The Scope Art Fairs -- there have been almost a dozen in four cities over the past three years, most recently at the TownHouse Hotel in Miami, Dec. 2-5, 2004 -- are an ad hoc, international nonprofit organization disguised as a commercial art business. While Art Basel Miami Beach is the 600-pound art-market gorilla, and the NADA Art Fair a kind of art NASDAQ, the Scope Art Fairs are the underdog -- and in America, you gotta root for the underdog.
According to Robert Curcio, the New York dealer and freelance curator who co-founded Scope with Alexis Hubshman (now Scope's executive producer), Michael Sellinger and several others, the goal always was to make room for everyone. "We try to mix things up a little bit." For Scope Miami, the dealers were charged $5,000, inclusive. Economically, the formula is working -- applications far exceed the available space, 57 rooms this time (though the fair management is hardly getting rich). Why not raise the rates? "We don't want to do that," Curcio said. "We don't want to price out the newer galleries and artist-run spaces."
In the art market, visibility equals success. Even if the dealers don't make that many sales -- and by most accounts, plenty of business was being done -- they're happy all the same with the exposure and contacts. The best art-fair joke was provided by Christian Chapelle, the 29-year-old founder of leisure club Mogadishni in Copenhagen, who moved everything out of his room except the round rug, which was bright red. "It's a readymade red dot, it's all been sold," he said, with a gesture that encompassed the entire world.
The art at Scope overflows into the elevators, the lobby, the sidewalk outside. Hanging from the ceiling of the elevator, for instance, was a pair of realistic feet made of translucent cellophane tape by Avelino Sala. Out in front was the itinerant artist Eric Doeringer, who set up his increasingly familiar display of "bootlegs," miniature replicas of classic contemporary art works, now priced at $60-$100. (It worked for Richard Pettibone 40 years ago, could it work again today?). Doeringer also has a new project -- a parody Matthew Barney "fan site" at www.cremasterfanatic.com.
On the street out front was Tribeca dealer Ethan Cohen's "Park Your Art," a 31-foot-long Winnebago mobile home packed with works by about 20 artists. The hyperactive display included a voice-activated blender by Kelly Dobson. You moan or scream at the thing, it blends back. "It's like therapy," said the ever-enthusiastic Cohen.
On Saturday afternoon, Cohen pulled his "Mobile Art Peace" away from the hotel and headed for Miami's Design District, where the Winnebago would serve as base camp for several performances, including a piece by Pan Xing Lei called Miami Mound, in which he buries himself under a pile of blocky white calligraphic characters.
Artists and dealers set up in every corner of the lobby. On the wall flanking the reservation desk, the young Kansas City artist Hesse McGraw installed works by four Kansas City Art Institute grads in a mini-exhibition organized under the auspices of Paragraph, the downtown K.C. gallery that Hesse runs, which itself is part of the Urban Culture Project, a larger effort to put art in vacant K.C. real estate. The esthetic here, described as "drugged-out sleazy chic, trash and no star," had a common enough adolescent edge, though it was not without its appeal.
Temptations at Paragraph included Seth Johnson's two posters of lists of song titles by a Death Metal band done in pastel balloon letters, at $600 each. "He's sanitizing the horrific through his visual language," said McGraw. Especially winning, too, was a work by Jordan Nickel titled Ceci est une pipe (2004), a large pink plastic box hung on the wall, fitted with a brass bowl and a mouthpiece for inhaling. This is a pipe, indeed. The price: $2,700.
In the other corner of the lobby was an installation by the Brooklyn Gallery MatCh-Art, founded in Williamsburg by Matthew Fisher and Christina Vassallo. MatCh-Art featured several of coloring-book-like drawings of "warring factions" -- Sears Roebuck models, cat people, Native Americans, cactuses -- by John Jodzio, a Jersey City artist who recently relocated to Manhattan. Small unframed works were irresistible at $150-$200, while a panoramic mural of an entire contested neighborhood was $2,500.
Back behind the elevator was Miami artist Michelle Weinberg, who was engaged in collecting market research questionnaires for a project called "IPO," which was being presented under the auspices of the Miami organization Artemis. True or false: "A recognizable brand makes me more comfortable when purchasing art." And, "if an artist becomes repetitive, does it reinforce their brand or depreciate their originality?" Answering the questionnaire got you a temporary IPO tattoo -- an IPO "brand" that Weinberg herself was wearing in several places on her skin. "We're looking for investors," she proclaimed, though for what remained a little unclear.
