Exploring the spectacle of Art Basel felt like walking through a casino with colors, lights, models, and unlimited booze with a steadily flowing river of people. The Miami crowd was medicated and easily confused, perfect for art buying, or as Dave Hickey might define it, betting, a roll of the cultural dice with winners and losers in an increasingly high stakes game. This was my first time attending the annual international art fair and the presence of ceramic at the show was what I expected, sparse in comparison to other sculpture media, but not difficult to spot around the massive convention center featuring more than 4,000 artists and 250 galleries. The physicality of ceramic highlighted the medium within the sea of art. The ceramic and clay sculptures achieved a similar presence as bronze and metal, but in a refreshingly casual, personal way, particularly the unfired clay sculpture.
Above image: Urs Fischer, Small Rain, 2014 at Sadie Coles.
There were works by Nino Cais, Ai WeiWei, Lynda Benglis, Rachel Kneebone, Takuro Kuwata, Francesca DiMattio, Edmund de Waal, Dan McCarthy, Milena Muzquiz, Sarah Crowner, Ken Price, and Betty Woodman, among others, with clay sculptures by Huma Bhabha and Rebecca Warren.
Warren and Huma Bhabha both exhibited body-scaled sculptures in unfired, and mostly unpainted, clay and mixed media. Bhabha’s sculpture “Carriage” at Salon 94 came across as amateur, lacking in density, texture, and surface, all the things that make unfired clay interesting.
Rabecca Warren, however, showed a wonderful amorphous figurative piece titled “Gilbertine” at Galerie Max Hetzler, also constructed in an amateurish style. The clay blob was curiously balancing a stick, a simple but powerful comparison in weight and material that held a strong presence in the space, even next to a massive metal floor sculpture.
Dan McCarthy designed a ruthlessly happy display at Anton Kern Gallery featuring 6 brightly glazed face-jars and a collection of naïve rainbow paintings, all for sale individually. The work was falsely cheerful and paralleled its superficial Miami audience, mocking them in a delightfully subversive way.
Francesca DiMattio scored her own little room at Salon 94 devoted to her pottery. It was questionable whether this was a strategy to hide the pots from the main floor or to highlight them with a devoted space. Regardless, the two collections of DiMattio’s assemblage vessels and teapots were among the most ceramic-y objects at the fair, requiring proficiency in material and process to produce and brilliant attention to pattern, color, and texture.
Edmund de Waal’s As soon as Known pottery installation at Galerie Max Hetzler was boring and featured his thin white pots hidden tightly between dense Donald Judd-looking shelves. Unfortunately, this presentation made it seem as if it were shelves that possessed the actual value in the work, rather than the pots, but it sold likely to tune of $100,000 or close.
Displayed on the perimeter of Matthew Marks’ booth was a brightly-colored Ken Price sculpture, eye-candy to draw in collectors. Price’s work has the ability to be simultaneously spatially engaging and compelling on a micro level. This trait allowed it to drag hypnotized collectors in from afar until their nose was nearly touching the surface. By the time they looked up, they were in a new space with little idea of how they had arrived. This strange performance added an entirely new theatrical aspect to Price’s work that I never saw coming. Dealers were very cagey about giving prices on works sold or not. An exception was Matthew Marks who volunteered that the Ken Price sold for $250,000.
Also disappointing were Takuro Kuwata’s sculptures seen at Salon 94, Art Basel, and also at Pierre Marie Giraud, Design Miami. His tea bowls are incredible little objects, but Kuwata’s sculpture (his work bigger than a tea bowl) lacks the incredible calculated sensitivity that makes his iconic work mesmerizing. Only Kuwata’s large pieces were represented at the fairs and, knowing his potential, they were underwhelming.
Hands down, the crowd favorite at this year’s Art Basel was an installation by Urs Fischer at Sadie Coles. It featured 1080 oversized plaster droplets in shades of greens and yellows dangling from the ceiling over four extremely clay-looking figure sculptures with spots of brightly colored paint. The sculptures were, in fact, painted bronze, no clay at all in the installation, but cast from a previous exhibition where the figures were made and displayed in unfired clay. The latter exhibition has been reviewed in CFile.
My favorite exhibit at Art Basel was Travesia Cuatro’s booth in the Art Nova section where 34 galleries featured just few artists each with work created within the last three years. This premise caused Art Nova to be visually confused, sometimes to embarrassment, with the exception of Travesia Cuatro gallery who capitalized on the opportunity, curating an immersive environment nearly devoted to ceramic art.
The environment was immediately commanded by Sarah Crowner’s tile floor, and was the only exhibit that transported me out of the grey-floored white-walled sterility that saturated Art Basel. With a unique model for selling at Basel, the floor could be purchased by the square foot, 1,076 square feet for $50,000. Elevated off the floor at eye-level were colorful flower-holders (it doesn’t feel appropriate calling them vases) by Milena Muzquiz priced between $10,000 and $12,000. There is no reason I should have liked this exhibit. It was overwhelmingly gaudy, cheesy in its horrifying use of real flowers, and screamed ’70s pottery. But the space was so well balanced, sensitive, funky, and well-made that it won me over, as an installation and as individual objects. The collectors agreed, buying up 75% Travesia Cuatro’s booth by the time I stopped in midway through the show.
Looking at the scope of ceramic work represented at Art Basel you could conclude that it must either be deeply conceptual or poorly made to be exhibited. Within the objects being “poorly made” lies an aesthetic that articulates transparency in process, something of a rare phenomenon among 3D work at Art Basel and an important void filled by the presence of ceramic and clay. It was common to see people sneaking feels or battling for photos around many of the ceramic sculptures. The engaging connection to ceramic work paired with the valuable process-narrative, gave the medium a unique and important role at Art Basel Miami Beach.
For a different genre of work from the fairs also see this week’s edition of Spotted.
Justin Crowe is CFile’s Writer-at-Large. All photographs by the author.
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