My Art Basel Miami Experience: High Art, High Times and Everything in Between

-Joe Pitts (@headtowall)

Jimmie Durham's "Still Life with Xitle and Spirit" or how I felt after any of my Miami benders

Jimmie Durham's "Still Life with Xitle and Spirit" or how I felt after any of my Miami benders

The yearly beachside bonanza that is Art Basel Miami began in 2002 as the American counterpart to the annual art showcase in Basel, Switzerland. When the stateside rendition proved a success, other private Miami collectors with renowned collections began opening their doors to the public too. And as is commonplace with other festivals-turned-bona fide lifestyles like Austin’s SXSW and Atlanta’s A3C, Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) began to grow past its convention center walls into a full-blown citywide art, music and party experience. 

This is where we find ourselves in 2015. Not only are the finest galleries of South Beach packing their spaces every night, but so too are the hip enclaves of Miami's Wynwood Art District. Artists, curators, high-powered dealers and buyers, rappers, models and fashion designers are the rock stars of Basel bouncing across bridge to bridge collecting corporate checks to host parties and socialize with friends. 

I’ve heard this called "The Life”. Are we there yet?

The attraction of unknown glitz and glamor (and well, the art of course) weren’t the only reasons drawing me to Miami's annual art machine. I hopped in a rented Chevy Malibu with 3 friends for the 20 hour road trip from Philly to Miami with the added intention of documenting the incredible loose collective of Philadelphia’s creative economy showing out at this year’s Art Basel. Not only were there remarkably talented fine artists displaying in Miami who got their chops up here in the nation’s first capital, but there was also an immense underground network of creatives and entrepreneurs from Philadelphia hitting the beachside strip in search of experience and opportunity. 

Like some sort of millenial migration, I wondered: what draws new generations of the art-and-business-minded to Miami year after year for the annual Art Basel? Perhaps it is the vast concentration of talented works that brings together fine art fans, street fashionistas and all the creative classes (and buyers) in between. Or maybe it’s the social experience itself that draws together distinct dimensions of the creatively expressive. I wondered: is it the Barbara Krugers and Basquiats or is it the A$AP Rockys and DJ Khaleds that keep the new blood flowing? Maybe this distinction between high-art and hip hop is no longer tenable; not since the early days of hip hop culture has the art world so lovingly embraced the style of the streets. From the Wild Style of Fab 5 Freddy and other early graffiti artists to this year’s No Commission Miami show curated by Swizz Beats, one could say hip hop’s infiltration into the constantly wavering world of art has been a defining generational development. 

The following passages make up my Art Basel Miami Beach diary from the art to the nightlife to the delicious Cuban food and everything in between:

I hand the Enterprise employee my shiny new Amex card comfortably propped up for now by student loans and we were off to Miami in the rental. After a short sleep in South Carolina we had another pit stop to make in Atlanta. My tripmate and business partner/DJ/producer Anthony Somebody (Quite Hype) spins a quick session at the Scratch DJ Academy while I interview Atlanta-based rapper Wara from the NBHD for Vice’s music vertical Noisey. After engaging conversation and equally appealing chicken wings, we hit the road again onward to our final destination. The following morning as we arrive at one of Florida’s southernmost cities we witness a glorious, fleeting thing that at the time I take for complete granted: sunlight. They call Florida the Sunshine State, but for the entirety of our journey all we got were overcast skies and the occasional torrential downpour. Or seven.

Coming from Philadelphia grit, I finally feel at home in Miami on the first night when our trunk holding turntables and sound equipment is nearly broken into by a wandering Wynwood assailant. We had just parked and were proceeding to make our way to the Philly-centric “What a Time” art show and DJ party. The obvious opportunist cases our vehicle for an uncomfortable amount of time until an unnamed member of our party gives him the “get the fuck out of here if you know what’s good for you” conversation. There’s nothing like a healthy dose of northeast warmth, and with my newfound heightened adrenaline-fueled senses, I am formally ready to party.   