As if by default, Scope has become the art-fair vehicle for Outsider Art galleries, including Carl Hammer from Chicago, Ricco-Maresca from New York and Fleisher/Ollman Gallery from Philadelphia. Founded by Janet Fleisher in 1951, Fleisher/Ollman has recently begun to present invitational exhibitions of young local artists. The second such show, titled "Junto: Rules for a Club Established in Philadelphia" and featuring works by a dozen artists selected by the gallery's younger associates, Brendan Greaves, William Pym and Jina Valentine, goes on view Dec. 10, 2004-Jan. 22, 2005.
At Scope, Fleisher/Ollman filled its room with colorful text pieces by Anthony Campuzano (b. 1975), who grew up in the working class suburb of Upper Darby and attended the Tyler School of Art. An obsessive reader of tabloids and newspapers, Campuzano has developed his own typographic system for transforming the texts he finds there into his own dense, punchy graphics. "Never fear," reads one line. "How am I doing," asks another. The works are priced at an admirably accessible $400-$1,250 each.
Also on display at F/O were several works by the anonynmous Philadelphia Wireman, small junk sculptures made largely of wire that were discovered in a dumpster in downtown Philadelphia in the 1970s. Nothing is known of the maker of these haunting personages, though he is thought to be African American. The price is $500-$1,500.
Leonard and Susan Nimoy were among the buyers of works by Vahakn Arslanian from the extensive display mounted by New York Outsider Art dealer Andrew Edlin. Arslanian, a young (b. 1975) artist who was born in Antwerp to a wealthy diamond-dealer father (the art collector Ara Arslanian), spent his formative years in Julian Schnabel's studio, breaking plates for the older artist's break-out works. Deaf since birth, Arslanian doesn't speak but communicates via written notes. His drawings and paintings of birds, airplanes, candles and coke cans are done in found window frames and often incorporate abstract shapes based on the window's broken glass. The price: $700-$8,500.
At the Proposition, drawings magnate Harvey Shipley Miller bought one of Alfredo Martinez' "Drawings from Prison," Outsider Art-style color-marker renderings of impressive firearms done in side section on crumpled scraps of found paper. The price: $2,500. As every art dealer knows, Miller has been on a tear during the last year, buying more than 2,000 contemporary drawings with funds from the Judith Rothschild Foundation, a hastily assembled trove that is destined for the Museum of Modern Art or the Tate, whichever can be convinced to take it.
Martinez, as everyone knows, recently completed a stint in the pokey for forging some artworks by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Has he learned his lesson? Is he hewing to the straight and narrow? "No," said the Proposition's Ronald Sosinski.
Scope also provides a home for dealers who specialize in illustration and underground art, a group that (arguably) would include the superhot La Luz de Jesus Gallery from Hollywood. On view were works by Gary Baseman, brothers Christian and Rob Clayton ("they have a telepathic thing going on," said gallery proprietor Billy Shire), Tony Fitzpatrick and New Yorker cover-artist Owen Smith, complementing the major installation of stylish abstractions by Tim Biskop, in which 40s Arte Moderne meets Joan Miró (priced at $400-$5,000). After operating his gallery for 18 years out of the back of his store, which carries wide range of pop culture collectibles, Shire is finally bowing to pressure and plans to open a real gallery space in Culver City, to be dubbed the Billy Shire Gallery.
One highlight at the Brooklyn gallery Jack the Pelican Presents were the drawings by St. Louis artist Jamie Adams, who also teaches at Washington University there. Adams likes to work in the manner of Fragonard and Sully, and the three drawings on hand had a certain resemblance to John Currin's historicizing, academic works on paper, though their price -- $1,000 -- is rather more attractive. The gallery's hottest seller, however, are Sheri Warshauers acrylic paintings of collector's living rooms, complete with their favored art acquisitions. Commission for the portraits of "chez owners" are an easy sell at $3,000-$5,800.
Galleries from secondary art centers, like Toronto and Washington, D.C., also stood out at Scope. The ethereal but sexy photographs of naked young women by Chan Chao, for instance, look especially good installed in the intimate precincts of a hotel room, courtesy Numark Gallery of Washington, D.C. Chan's subjects all gaze straight into the camera, frankly returning the photographer's and the viewer's own regard, eye-to-eye.
Chan's previous series, photos of Burmese refugees that were included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, were ethnic and political. This current series of naked American women is ethnic and political too, presumably, and gains dimension from the comparison. Done in small editions in three sizes, the photos are $2,500-$5,0000. A book of the photographs, published by Nazraeli Press, is $100 -- though dealer Cheryl Numark had already sold all the copies she had.
