Dear Art Loving Friends,
It’s with great excitement that I write to you today. The last weeks were wrought with emotional highs, lows and a little bit of everything in between. We were knee deep in preparation for Modern Living: Objects and Context, an exhibition in the works for nine months which BLDG co-curated with Matt Distel at The Carnegie. My sights were set on checklists, wall tags and the upcoming opening but as the weeks turned into days it became clear the universe was pulling me in opposing directions.
To paint a clearer picture, let’s rewind a bit. In the nascent weeks of November, we were contacted by longtime friends and creative duo The London Police. They were interested in having BLDG screen print two separate editions for Art Basel Miami, one large and one small. As the conversation progressed, we added two prints by El Pez Barcelona and learned of the upcoming launch of Uninhibited Urban Art Magazine, a bi-monthly publication focusing specifically on street artists. The launch party was to be held at the inaugural X-Contemporary fair in Wynwood. This was a great opportunity for collaboration, so we added business cards to the list for Clara Vanessa and her team, created some adverts, the whole nine yards.
Now the stage is set. As deadlines for both projects approached, so too did the inquiries from friends new and old. Were we coming to Miami? Internally we were trying to figure it out. Who would go? When? Can we swing it with the Modern Living show opening in the same week? Perhaps, I should fill in why it was important for us to be there. BLDG is a design firm, urban art gallery and screen printing studio. Often our projects take us out of the office and into the streets. In the public arena, we distinguish ourselves as purveyors of dissidence who are unapologetic about Kentucky and cultivating an urban lifestyle. That’s why we consider ourselves part of the urban contemporary (ie. street art) movement and Wynwood, Miami is its cultural epicenter.
Monday, November 30th passed in the blink of an eye, and as the darkness of evening descended we decided that Lesley Amann (BLDG Partner) and I would travel to Miami for the weekend and Jon, Jay and Chris would represent BLDG at The Carnegie. (Quick side note, this is why it is great to work with a team; in the face of a million uncertainties, we figured it out by working together.)
And so began the next phase of questions…What’s the game plan? Where to stay? What to pack? How to get these giant prints to Florida? The countdown was on and it was a mad dash to get ready…and seriously, what the hell are we going to do with these giant prints? Friday arrived and our best option was to hand-carry a package three feet squared and four inches deep. So, I bumbled my way with said package around the airport and throughout Miami, my inner Mama Cass on high alert the entire time the prints were in my keep.
Once we arrived, it was a matter of where to go and what to do first. There was so much to do and so little time. We opted for Wynwood, home to Wynwood Walls & Doors. As we approached, traffic halted to a complete standstill, so we stepped out of the Uber three blocks from our destination. We could feel the excitement permeating the streets. Little did I know, how completely unprepared I was for what was to come.
There were murals everywhere, block after block after block, I could hardly believe the colorful display before me. The smell of aerosol hung distinctly in the air, burning our noses while guiding us around corners and through intersections. One of the first live paints we happened upon was El Pez, his whimsical smiling fish calling us from afar. As a young artist, rather than simply tagging his name, he developed a character for his paintings, a smiling fish in profile with a Cheshire cat-like grin. There is something universal about his work that anyone can appreciate, the color, the spontaneity, the joy. When there’s no deep meaning to ponder you can’t help but smile back.
The crowds converged and we fell in step, slowly shuffling our way to Wynwood Walls. The entrance sign declared our arrival but quickly melted into the background as the monumental works of Shepard Fairey, Kenny Scharf and Faile came into view. It was surreal, I floated past massive murals by Lady Aiko, Swoon, Fafi, Miss Van, Crash, Tristan Eaton and Retna. Then onto Wynwood Doors where we found Ron English, a giant 150’ in progress mural by The London Police, Dal East, Cryptic, these are just a select few with whom I am familiar with but the list went on and on.
To be honest, I was blown away. Not only have I never witnessed such a concentration of street artists and their work; the most incredible part was what was happening because of them. There were people everywhere! Old, young, rich, poor and everything in between. They were taking selfies with the murals, laughing, drinking and experiencing a creative environment purely on their own terms. It was like being in a giant adult playground that was visually stimulating with cool things to see and incredible people watching. It dawned on me at that moment, this is the greatest demonstration of placemaking I’d ever seen. In a part of town that was formerly a warehouse district, there were now galleries, restaurants, juice bars and retail shops on every corner.
Wynwood Walls began in 2009 as a place-based development project for the late Tony Goldman, who believed the windowless facades of those building would make great canvases for street art. He tapped Jeffry Deitch as curator for the project, who subsequently invited six of the world’s biggest street artists to paint six buildings. Under the rubric of “if you build it, they will come,” he was right. The people came and kept coming. Six years later, the movement has enveloped nearly every wall in the neighborhood and it continues to expand. I will refrain from going into a deep conversation about the good and bad of revitalization, because there can always be a case made for both, but suffice it to say that my creative juices were flowing and I felt high from the energy and quite possibly the fumes.
That night, we celebrated Lesley’s birthday downtown at The River Seafood & Oyster Bar. We treated ourselves to a wicked spread of oysters, mussels, ceviche and brussel sprouts. As the wine and cocktails worked its way through our systems we began to plot out the rest of the evening. We would head back to Wynwood to meet Clara. She introduced us to areas off the beaten path and to some of her friends from Italy and Colombia. We crossed paths with Chaz (from The London Police) and made our way to South Beach to the Mac’s Deuce Bar, where our night descended into a haze of inebriation and hankerings for a bite from La Sandwicherie.