The walk through Wynwood during Art Basel’s first official night is an onslaught of colorful murals, graffiti walls and excited crowds. Galleries keep their doors open past closing, and I stumble onto various collections of wonderful art, wine and cheese. One gallery on the strip had a lovely collection of Keith Harings. Eventually we make it to our target affair, the “What a Time” party. The event is at Wynwood’s hippest eatery/club combo Coyo Taco featuring a who’s-who of Philly’s best and brightest emerging creatives and DJs. The party is curated by two eastcoast businesswomen Blaire Monroe and Shaleeta Pendleton and hosted by Tre Banks and Miami's Phxenix

The “What a Time” Party at Coyo Taco in Wynwood / Photo by DVVINCI

The “What a Time” Party at Coyo Taco in Wynwood / Photo by DVVINCI

The venue from the outside looks like a relatively chic taco joint. But it doesn’t feel like the kind of place you’d expect to find a lit DJ party—that is, until I finagle my way through the crowded restaurant into the nearly hidden club space in the back and am awarded with a cool and dimmed party-ripe atmosphere. The venue walls feature pieces by predominantly Philly-based artists and photographers. Anthony Somebody (of Quite Hype) sets off the night with his unique brand of blended house and hip hop sounds. Then fellow Philly area music selectors SYLO, Cosmo Baker, Fuego Mayo, YNOT (Miami) and Matthew Law follow in tow carrying the party torch with style and finesse.  The blurry night full of too much Modelo, free cans of Monster and monsoon-like rain is for many in our creative wave the talk of the weekend. Fellow emerging celebrities like musician Post Malone make appearances solidifying the “What a Time” event as a premier taste of Philadelphia’s underground art and music scenes. 

It's me! With a piece by Nicole Reber at Auto Body

It's me! With a piece by Nicole Reber at Auto Body

Our second day in Miami finds us on South Beach dashing between nearly hidden exhibitions and gaudy branded parties. We cross the bridge from our AirBnB in Coral Way to our first stop of the day on the island: the Sunset Drive Gallery presented by Long Island, NY art collective Auto Body. The exhibit, nestled inside a private townhouse in a gated South Beach community, showcases an assorted collection of works built with household items, the occasional pop motif and seemingly mundane gadgets turned into quirky contraptions. Some pieces stand out more than others including a cheeky self-tanning paint machine that was entirely operable. With complimentary beers in hand we snap some pics, chop it up with the gallery curators and continue on to our next adventure. 

Friday night we find ourselves at the much talked about Know Wave pool party featuring A$AP Mob and OVO’s ILoveMakonnen. The event is packed and the weight of Miami’s garish nightlife culture starts to crash down on this east coast soul. I am in desperate need of some serious northeast party vibes, so we carpool to the most underground NYC-style shindig we know happening that night on Miami Beach: Fade to Mind’s Fade Miami event featuring DJs Kingdom and Mike Q. We pull up to the address for the party, and although we hear the music, we see nothing but a desolate, darkened strip mall. We let the eclectic dance sounds guide our antsy bodies until we find our way around the back of the big building to a parking lot. We enter the warehouse-style venue through a shady backdoor entrance. The rest of that foggy night, Miami vices and all, is perhaps a tale best left with those fellow partygoers whose welcoming atmosphere no doubt contribute to the massive hangover I have the next morning.

After getting less sleep than the length of a game at Lincoln Financial, my alarm wakes me up at 9AM. My big Saturday plans include attending the official Art Basel Miami Beach show with Philadelphia-based designer/artist and apt partner-in-crime Brooks Bell. Our friend Bobby Young of URBN had given us complimentary VIP tickets to the ABMB exhibition, a gift that would prove truly invaluable for my Miami experience. Though we wouldn’t run into any of the high-powered guests in attendance (Leonardo Dicaprio and Lenny Kravitz to name a couple) the art we would witness that day was absolutely breathtaking. 