Numark also represents the estimable D.C. sculptor Dan Steinhilber, a latter-day assemblagist who doesn't make new things as much as he agglomerates existing stuff (which, after seeing the vast amounts of new art in Miami, seems commendable). At Scope, he filled the hotel shower with inflated, condom-like latex balloons, an untitled, site-specific installation that was not for sale. A pair of ordinary room fans, placed face to face, with one plugged in and the other not, but both spinning, is $3,500.
The Tatar Gallery from Toronto was doing lots of business, not least with Bill Berry's Bop Bags, plastic inflatables that are weighted at the bottom and printed with a lifesize photograph of the artist (he resembles Jeremy Piven's agent character on the HBO hit Entourage). The piece was billed as "punch the artist if you don't like his explanation of his art," suggesting that art viewers may harbor some antagonism towards young artists -- or at least towards windy art-talk. The things were all over, thanks to Canadian curator Natalie Kovacs, who convinced the five-star Sagamore Hotel to spot them around the pool. The gallery had sold 10 in two days, priced at $350 for a toddler-sized 46-inch-tall version and $675 for one that measures six feet tall.
Proprietor Judith Tatar, who founded her gallery in 1995, said she had also sold a Morandi-like 3D still life made of tape and glue by L.A. artist Joseph Davidson for $3,500, and snagged a large-scale commission for artist Sasha Bell Woods, who was signed up to provide 30 abstract works for the rooms of a new Miami boutique hotel, the Plaza at James.
"It's a lot of work but an excellent opportunity," said Toronto dealer Jamie Angell, who founded the Angell gallery nine years ago in Toronto's Queen West art and design district (now home to some 40 other dealers). "It's a real supportive community up there," he said. "That's what I like." One of Angell's stars is Kineko Ivic, a 29-year-old Toronto artist who runs his own gallery, called Greener Pastures, and whose small, thickly painted, cartoony images of anthropomorphized mountains were shown last year in New York at Andrew Kreps Gallery. The price is $1,000-$2,000.
Angell was also touting a new videotape by the 20-something couple Sheila and Nickolas Pye. Called The Paper Wall, the eight-minute tape, set to electronic music, is slow-moving and erotic. "They're going places," Angell promised.
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I hate big-shot art collectors, and so skipped the open houses held in Miami by Don and Mera Rubel, Rosa de la Cruz and Marty Margolies to show off their vast art holdings. Some of the animus is pure class resentment -- why should these people set the art-world agenda, because they somehow make obscene fortunes from, what, real estate or Coca-Cola? And some of it is undoubtedly professional, for if art critics are in charge of independent thought, our mortal enemies are the collectors, whose power flows directly from capital.
I did make a stab on Friday night at hitting the so-called Design District, thinking that I might run into some local artists. No such luck, as the street fest is an entirely commercial event, hopelessly compromising any real art that happens to be on hand. The kids from Dearraindrop had papered the walls of a huge storefront space with their colorful but funky collages and paintings, and it looked good, though it was a wee over-sophisticated for the locals, who flocked to another, notably mindless show -- one accompanied by superfat hors d'oeuvres -- of chandeliers made of Swarovski crystals.
Another deluxe purveyor, Bulgari, hosted something called Art Basel Conversations, a fiasco that put a panel of top artists -- Trisha Donnelly, Janet Cardiff, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons -- in front of an audience that was invited to pass up questions on slips of paper. In response to queries like "Should art be expensive," the artists, who had 60 seconds to answer, could only try to wisecrack like David Letterman, a task for which they are woefully unequipped. Presumably, they all took home watches and necklaces if not their self-respect. The event can be summed up in one word: lame.
Months before visiting Miami I was invited to the New York studio of Greg Lauren to preview the paintings he would be showing in the Design District in a storefront exhibition sponsored by the Miami Beach developer Craig Robins. A ruggedly handsome actor who has recently taken up the brush in earnest, Lauren was at work on a cycle of moody, black-and-white paintings of D.C. Comics superheroes like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in off-duty mode, doing things like sitting alone at a diner, George Segal-style, or vamping for a magazine cover like a fashion model.
The paintings struck me as jejune, though I'm sure Lauren will have a big success. (My favorite was a picture of Batman in drag.) At the opening, there was endless posing for photographs in front of the works with well-wishers, a kind of currency that is highly valued on Ocean Drive but regarded as something of an embarrassment in Chelsea. All this theatricality struck me as a promising subject in itself, especially since Lauren is married to Elizabeth Berkley, the still-captivating actress who played the blonde vamp in Showgirls. Hey, Greg, think Alex Katz, and paint more pictures of your wife.