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by Walter Robinson
South Beach nightlife is shiny and sparkly, in love with lavish artificiality and the immediate pleasures of the flesh. It’s all about money and glamour, as if you didn’t know that already.

No surprise, then, that Maybach -- a luxury car brand of the already luxury Mercedes Benz company -- rounded up over-the-top glamour photog David La Chapelle and Beardsleyan nightlife mannequin Daphne Guinness for a promotion in the penthouse of the Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue on Dec. 5, 2009.

Not only is Maybach adding La Chapelle’s elaborate photos -- one showing a car surrounded by writhing steroidal nudes, like a latter-day Sodom & Gomorrah -- to its growing corporate art collection (1,600 works by 600 artists), but the firm is also providing the Fondation Beyeler in Basel (now headed by former Art Basel director Sam Keller) with cars to chauffeur artists and other visitors around town.  

But while La Chapelle may be emblematic of this sort of deliciously kitschy overkill -- it seems unlikely that the artist or any of his co-conspirators have any sense of irony about what they’re doing -- he is hardly alone. Indeed, much of the "hot" contemporary art of the last decade is characterized by exactly this kind of vulgar pretension.

Especially notable in this regard is Jeff Koons, already dubbed the artist of the century by my colleague Jerry Saltz, who is undoubtedly right. In an odd sort of reaction formation, though, Saltz cites as Exhibit A Koons’ famous topiary Puppy, which is practically his only work that involves something truly alive, in contrast to his usual glossy, machine-made simulacra.

Needless to say, this kind of high-key stuff finds a ready market with the rich, whose authority is felt in the art world as never before. The rise of the art-fair age in this decade -- Art Basel Miami Beach really got going in 2002 -- is paralleled by the emergence of a new global class of supercollectors and the vulgar kinds of art that suits their tastes, such as they are. It is surely Heaven’s own revenge that "rich" rhymes with "kitsch."

But polemics isn’t really my thing, sad to say. I take refuge in comedy, and the spirit of the absurd was certainly at large in Miami in early December. So it was at the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation on North Miami Avenue in Miami’s Wynwood art district, where my old acquaintance Berta Sichel, a curator at the Reina Sofía, had organized "Being in the World," a group of videos by seven artists.

As if to contrast to the party-time atmosphere of Miami Art Fair Week, many of the vids featured ordinary people just standing around. Chantal Akerman’s D’est: au bord de la fiction (1995) had people waiting for trains, in the winter, on two dozen video monitors; Muntean & Rosenblum’s Disco (2005) featured the pair’s signature young people, emoting while they posed in a formation taken from Raft of the Medusa; and Bill Viola’s Raft (2004) also presented a dense group of a dozen or so actors in contemporary dress standing about doing nothing, though they are eventually subject to a slo-mo blast of water.

Outside, within the gated compound -- the neighborhood is still undeveloped, and haunted by homeless people, who would no doubt otherwise help themselves to the hors d’oeuvres -- brunch was served, accompanied by live salsa music.

Like the rich, the homeless are everywhere in Miami, even on Collins Avenue, with one man taking a picturesque nap -- are those the right words? -- outside the Deauville Beach Resort, new home to the NADA Art Fair. Everyone agreed that the move to the Deauville was a good idea, with spaces much more comfortable than the cinder-block cells of the Ice Palace over in Wynwood. The dealers loved the idea that their hotel rooms were right upstairs, and that they came for $99 a night, as part of a package deal.

Plenty of amusements were to be found at NADA, from the bright kids manning the Abe’s Penny booth (it’s a picture-postcard thing) to the Spiral Helix artwork by Alyson Shotz at Derek Eller Gallery (all three in the edition were sold, at $45,000 each). "The fair’s been good this year," said art dealer Abby Messitte, with perfectly turned minimalist understatement.

Next door, New York dealer Mireille Mosler had filled her booth with amusing paintings by Wayne White, who expertly inserts pastel-colored 3D phrases into found landscapes ($4,000-$11,000), things like "Crapola" and "Too Long at the Fair," which presumably cater to everyone’s’ sense of self-parody.

A bit further along, the three-year-old Ambach & Rice gallery from Seattle had just put out two large graphite drawings by the 34-year-old Los Angeles artist Eric Yahnker, one showing the Cowardly Lion reading a paperback copy of Howard Fast’s The Jews: Story of a People ($4,500). This has something to do with the lion’s quest for courage, but when dealer Carrie Scott began to explain in detail, I suddenly found myself not listening.

