It's a sure sign that "the season" is in full throttle when art fairs start springing up on the streets of South Florida. Having not attended one of these in a while, I took in the 16th-annual Las Olas Art Fair on Saturday, January 3. It's too late for you to see exactly what I saw, of course -- these festivals run for only one weekend apiece -- but you don't have to wait until next January to see a similar event.
In fact, you could choose between a short jaunt to the 15th-annual Downtown Delray Festival of the Arts and a considerably longer trek to the 14th-annual Indialantic Art Festival (just north of Melbourne Beach), both of which take place simultaneously the weekend of January 17 and 18. Hell, you could even become an art groupie and take in such festivals back and forth and up and down the Sunshine State for months to come: Jensen Beach, Aventura, Hobe Sound, Sarasota, St. Pete Beach, Stuart, Venice, San Marco, Naples, Destin, Ponte Vedra Beach. There's even a 16th-annual Las Olas Art Fair Part II the weekend of March 6 and 7.
Lest you think that only we Floridians are so blessed with this abundance of culture, rest assured that there are corresponding outdoor art festivals in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. So what gives? Are we in the middle of some unheralded renaissance? Is the next Picasso lurking in one of the booths at these dozens of shows, just waiting to be discovered?
Well, yes and no. Some respectable artists are getting extensive exposure by participating in these art fairs, and some of them may well go on to great fame and acclaim. There's also an abundance of mediocre and downright cheesy work, as well as stuff that's outright hideous. But hey, if you paint/sculpt/draw/ photograph/mold/fire/ etc. it, they will come.
And come they did to the Las Olas show. I thought that by arriving early on opening day and parking well away from the main event, I might be spared overwhelming crowds. I was wrong. Little clusters of people on almost every street corner waited for shuttles, even though they were within easy walking distance of the fair. And traffic began to snarl as drivers realized they had to circumvent the five blocks in the heart of the Las Olas business district that were closed to vehicles.
By the time I reached the beginning of the fair, I began to wonder just how many of Broward County's 1.7 million residents and their out-of-town visitors were taking in the festivities. The cross section of South Florida on display sometimes rivaled the arts and crafts: parents navigating the clotted street with babies in enormous strollers, pet owners with everything from yapping little dogs in their arms to big barkers on leashes and at least one huge snake draped around a man's body, countless cell-phoners who couldn't bear to be out of touch for even the shortest period of time.
My friend and I tried to come up with a strategy for negotiating the crowd while still managing to see some art. At some points, we were forced to flee from street to sidewalk; other times, crowded sidewalk cafés and those waiting to get into them edged us back onto the boulevard, which could go from a river of shoulder-to-shoulder people to a sparsely populated stretch of street in a flash. (No doubt the eateries bordering the fair did extraordinary business, which is probably one of the best things to come of such street events for the cities that host them.)
But it's hard to concentrate on art in such circumstances, and a bewildering number of people didn't even seem to be trying. It was as if they were simply out on a casual morning stroll that just happened to take them through a narrow space filled with thousands of other people. The sunny, breezy weather that day, after all, was South Florida at its best.
Despite these obstacles, I managed to ferret out some gratifying work. Decorative still lifes aren't usually high on my list of favorites, but a piece called Superstars, by Robin Lee Majowski of Hobe Sound, lives up to its name. It's an irresistibly vivid close-up of carambolas (starfruit), captured in mixed media on rag paper. And the booth displaying the raku pottery of Charles Chrisco of North Carolina is its own little elegant self-contained exhibit, maybe because he limits himself to reds, grays, blacks, and whites that create a unified palette.
Also noteworthy are the big, highly textured acrylics of Indiana artist Dennis Davis. Even more appealing are some other large, textured acrylics by Christopher Hauck of Atlanta, whose voluptuous expressionism recalls some of the portraits of Susan Rothenberg. I also liked the "Infinity Light Furnishings" of Kentuckian Doug Durkee, who uses mirrors and tiny lights to create the illusion of infinite space in pieces of furniture and wall clocks.
Durkee's work transcends décor, while a lot of the other work in the fair was more craft than art, and just so-so craft at that. A few things stood out because they seemed so exotic in an art-fair setting: some beautiful, if vaguely threatening, kitchen cutlery; Celtic harps; and sitars.
In the end, though, the 16th-annual Las Olas Art Fair, like its companion shows elsewhere, seems more about commerce than art. More people appeared to be browsing than buying, although lots of folks must have shelled out plenty for this art, some of which is quite pricey. The ads boasted of more than 300 works of art by artists from 40 states.
The fair's producer, Plantation-based Howard Alan Events Inc., has built an empire out of these festivals throughout Florida and the states I mentioned earlier. To date, the company stages 44 such shows and claims to have more than $15 million worth of art in circulation. Some shows emphasize fine art, while others are more about crafts.
I don't begrudge Howard Alan Events its success. But I do find it hard to appreciate art, much less consider buying it, in a setting that includes, about midway through the fair, a booth for Cingular Wireless and a tent hawking raffle tickets for Cadillacs like the ones on display nearby.
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