Apparently shortly after Art Basel opened their doors the previous night, two artists got into an argument and one ended up stabbing the other with a boxcutter on the convention center floor. As the women fought a crowd started forming around them thinking the altercation was performance art. Patrons who arrived later even assumed the blood-splattered floor was part of an official installation. Brilliant. Understandably so the morning we arrive at the centerpiece event the atmosphere was a little tense. We wait like cattle with the other VIPs for the gates to open and we flood inside the second they do. 

The art on display at the Miami Beach convention center is the greatest collection of works I have seen in my life. From tongue-in-cheek texts on canvas to immense installations, there is very nearly something for everyone at Art Basel 2015. Despite a piece with a cut-and-paste Bernie Sanders collage or the 12-foot tall crossroad signage featuring various Middle East countries in conflict, the array of artworks this year is largely devoid of overt political motivation. However, female-focused narratives and explorations of power, sex and society are littered throughout the show. One canvas showcases a man pleasuring a woman with a detached pair of testicles comfortably resting on his head. Another features a lewd and hilarious text-based feminist-driven story about a woman utilizing her vagina as a vase. 

Paola Pivi

Paola Pivi

The numerous installations serve as selfie and snapchat hubs scattered across the convention floor. Patrons snap shots of Paola Pivi’s two life-size polar bears made out of blue and white feathers at Galerie Perrotin. Others crowd around Jimmie Durham’s $1 million “Still Life with Xitle and Spirit”, a once-operable Chrysler car crushed under the weight of a 9.5 ton volcanic rock with a googly-eyed painted-on face.

We make our way to Alex Da Corte’s show at GioMarconi. Alex received his BFA in Printmaking/Fine Arts at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and he has a studio in the city too, so he was the top of our list for must-see artists at ABMB. His installation is a hodgepodge of pop culture references including Homer Simpson, Freddy Krueger and Darth Vader among others twisted and contorted to fit a Beetlejuice-like bizarro house vibe. The full meanings and messages of this visually stunning setup may have narrowly escaped my grasp, but the color schemes and piece positioning are mesmerizing. 

The most eye-catching collection of the day is the colorful duo of large hand-embroidered silk-on-canvas creations by Kyungah Ham. Clocking in at 1100 and 2200 hours of custom embroidery respectively, the two pieces masterfully capture the intersection of the wonder of process-based art and the beauty of aesthetically-focused works. While it is often a grim challenge finding the value in many process-oriented pieces outside of the work and time involved in their production, Ham’s cotton canvases not only demonstrate serious dedication but also a breathtakingly gorgeous example of what is possible with thread on fabric. 

Nari Ward

Nari Ward

The focus on process is one of the biggest themes of this year’s show. One piece by Nari Ward at Lehmann Maupin is made up of hundreds of strings and paracords coming out of a wall to display the message “We shall overcome”. Another wall is covered entirely by various different shoes making up a crowded collage of colors and styles. Natural history is another popular theme of the show with pieces featuring organic materials like bones, rocks and feathers.
The buzz of Basel is that while many pieces sell comfortably in the 6-figure range and a few fetch a million plus, pieces aren’t flying off the walls as fast as they have in previous years. But the energy is still apparent as thousands crowd into the convention center.

Eventually even the best works become overwhelming to process. Walking that big floor filled to the brim with hundreds if not thousands of unique creations is almost desensitizing in the grandest sense. We complete the last steel mile and wave goodbye to the numerous collections Brooks and I would be talking about for the remainder of our trip. 

We are on our way to meet some friends at the W Hotel when the relatively short walk from the convention center is made interesting by another onslaught of severe showers. We finally make it inside the haute hotel soaked and greeted by two gigantic Warhol x Basquiat collaboration pieces resting in the lavish lobby. We make our way up to the room and take this moment to rest over gin and tonics. We relax on the balcony and witness an argument ensuing between a stressed out couple on their own Miami Beach terrace across the street. The man begins to eject articles of female clothing from their 20th floor hotel into the Florida skies. A scarf wanders in the wind, and I am reminded how traveling without a significant other, while lonely at times, isn’t always so bad.