NADA easily retained its magic in its new location, as the fair is still seen as a source of very new art that is, well, a good investment, in more ways than one. My favorite example of this kind of context-inspired credibility came at the booth of Callicoon Fine Arts, a new gallery founded earlier this year in the quaint Delaware River burg of Callicoon. Only at NADA could a hillbilly operation like this do such land-office business, with works by Daniel Gordon and others. Or perhaps the charming young dealer Photios Giovanis, who also works at Metro Pictures, is just a hard-core salesman.

Several other things stood out this year in Miami. One was the opening of Key Biscayne supercollectors Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz’s new three-story, 30,000 square foot warehouse museum, with soaring spaces and concrete floors, dubbed the De La Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space. Impeccably air-conditioned -- did I say that Miami was hot and muggy? -- the art looked unusually fresh. Ever wonder why artists like Guyton / Walker, Lucy McKenzie, Paulina Olowska and Seth Price seem to have a foot up? This is why. One reason, anyway.

Another highlight was the series of huge street murals painted all along 2nd Avenue in Wynwood, under the auspices of a local group called Primary Flight, which arranged for an amazing 100 walls to be made legally available to artists. Deitch Projects chipped in as well, sponsoring a multi-building complex that was also filled with murals. Participants included Shepard Fairey, Barry McGee, Swoon, Os Gemeos and a host of others. It was grand, even during an afternoon of pouring rain, the week’s only precipitation.

Street art has an enviable sense of authenticity and independence of spirit. So does Robert Indiana’s new "HOPE" project, a year-old effort by the 81-year-old Maine artist to craft a 21st-century emblem with the power of his LOVE image from 1964. After making its national debut in 2008 outside the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Indiana’s HOPE could be found in its many forms at Art Miami, in the booth of Rosenbaum Contemporary from Boca Raton.

Dealer Howard Rosenbaum is especially psyched about Indiana’s new undertaking. The works, which are selling as fast as they can be fabricated -- a medium-sized sculpture in red, green and blue is $300,000 -- are represented by Galerie Thomas in Munich and dealers in Paris, Los Angeles, Shanghai and elsewhere. The artist is currently making a "tikva" -- Hebrew for "love" -- for the Jerusalem Museum. "Robert should be on the Today Show on New Year’s Day," said Rosenbaum. "Don’t miss it!"

Local Miami galleries, and there are many, turned up the wattage for the visiting art lovers. One notable enterprise, found in a soaring concrete complex called the Wynwood Arts Building, is Charest-Weinberg Gallery, which had enlisted free-lance curator David Hunt to organize "Herd Thinner," a provocatively titled group show of more than a dozen artists (the goofy press release can be found here).

Along with artists like Slater Bradley, Richard Dupont and Ouattara Watts, the show includes a work by Fernando Mastrangelo, a 30-year-old New Yorker who recently moved to L.A., who impressed a high-relief image of a gang tattoo -- reading “Smile Now Cry Later” -- into a slab made of compressed human ashes.

Also notable is a group of colored marble sculptures of waffles by Martha Friedman, “an artist who is on every curator’s radar,” according to Hunt. “Making waffles is as close as the average American gets to making sculpture,” Hunt said, noting as well that the breakfast treat also partakes of the modernist grid.

One final note -- the Art Basel Miami Beach performance space at the beach (which has replaced the container village from previous years) proved to be a salutary idea, and drew considerable crowds every evening to watch films, video projections and performances.

On one of the final evenings of the fair, the Paris-based collective Claire Fontaine arranged to have a roster of martial-arts experts -- boxers, kickboxers, karate experts, etc. -- take the stage and mount a concerted attack on a sparring dummy, a rubber head-and-torso on a heavy stand. The event provided a rollercoaster emotional charge that echoed my overall experience of all the fairs.

The scene was first ridiculous, as it seemed embarrassing to enlist these athletes in a silly art performance. Then it became admirable and even intimidating, as the young men relentlessly exercised their formidable skills on the helpless mannequin. And finally the performance turned pathetic and depressing, as the unflappable dummy withstood its beating without blinking an eye. A metaphor for humanity, banging its head against a wall.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.