fairs that used to be free.

You will question why you went to the trouble when you find yourself inside Basel gazing at 28 stacks of plastic cups or a pile of shredded tire treads or a cowhide tattooed with the name SUE and asking whether it’s Art or a scam.

What else might you see? Christo wrapped a supermarket cart in plastic and Anish Kapoor wrapped what looks like bloody innards in gauze. One gallery displayed a set of toy sports cars on the floor; the artist had stuffed a wig inside each so that the hair flowed out of the windows. A commentary on vanity?

Hair is definitely a theme this year, perhaps inspired by our president. In one piece, a disheveled male figure slumps in a corner, his face ashen, his locks long and golden. He’s got a flashlight and a camera. A hoof peeks out of one pant leg. The Donald as the devil? The work is called “Trump.”

ear in dirt
Ear embedded in dirt at Art Basel. Nissen Ritter

Interpretation is part of the head-scratching fun. What to make of the model of a human ear embedded in dirt that came out of a paint can? An allusion to Van Gogh? Or what about the live barefoot man lying on the floor next to a megaphone and a turntable? Did he represent the lack of listeners in our cacophonous society, or was he merely a tired gallerist taking a nap?

A wood carving made to look like a stuffed toy elephant sitting in a playpen lined with fabric from Ralph Lauren shirts and Dockers slacks got the brain working, but left it stumped. Childhood consumed by materialism? Too literal. Art doesn’t have to be like a quiz show. Maybe it’s better sometimes to just leave it at hmmm — which is what you’ll be thinking about the red bookshelves filled with sand.

A melting snowman and a deep purple spinning car wash brush — I kind of liked those, although I don’t know how I would fit them into my living room. Another large piece featured 1,200 digital inkjet framed prints of the most popular male and female names according to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau, including Melba, Bonita, Ola, Nettie, Otto and Kermit. Again, where would you put it?

During Art Week you can see works by Picasso, Miro, Calder. You can also see a $15,000 coat made out of teddy bears. Pajamas hanging on a wall. White canvas with one green line intersecting with one red line. A giant lamp consisting of a clawed, Godzilla foot in a gold high-heel shoe. Concrete female torsos with bright pink vaginas arrayed beneath palm trees like garden gnomes.

teddy bears
Coat made out of teddy bears at Morphew booth at Aqua Art Miami. Linda Robertson Miami Herald

You will feel like a philistine when you inevitably find yourself saying, “I could have made that. My kid could have made that. My dog could have made that.” Don’t feel bad. None other than Tom Wolfe wrote an essay entitled “The Painted Word” that satirizes Modern Art, arguing that what was once revolutionary has become a parody of itself, an elitist circle game of artists, critics and collectors. They get it. You don’t. They have Theories, Ideas, Concepts. You have your simpleton’s love of the Impressionists, Rembrandt or Michelangelo.

You won’t see any classic still lifes with grapes — unless it’s the piece at Art Miami with the leg and Adidas-clad foot kicking out of the painting. You will see “Excerpts from the Taj Mahal (The Truth Always Happens)” in Wynwood, an exhibition of garish furnishings from Trump’s former Atlantic City hotel altered by artist Peter Tunney.

So is it worth it? Yes it is. Even those 28 stacks of plastic cups will get your imagination cranking. Is it art? Sure it is. All art is in the eye of the beholder.