Roadside America: St. Joseph, Michigan

Growing up in Boston and later Tucson, I grew up going on beach vacations in New England and California. It wasn’t until I started dating my husband a decade ago that I discovered America’s “Third Coast” (the Great Lakes, for our purposes, though some call the Gulf states the Third Coast) in the Midwest. Visiting my in-laws in St. Joseph, Michigan, I was amazed to see that you don’t need to go to the edges of the country to experience sand between your toes, eat an ice cream on the boardwalk, and swim out further than your parents can see you. The Lake Michigan town of St. Joseph is a resort town from way back in the midst of a comeback, striking the rare balance between charming and twee.

Each year that I’ve visited St. Joseph, the town has evolved and improved into a destination worth visiting beyond a quick side trip from Chicago. The waterfront parks have been revitalized in recent years, and the beaches are so wide and sandy, you could forget you aren’t on an ocean. St. Joe and its sister city Benton Harbor are under two hours from Chicago, as well as an easy drive from other Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit, in what has been called the “Riviera of the Midwest.”Just across Lake Michigan from Chicago, residents recently had hoped to revive the old Chicago-St. Joseph ferry that carried thousands to the beach in the 1920s heyday, but the venture proved too costly. Land remains the only approach, although there is a trans-Lake Michigan ferry between Milwaukee and Muskegon in the summer season, about 90 miles north of St. Joe. Amtrak makes the trip an hour and forty minutes from Chicago daily if you’d prefer not to get caught in traffic.

This area of Michigan is also famed for its produce, owing to the “lake effect” on the climate, helping to produce what is arguably the world’s best fruit. From June to November, you can taste many varieties at the Benton Harbor Fruit Market, one of the oldest and largest seller-to-buyer produce markets in America. Excellent fruit means excellent wine as well, and you can visit over a dozen wineries within a dozen miles of St. Joseph. You can also sample Michigan flavors at the annual Harvest Festival and regular farmers markets in the summer season.

In addition to the cute shops and a good selection of restaurants, St. Joseph has a budding arts scene anchored by the Krasl Art Center, which holds a major art fair each summer. The new pride of St. Joe is the Silver Beach area just below downtown. The historic Silver Beach Carousel was first opened in 1910 and re-opened 100 years later after the park had deteriorated and closed in the early ’70s. You can ride the carousel year-round, but go in the summer for the optimum effect, when you can finish out a day at the beach with one of Michigan’s famed sunsets and think about how soon you can return.

[flickr image via Molechaser]

Pulse Art Fair in New York: Flatline

Armory week is always an exciting time for New York City’s art community. In addition to the main show that occurs on the city’s west side, there are seemingly countless smaller shows that have popped up all over Manhattan and in Brooklyn. If you’re looking for options … you’ve got ’em. Of course, serious collectors are drawn to the Armory, where you’ll find five- and six-figure pieces from established investment-grade artists who are represented by major galleries – household names for this world. If you’re looking for the next big name, however, the sort of artist whose work has yet to really soar, you need to check out the satellite shows.

Traditionally, Pulse has been among the must-see art fairs in Armory week, and for good reason. This time around, unfortunately, it didn’t measure up. Quite simply, Pulse lacked what its name asserts.

I walked into the pavilion on W 26th Street expecting to see edgy, interesting and engaging artwork, the sort of pieces that stop you, make you think and leave you with a broader perspective. I left the show a tad disappointed.

The greatest problem with Pulse was that few artists seemed to be taking any risks. Much of the fare was conventional, and it felt as though the artists (or, rather, the show’s decision-makers) were trying to play it safe. The exhibition appeared to be catering to a different audience, one that wasn’t willing to put its assumptions on the line. To those inviting a challenge, Pulse fell short.

Much of the work was devoid of expression. Artists either tried too hard to find the abstract – such as a video piece of feet and ankles walking through heavy mud – or they relied too much on shocking color. I haven’t seen so much pink and other bright colors since similarly hued ski jackets were in vogue in the early 1990s. And, the display of an empty wine bottle with “MUTE” printed on the label simply defines uninspired.

There were a few bright spots, though, particularly the exquisite layered video created by David Ellis. Nestled in the “Impulse” section of the fair, upstairs, the previous Pulse standout offered a time-lapse video that encompassed the creation of several pieces, all intricately and seamlessly linked together to create an ongoing narrative nearly 20 minutes long. Called “The Animals,” it provided an array of morphing geographic designs that occasionally stopped to show a (what I took to be) a walrus before continuing on to show further creations. The action didn’t stop, and the work reflected the vision necessary to be a true thought leader as an emerging artist.
Aside from Ellis, Pulse was on life support this year, and my fingers are crossed for something more engaging in 2012. If we learned anything from the art market bust of 2008 and 2009, it’s that we need fresh, original and interesting talent to engage collectors and the public.

Otherwise, art investment dollars will be funneled into the known quantities (a la Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol), driving up the price and creating a new bubble. We also learned that betting on the vapid creations of emerging artists who have “made it” – such as Damien Hirst – isn’t enough. The purpose of Pulse is to give the next wave of artistic geniuses a platform.

