Miami plays itself

Art Basel, part two: Faux-favelas and real degradation
Artist Kristofer Paetau hurls at it all

ESSAY On opening night of Art Basel, N. Miami Avenue was a sort of Potemkin museum, every storefront packed with art, free wine and cheese, and the usually sleepy street clogged with taxis and limos. Ordinarily no one walks in muggy Miami, but tonight the cracked and littered sidewalks were deep with art patrons dressed in their Midtown Manhattan finery, looking out of place, as if passengers on a private jet that had made an emergency landing on a tropical Caribbean island. Wynwood is an area hard-hit by foreclosures. Up and down N. Miami Avenue, printed signs reading "Cash For Your Warhol" were nailed to the burned-out and boarded-up storefronts that remained untouched by Art Basel, a witty parody of the "Cash For Your Home" signs now popping up all over America's inner cities.

Off the main drag on the dim side-streets, locals hustled cars into parking places in empty lots. With cheerful yet menacing Dade Country bravado, they ran the classic Miami scam of offering to "watch your car so that nothing happens to it" for $10. Just before Art Basel, newly released FBI crime statistics showed Miami had leapt to the fourth most violent city in the U.S., up from last year's number 13. As I watched women in expensive heels stepping around a pair of scruffy, tan stray dogs, I reflected on some comments Craig Robins had made to me. When I asked the art mogul about the importance of Miami Vice to the redevelopment of Miami, he told me the 1980s TV show had "transformed the horror of the cocaine cowboy era, which was very real, into the fantasy of the cocaine cowboys, which was about sex appeal and fashion." Miami's brand name has always meant third world squalor skillfully repackaged as gritty charm.


Fittingly, much of the big-name art that served as the backdrop for Art Basel's week-long street party in Wynwood was ephemeral street art that developer Tony Goldman and Deitch Projects commissioned for the outdoor exhibit, "Wynwood Walls." Goldman, the famed developer of SoHo, was an early partner with a young and untested Robins in the '80s and '90s on South Beach. In 2005, Goldman bought 19 properties in Wynwood. Now, for Art Basel, in collaboration with Deitch, he was turning his warehouse exteriors into "a group of outdoor murals by the best artists in the field that will become an international street art museum." Participating artists included the Brazilian twins Os Gemeos, SWOON, and most notably, Shepard Fairey of Andre the Giant/Obama Hope poster fame, who contributed an enormous piece on a wall in an empty lot on NW Second Avenue. SF artist Barry McGee also came to Miami to paint a tripped-out, fluorescent pattern of diamonds on an abandoned building farther down the block. Perhaps self-conscious of changing the neighborhood's look too much, McGee added a wrecked, overturned car in the parking lot as part of the installation.

More "Wynwood Walls" murals by Kenny Scharf, AIKO, Clare Rojas, Jim Drain, and others could be found inside of a sort-of mural park made by opening a metal gate between two of Goldman's warehouses. I spotted Goldman and Jeffrey Deitch standing together and grinning through the bars at the crowd inside, so I went up to talk to them. The two were something of an odd couple — Goldman relaxed and rumpled, Miami-in-December casual in shirtsleeves and ball cap; Deitch, his usual immaculate suit-and-tie self. Yet they seemed giddy and finished each other's sentences like a couple in young love. I asked if there were plans to bring the graffiti museum indoors. "Who knows? "Right now — " Deitch began, and Goldman waved his arm with a flourish and said, " — we're just happy to sit back and enjoy tonight."

Also from this author