Philly family (with some NYC & ATL flare) at the Fader x Avalon Rooftop Party

Philly family (with some NYC & ATL flare) at the Fader x Avalon Rooftop Party

Before continuing onto our night shenanigans, we stop for amazing Cuban food and coffee on Collins Ave. Atlanta’s Coach K and Speakerfoxxx walk by our table perhaps on the hunt for their own South Beach supper. I go over our itinerary for the night which appears logistically impossible, and the Art Basel flow is starting to materialize: art by day, party by night. A plethora of parties await us: Act 1) The Fader x Avalon rooftop parking lot party where we run into the Mitchell & Ness family (their flagship store is in Philadelphia), Act 2) Philly’s Distortedd hosts an art show in Wynwood featuring live art and performances, Act 3) We hit the Mass Appeal x Rocksmith event where I get to meet Rocksmith’s founder Erik Marino and finally Act 4) The A$AP Ferg x Adidas photo show and surprise A$AP Mob performance. 

My mind begins to succumb to a vegetative overstimulated state; the night is one long and fast blur, and in the wee hours of the morning we retire to our rental house. Sometimes sitting on the porch at 6am after a 12-hour drinking session you have your most sobering thoughts, and the last of us still awake reflect on our time spent in Miami. On the experience and expectations of coming to ABMB, Brooks blurts out, “I didn’t know what I was gonna do or what I was gonna see. I didn’t even know if I was going to get it. But I knew I was going to get fucked up doing it.”

Drew Leshko / Photo by Paradigm Gallery

Drew Leshko / Photo by Paradigm Gallery

I didn’t know what exactly I was expecting to find here in Miami either, but I think this candid quote on one way to approach art, attempts to understand its meaning and the pure joy of experiencing your surroundings to the fullest while doing it encapsulate the underlying ethos of Art Basel as a citywide phenomenon, at least for our generation of creatives and entrepreneurs. There is simply so much to see, so much to do in Miami during the annual festival that I wasn’t even able to witness all of the incredible Philly talent I planned to cover in Florida. Philadelphia’s Drew Leshko, on display through Paradigm Gallery, showcased a collection of miniature trailer homes in his signature papier-mâché style. Philly artist Ivben Taqiy was seen socializing with art and hip hop legends while North Philly’s Lil Uzi Vert put on an energized show for a rooftop party hosted by YesJulz, the princess of the new Miami party scene. Philadelphia-based clothing designer Josh of BWC Garments networked around Basel getting the brand’s signature Fishtail jacket on the back of Mac Miller as he performed to a sold out Miami crowd. Philly native photographer Wyatt Gallery displayed works at the Pulse Art Fair running at ABMB.  New Jersey visual artist and photographer Hank Willis Thomas displayed at a special outdoors Art Basel section. Muralist Gabe Tiberino of the famed Tiberino art family of Philadelphia was seen showcasing and socializing in Wynwood.

 

Before our return home, we spend Sunday shooting a visual for Anthony Somebody of Quite Hype x Faethflex's new project featuring Distortedd shot by Chantel, and I'm fucking exhausted. But of course later that night we have to make an appearance at the 40 Oz Bounce because that's what kids our age do. Between the mayhem that is Art Basel (not to mention the terrible drivers: I would rather work Uber a month in Manhattan than a week in Miami) and the need to get the rental back before they charge us another day, we return home early Tuesday morning, and just like that the journey is over.

Reflecting on my search for meaning on Miami beach, the wondrous whirlwind of art and art-related events that is Art Basel is not just a showcase of legendary artists but also a breeding ground for emerging talent, and Philadelphia’s modern creative conscious pulsing throughout Miami during the festival is a loose nit collective of vibrant visionaries both young and old. The star sightings and high art hype are tantamount to Art Basel Miami’s allure, but even after all of the complimentary cocktails at the many corporate-sponsored and celebrity hosted galas, I am left wondering one thing: who will be the next breakout artist from my hometown, the City of Brotherly Love? 

Maybe, I hope, that question will get answered next year. Until next time, Miami.