Now, we just need the next wave of artistic geniuses …

Fountain Art Fair: This Is the Future of the Creative Mind

It isn’t unusual to see emerging artists speak angrily and earnestly about the evils of capitalism. They are hungry, struggling to be heard and eager to attain some degree of notoriety and success. Their voices, expressed on various forms of media, seek an understanding audience in a world increasingly programmed to reject the abstract and difficult in favor of that which can be digested comfortably and without risk of intellectual choking. So, it’s ironic to see such messages come with price tags that can reach into the thousands of dollars.

This is what occurred to me as I stepped off the in Manhattan, returning to terra firma from the dangerous, insightful and sometimes shocking Fountain Art Fair.

Fountain was among the Armory week satellite art fairs in Manhattan this weekend, though it won’t be confused with the rest of them. I was eager to visit Fountain. Rather than stumble through the same big names you see at the Armory, I prefer to spend my time with the artists who are fighting to become known. At Fountain, the pieces on display showed a violent desperation to be heard, with strong cultural and political messages that were impossible to be missed.

I left Fountain excited about emerging art again.

Some pieces, doubtless, were a bit heavy handed, and I do wonder how long the original messages can endure. One artist, for example, created a triptych lamenting the importance the art community places on an artist’s resume, bio and statement. Ironically, his rep was speaking from all three, at least implicitly, when explaining the work. And, if some possibility of commercial success emerges, I also wonder how long it would take the artist to polish up these documents for a major gallery or museum to review.

Another, in the “American Gangster” space, crowded the walls with as much work as possible, as if he wouldn’t have another chance to reach an audience of this magnitude – an assumption that, in itself seems tragic. While works such as “Snow White and the Seven Crackheads,” which actually included two (seemingly used) crack pipes, were a bit too blatant for my tastes, works such as an American flag devoid of color inscribed with “MADE IN CHINA” did a better job of hitting the mark.

Aside from these minor missteps, Fountain was full of work that would make you reconsider the world around you, with stunning photographs from depressed communities, street art that stretches the practical application of spray paint and performances that leave you paralyzed, unwilling to take another step before seeing what comes next.

So, will anything I saw really hit investment grade? I regret to say that I doubt it … but that’s not the point of it. Hell, it shouldn’t be the point of an art purchase anyway. After all, you purchase art to enjoy it, to derive pleasure or inspiration or understanding. If you’re looking for the sort of appreciation that comes in monetary form, you’re missing the point.

Three art fairs in Madrid this month

Madrid has always been a favorite destination for art lovers, and in February you have three more reasons to go. Later this month the Spanish capital will host three contemporary art fairs.

Art Madrid is the biggest, with 45,000 visitors last year. Now in its sixth year, Art Madrid is hosting 89 exhibition spaces that will showcase the collections of 60 art galleries from across Spain and around the world. It’s open from Feb. 16-20.

ARCOmadrid is celebrating its 30th year by focusing on Russian and Latin American contemporary art. Pieces from 12 Russian galleries will be on display and a “Solo Projects” program features artists from Latin America. It’s open Feb. 18-20.

JUSTMAD2 is the youngster of the crowd and only in its second year. About 50 exhibitors from many different countries will be showing their stuff. There will also be special programs on experimental design and sound art. It’s open Feb. 18-20.

It’s no coincidence that these are all happening at the same time. Buyers from all over the world will be here looking for The Next Great Talent, and like book fairs or other trade shows there will be a lot of hustling going on. Visiting one of these fairs will not only give you a large, interesting art exhibition for your money, but also insights into the inner workings of the art world.

Affordable Art Fair: Putting the beautiful within reach

The Affordable Art Fair wrapped up in New York last weekend, crowed until the end. The event, which highlights originals and reproductions that don’t require obscene wealth to own, is the antithesis of a global art market in which the appreciation of beauty has been nudged aside by appreciation in value.

Galleries from around the world were represented at the event, which was home to more than 70 exhibitors for four days. I wandered the floor, often not knowing which way to look as my senses were assaulted by engaging pieces that could actually wind up adorning the walls of my apartment.


Throughout my experiences on Sunday afternoon, in the waning hours of the art fair, I couldn’t shake a feeling of satisfaction: a thrill that anyone could begin to collect art as a result of the Affordable Art Fair. I remember being moved almost to anger through 2007 as the global art market bubble formed, making it nearly impossible for all but society’s wealthiest to participate. Even with the subsequent collapse in 2008, helped along by the financial crisis, it was still clear that art collecting was inherently exclusive.

These feelings fell away as I spoke with Laurance Lafforgue of ArtWeLove and artist Kamol Akhumov. I realized that art is actually inclusive, and it’s open to all to participate.

I stepped onto W. 34th Street after leaving the Affordable Art Fair with a fresh excitement for art and art collecting. Forget about the market; focus on the art.