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Wall Street Journal Review: Art Basel Miami Beach 2023

Art Basel Miami Beach Review: An Art Fair in Need of Excitement
The work on view at the massive exhibition is largely strong, but little of it creates a sense of discovery for visitors

With Mr. Micawber, Charles Dickens gave us the eternal optimist. A perennial debtor who nonetheless held out hope that things would work out, he came to mind while wending my way through the labyrinthine booths at Art Basel Miami Beach. Exploring the cavernous convention center where the annual fair is held, searching for the truly inspiring, I kept thinking “Something will turn up.”

That’s not to say that the art here is bad. In fact, quite the opposite—with few exceptions most of it is very strong. However, even in the ultra-commercialized sphere of high-end art, where the worst of these events can feel like trade shows divorced from any creative enterprise, there’s an expectation that a marquee name like Basel will also offer discoveries. While there were some, they were too few and far apart for this sprawling fair with nearly 300 exhibitors.

The monumental paintings of Emma Webster, shown at Perrotin, were a thunderclap— fleet compositions that captured the awesome power of nature. Crafted first in virtual reality then transferred to the analog world, their hints of lightning, meteors and tsunamis rained chaos down on her canvases. Spinello exhibited in the Positions sector of the fair (dedicated to solo presentations of emerging artists) and in its booth the large paintings by Esaí Alfredo were imbued with a glowing nocturnal mystery. Figures whisper, hide their faces or gaze into the distance in neon-soaked scenes whose realistic renderings betray a sense of science-fiction that runs throughout the work. 

But canvases need not be oversize to be moving. Nolan Simon’s work at 47 Canal is on a more human scale, fitting for its sly plays on sexuality and the body: shimmering coffee carafes with lids that suggest breasts; a hand cupping two eggs and a cigarette gone limp with ash. Janice Nowinski also deals with the body, though her work at Anthony Terzino is more focused on the nude from an art-historical perspective and her brushy pieces in muted tones draw from the likes of Titian and El Greco. And Malo Chapuy, at mor charpentier, also mines the past for his eco-conscious paintings. Religious icons rendered in centuries-old styles—complete with silver and gold gilding and handmade frames—are dotted with hints of contemporary climate concerns: trees burning in the distance, wind turbines spinning overhead.

Judging by the fairs—and not just Basel—this season, we’ve reached peak ceramics. Somewhat unthinkable just a few years ago when the medium was still viewed more through the lens of craft than fine art, it’s now omnipresent. Meaning there’s plenty of lackluster work. Fortunately Sharif Farrag provides a sterling reminder of why feats of clay have become so popular. At François Ghebaly, he melds a cartoonish menagerie with less- than-road-legal vehicles. A shark becomes a propellered hot rod, a dog steers a contraption with an elephant mounted on its bumper, and—best of all—a hornet merges its body with the body of a sports bike.

Other sculptural highlights include Nickola Pottinger’s work at Mrs. (also in the Positions section). Creating mainly in paper pulp, she takes the medium in a deliciously creepy direction. Her figures look like Dr. Frankenstein’s rough drafts: a dachshund body with shiny human teeth and a man’s feet; a birdlike figure with sagging breasts; chairs adorned with human body parts. These rugged creations seem to have risen directly out of the earth and, appropriately, the artist refers to them as “duppies,” the Jamaican patois word for ghosts.

Also captivating are the paintings of Matt Bollinger at Mother’s Tankstation, cotton- candy-hued scenes of blue-collar American life; the innovative reliefs of Ynez Johnston at Louis Stern Fine Arts, richly symbolic atlases that seemed to draw simultaneously from Paul Klee and Sufi mysticism; and the brilliant red works of Rudolf Maeglin at Meredith Rosen Gallery, celebrations of industry and factory workers made from 1932 to 1948 in Basel, Switzerland. 

So in the end optimism won out and something did turn up. But with so much on view, should it really be such a struggle to find art that makes you excited, that makes you believe there are still interesting artists waiting to be discovered? Certainly no one expects this event to be the only place to unearth overlooked talent, but shouldn’t that still play a role, even at the megafair of today? Beautiful things are in no short supply here, whether the delicate Madonna sculptures of Ann Agee, the fairy-tale textiles of Isabel Nolan or the lush arboreal canvases of Hayley Barker. And there aren’t any signs of Micawberish financial concerns, either—one collector scooped up a Philip Guston painting from Hauser & Wirth for $20 million. But at Art Basel Miami Beach, adventurousness seems to be in arrears.

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