Did I mentioned the weather was awful the whole time we were there? It rained and rained, so traffic was terrible. On Saturday, rather than taking the laborious trip over to South Beach, or perusing the streets, we made our way to Wynwood and headed to Art Miami and Context.
I was quite surprised by my differing experiences at these two fairs. Art Miami was good, it is one of the most well established fairs during art week having been around for 26 years. It housed big named galleries who primarily showcase the greats of the 20th century. On display were the modernists and blue chips we’ve all come to know and love: Calder, Picasso, Richter, Wesselman, Twombly, Rothko, Warhol, etc. etc. To be honest, I felt like I had seen this show time and time again when I used to go to Armory week in New York. The artist list was stellar, but it didn’t feel inspired.
The Context fair, however, left me with a remarkably different impression. Launched in 2012, Context is dedicated to the development and reinforcement of emerging and mid-career artists. The first booth we encountered as we walked through the door was the Jonathan Levine Gallery and the works of AJ Fosik. His sculptures confronted me with their tribal influences, beautifully carved subtleties and timeless essences. I continued down the halls, gravitating toward giant lenticular prints. Alas, I didn’t catch the artist’s name, because I was so consumed by the imagery. Winking playfully at onlookers, the anime inspired portraits came to life, pulsating with an uneasy intensity. They were weird and wonderful and reminded me of my childhood sticker collection. It’s odd to catch yourself waxing nostalgic for the 80s when you’re trying to be “professional.”
Across the way were the portrait paintings by Allan Craig. From afar there were renditions of Dali and Basquiat, but as you came closer the lines of the paintings dissipated into a chaotic microcosm of tiny people. It was like walking into a giant Where’s Waldo painting designed to mess with your senses.
There were two booths in particular that spoke to me, those of the McLoughlin Gallery in San Francisco and Fabien Castanier Gallery from Los Angeles. In them the worlds of art, design, street and pop coalesced into some of the best work I’ve seen in a long time. Bruce Makowsky dominated the McLoughlin Gallery. His Pull The Pin series featured stainless steel hand grenades painted to emulate the luxury brands of Yves Saint Laurent, Hermes and Chanel. The three of them aligned in a row, read like a triptych and reeked of the sacred and profane. Iconic and ironic, so absurd they were but intelligent and beautiful, like tiny explosive little jewels meant to tease and intrigue. Makowsky’s honey onyx scultpures of Gibson guitars, Louis Vuitton suitcases and the Chanel No 5 perfume bottle rounded out the experience. The brands were there, the materials fine, the craft immense…but as objects of art they hammered home the glorious irony of contemporary life and culture, of that working dialectic between fine art and popular culture, at the heart of so much postmodern contemporary art.
Situated in the heart of the fair, the Fabien Castanier Gallery stole the show. I found myself in awe of a giant Speedy Graffito painting at that gallery; the artist was a pioneer of the French street art movement: He invented pictorial languages influenced by his love of comic books and animated characters, his codes celebrating and satirizing commercialism in the same brush stroke.
Animated characters also made their way into the works of Fidia Falaschetti, in Freaky Mouse and Donald Fuck. One could hardly refrain from taking a selfie with Mickey Mouse with an ass for a face or a quasi Donald Duck, with a giant middle finger in the place of his head and beak strategically placed to cover his nether region. Emulating the shiny surfaces of works by Jeff Koons, these wickedly designed sculptures taunted onlookers, enticing us to find in ourselves what we could see reflected in its surface, something laughable and fun and playful. You could lose yourself in them, escape from all the people, the rain, the exhaustion of being in the mix of it all for just a moment, and enjoy.
The exaltation of exhilaration was something foreign to me in my experience of art. Yet, time and again I was struck with this feeling, donuts were everywhere, causing Lesley to cry out “Donuts are the new taco!” She spotted the tasty treat time and time again in colorful manifestations on walls and pedestals throughout the show. We found ourselves studying the craftsmanship of works inspired by the design build (maker) trend, where craft and cultural references like urinals and fire hydrants collided in the cerebral realm of fine art: Screws and buttons have become the new oils and acrylics; the use of unusual materials a dominant feature of much contemporary art.
So why Wynwood? As a curator, I’ve never used the words “that’s the best show I’ve ever seen’ or ‘I feel so energized and inspired’ to describe my experience of a place. But that’s what I found myself saying throughout this weekend, over and over again. It was so intense, I spent my final hours in Miami coming up with ideas for how to get more ingrained in the mix. I also found myself thinking about how relevant the Modern Living show back home was to this experience. The entire premise of that exhibition was to explore the convergence of art, design, maker and experience, which are the same trends which permeated the Context Fair.
What I will say is that confluence of art and design is here and it’s here to stay. We live in an era where pluralism dominates and clearly defined worlds, styles and genres don’t exist anymore. That’s why we’re seeing street artists in galleries and museums, and fine artists playing with brands. Call me crazy, but it seems the streets are becoming just as important for cultural production as institutions of higher education. Arguing that fine art and designed products should exist separately, or saying that one is art and one is not, is willfully denying what is happening in front of us. That’s why Wynwood was so important. Together, when appreciated and experienced, these things have meaning and become relatable to our lives inside and outside the established institutional framework for showing and enjoying artwork. It showed me that the kid down the street with a spray can in hand could be the catalyst for changing a neighborhood, it showed me that a $100,000 sculpture could be so absurd you wanted take a selfie with it. It was in this chaotic atmosphere that I found myself escaping, from everything and simply enjoying and taking it all in. I know there will be those who disagree, but that was a beautiful revelation, even more so since cynicism and irony reign supreme in much contemporary discourse.
So I bid you adieu, until we meet again we’ll always have Miami.