MIAMI BEACH — Maybe it’s watching our democratic institutions threatened with dismantlement on a daily basis as a rich egomaniac with autocratic tendencies prepares to assume the US presidency, but I had trouble concentrating at the 2016 Untitled art fair. An air-conditioned, art-filled tent on a beach (in a city that’s sinking but refuses to reckon with climate change) is basically a physical manifestation of the neoliberal art world bubble; as someone without a stockpile of money, I did not feel reassured being inside it.
That isn’t Untitled’s fault, per se — almost all the art fairs have tents, and this one is perfectly nice. But it didn’t help that the fair this year feels safer than editions past. There’s a lot of geometric abstraction, a lot of colorful sublimity, and, as happens at almost all art fairs, the better and the worse manifestations of these styles get lumped together and flattened out into a uniform wave of marketplace security. President Donald Trump is coming, but we’ll keep making and selling art, right? It’s all going to be OK, right?
It’s not, though, and at Untitled I found cold comfort. Beyond a couple of visceral pieces by Molly Crabapple in the Postmasters booth, the closest thing I saw to a political statement was Tomas Vu and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s T-shirt silkscreening shack, where, for $20, buyers can mix and match one of seven self-knowingly ironic platitudes with one of eight celebrity images. If “THE DAYS OF THIS SOCIETY IS NUMBERED” printed atop a photo of David Bowie as Aladdin Sane is how we think art will save us, we may as well give up and go home.
I did take solace in a handful of booths devoted, more or less, to single artists. Not much connects them beyond my taste, but all of them feature unpretentious works that encourage close looking. The three displays are about human lives and narratives and the way those can be processed through art. That feels more crucial than ever in a time of gross inhumanity.
Sadie Barnette at Jenkins Johnson Gallery (San Francisco)
Sadie Barnette’s dad, Rodney, was an impressive man: a founder of the Compton chapter of the Black Panther Party, a member of the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis, and he opened the first black-owned gay bar in San Francisco. It’s no wonder she would want to explore his influence.
She does so in some of the works gathered for Jenkins Johnson Gallery’s booth, among them pages from the FBI’s 500-page surveillance file on her father that she’s doused in sparkly splashes of pink and purple. They’re set against a pink wall covered in the pattern of a chain-link fence — which is itself a fairly apt summation of Barnette’s aesthetic meld: cute and tough, domestic and street, personal and political. Although a few of the works fall flat (the world could do with fewer reflective surfaces), the smartest ones — say, an image of a Honda soaring through the air above a Martin Luther King Jr Way street sign — are puzzles you want to spend time putting together.
Untitled 2016 continues at Ocean Drive and 12th Street (Miami Beach) through December 4.