Photography in Miami

Art Fair Review

by Titus O'Brien
For one brief moment in December, Miami becomes the undisputed center of the art universe. It's a recent phenomena (begun in 2002 as the sister art event to Art Basel, Switzerland), and only time will tell how long this will remain the case. For now, Art Basel Miami Beach is the winter art sales sun; two dozen other fairs, large and small, are orbiting planetary satellites, hoping to thrive by absorbing some of the radiant market heat.

With SPOT in mind, I kept a particular eye out for photo trends. The mind naturally attempts to make order of the chaos, and seeing thousands of artworks per hour is nothing short of mind-boggling. Nevertheless, my mantra becoming "Don't panic!", patterns revealed themselves, with archetypes and attitudes coalescing into recognizable shapes. Chief among them was photography's dominance/prominence at all the various fairs.

I began my three-day art slog at the two large fairs devoted solely to photography and digital media: Photo Miami and AIPAD (the Association of International Photography Art Dealers). I was skeptical that one fair devoted solely to photographs could hold my attention, much less two next door to one another, but Photo Miami was riveting. The overall impression was spacious despite the density, slickness, and utterly contemporary nature of the event. Digital techniques were prevalent, with lots of plasma screens and bright, large format prints and light boxes on all sides. By contrast, AIPAD seemed cluttered and stodgy - many booths hung floor to ceiling, with actual bins of black and white prints on folding tables to be flipped through for cash-and-carry purchases. It was as if the exhibitors had agreed to be tacky and backward, making sure there was just way too much stuff.

If painting has been fixated the last few years on particular tropes and techniques - deer, skulls, drawing, watermedia, and piles of detritus, to list a few - general photographic themes became apparent through the various fairs. A small curated exhibition at the entrance to Photo Miami pointed to a persistent one. Called "The Last Painting Show," curator Paco Barragan selected photo and video works from exhibitors that reference painting's history and tactics. It was hard to turn around at any of the fairs without bumping into a photograph or video that overtly nodded to new media's more storied forebear, often to greater effect than by contemporary painters themselves.

It's easy to forget that in the age of Caravaggio or Rubens, painters were technical revolutionaries as much as aesthetic ones, continually appropriating imagery and themes from classical predecessors while pushing the limits of their media. In the same way, artists today are using (and in the process humanizing) cutting-edge technology to contemplate and re-contextualize events in our time. AES+F are a group of Russian artists, thinkers, and writers old enough now to have teenage kids. Inspired by these younger generations' seamless, integrated transitions from the virtual to the actual, AES+F create classical-looking tableaus of expressionless youths enacting murderous historical scenes, complete with swords, togas, and armor.

Move over Bill Viola - Mariana Vassileva uses Vermeer's Milkmaid as inspiration for her own image: a looped digital video of a pale woman, dressed in white, in a white room, pouring milk, forever. Margret Eicher creates images digitally and has them stitched into large, wall-hanging tapestries. This kind of Trump-ian, overwrought baroque-oco is everywhere now, poetically appropriate for our hyper-gilded age, where the super-rich are the primary engines fueling the art market boom. Just don't ask where the cash is coming from (hint -- from the same places it always has: guns, germs, and steel).

AES+F's kids have a lot of company out there. Expressionless youths in trouble comprise a sizable segment of the photographic subject population. Young, lost women in particular are everywhere, looking wanly vacant despite threatening environs. Loretta Lux may have been one of the first to create sweet, fairy tale images of doe-eyed children as contemporary art, but this too has become a constant trope. They are joined on the walls by lots of scaled-up dolls and toys, humorously, eerily, and poignantly standing in for human counterparts.

Harrowing details of our overcrowded planet are also common. Ansel Adams would have a very hard time these days. Rather than the once-standard utopian Modernist themes, whether of natural or urban existence, you're more likely to see seas of tenements, details of thousand story high-rises, toxic dump sites, and infinite urban sprawl, depicted so seductively in their technique that rather than simply lament the horror of a sci-fi dystopian present, one almost comes to admire our insect-like industriousness.Digital media (which is photography now to all but a few craft­y Luddite stalwarts) has this advantage. Our mediated world, our very consciousness, is shaped by bits and bytes, and the world's transformation is only accelerating. It can be exciting to see this world reflected back to us with media emanating from and helping to create these new landscapes - intelligently informed by art of the past, but not enslaved to it. If much of it seems overly fashion-conscious or too "of the moment," out of the miasma there are some more serious thinkers whose works will endure, and maybe even occasionally indicate methods of soul-survival in this dawning age of nine billion people, mass species extinction, and catastrophic climate change. What else is art for? Status symbols on a sinking ship? In Miami, from all appearances, most votes would likely be cast for the latter.