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By Hannah Cole

To those of us not on the VIP list, Art Basel Miami Beach is run with all the charm of a POW camp. Having confiscated my camera on the first bag-search, the guards made me return to the coat check a second time to surrender my business cards. Thus primed to despise it, I was surprised to find I had a little empathy left for the gallerists, as they sat largely idle and exhausted in their booths. While gallerists at the satellite fairs are decidedly approachable, the Basel crew in years past has peered down from their collective desks as though from Mount Olympus. This year, their superciliousness was deflated by the faint whiff of disappointment.

The main fair, Art Basel Miami Beach, and the dozen satellite fairs exist for two reasons: art and money. On the money side, by all accounts, the frenzied art market of the last several years is over. Sales at Art Basel were down markedly. At the satellite fairs in both locations, Miami Beach and Wynwood, reports were mixed. There was word that some fairs were doing well, as well as some individual galleries, but for many, the numbers were grim.

But despite gloomy weather on the financial front, this year's Miami art fairs had an upside. The mood was low key and circumspect, but for art-viewing, there were some delightful surprises.

This year, Art Basel was back to basics. The majority of blue-chip galleries had the traditional group show of gallery artists, with works tending towards the modest in scale. The boldest installations were at the peripheries, and all by the "emerging" galleries - this being a relative term at the fair for art royalty. Zach Feuer had some fantastic Jules de Balincourt paintings, and at the fairs entrance, two galleries, David Zwirner Gallery and Deitch Projects greeted fair-goers with paintings of Barack Obama, by Yan Pei-Ming andKurt Kauper, respectively.

The bulk of the action this year was in Wynwood, where lots of outdoor murals united local graffiti and sponsored art projects. With painters outside actively spray-painting and wheat-pasting throughout the week, the downtown had a sense of dynamism which reduced the hermetic feeling of so many white booths indoors.

Pulse, in Wynwood, was edgy and frenetic. Too many exhibitors and separate sections left me feeling jangled, but there was great work on display. One of my discoveries there was Andy Harper, in a single-artist booth, One in the Other of London. He painted jaw-dropping, intricate paintings that held up to close scrutiny. The canvases were dark, horizonless underwater flora, done in an amazing wet-on-wet painting technique, each petal wiped into the dark paint with a single brushstroke.

At the two Aqua fairs, the Aqua Hotel in Miami Beach, and the newer venue in Wynwood, there was a relaxed vibe, perhaps related to the fairs' concentration of West Coast galleries. Here, the work was both sophisticated and laid-back. At Wynwood, Gallery Joe of Philadelphia had a thoughtful and zero-color exhibition of drawings, and Boston had a strong showing at the Aqua Hotel, withSteven Zevitas/OSP, Judi Rotenberg, Miller Block and O•H + T.

According to Boston University curator Lynne Cooney, SCOPE fell somewhere between the high energy of Pulse and the serenity of Aqua. A noticeable absence of Chinese and Indian artists at the fairs compared with last year may be due to a new dedicated fair, Art Asia, in connection with SCOPE. Here, there was a heavy presence of hyper-realist figurative painting. According to Cooney, "Art Asia was, by and large, a disappointment. Many of the galleries were US galleries representing Asian artists. " Though she added, "I can imagine it's expensive for younger galleries in China, Singapore, etc. to make the trip."

NADA was excellent as always. Here the work was edgy, with more single-person mini- exhibitions. Several booths disrupted the monotony of the white cube by coating their walls with patterned wallpaper, masonite, or newspaper. These ranged from successful de-pomping to artsy distraction. LaMontagne Gallery had a strong group show, including the imaginative, all-out, I-don't-give-a-damn paintings of Christina Toro. Western Exhibitions of Chicago featured a live knitting performance by husband-and-husband team Miller & Shellabarger that was both funny and sweet.

Taking a break from the art fairs, the Rubell Family Collection had a fantastic exhibition, entitled 30 Americans. This show assembled the work of young black Americans and an older generation of artists who influenced them. Figurative painting had a strong presence here, and the work overall was thoughtful, well crafted and powerful. In the era of our first black President, the strength of the show stood up to the weight of this historic moment. Glenn Ligon's painted neon piece, America, in which silhouetted black letters project a white halo on the wall behind them, put a lump in my throat. I end my round-up with the best piece in Miami. Hidden on the third and fourth floors of a sprawling multi-floor exhibition at The Station was Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe's singularly transfixing pieceHello Meth Lab With a View, courtesy of the artists and Ballroom Marfa. The piece was made in an unfinished luxury condominium building, and viewers entered it from a service stairwell. From the long empty hallway, one entered the warm foyer of a condo into what appeared to be a straightforward show of black and white photographs. A glassed-off bathroom to the side seemed like an odd aside as the photos grew more strange. But as one progressed through the rooms, different parts of the house were glassed off like a domestic terrarium, entombing progressively more bizarre scenarios until a kitchen appeared, splattered in exploded goo with hoses running insanely from the dishwasher to refrigerator to sink. Climbing the stairs, one entered a shaman's den/mad scientist's storeroom with amulets and preserved artifacts in row upon row of jars of colored liquid, and two stuffed coyotes seemingly napping on the floor. One stepped through an exploded refrigerator, to enter a blackened kitchen filled with the charred aftermath of a fire, and into a sitting room with its patterned wallpaper ripped out to expose listening devices in the walls.

From everyone who walked into this piece, there was a stunned silence, and then the low whispers of wonder and fascination. Part crime scene, part mad science lab, part sting operation and part spirit den, Hello Meth Lab was atmospheric, imaginative and up-to-the-minute. It captured the zeitgeist, speaking simultaneously to artmaking, surveillance, the housing crisis, and the strange feeling of limbo in the aftermath of a disaster, with all the wonder, energy and care that art can provide. Inside it, I overheard a conversation between three local teenaged boys, which summed up the feeling with the heartwarming sincerity to melt the most jaded art initiate:

"This is the scariest thing I've seen all day."
"Man, I like the atmosphere." [entering the charred room:] "Whoa, he burned this shit.'
"No way, there was a fire in here"
"No man, he made this. This is art."

In a time of limbo before the next administration, and in the aftermath of financial collapse, its no wonder the Miami art fairs has a subdued atmosphere this year. While I feel for the galleries that will close, I know that artists will survive, because we know how to work with nothing. And if recession means more work like Hello Meth Lab, then this cloud has a silver lining.

Art Basel Miami Beach - Miami Beach
SCOPE Art Fair
Aqua Art Miami

"Art Basel, SCOPE, PULSE, and Aqua" took place December 3 - 7th, in various neighborhoods of Miami, FL

All images are courtesy of the artists, respective venues, and the author.

Note: This piece was updated after posting, to correctly reference Western Exhibitions.

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