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Wealth and taste in Miami.


IT WAS THE Village, New York City, and the year was 1955. The intellectual and artistic yearning and ardor must have coursed through the atmosphere with a near-electric intensity. In retrospect, it was a charmed historical moment: Roughneck drunkard Jackson Pollock challenging the diminutive Franz Kline to an impromptu boxing match, quidnuncs arguing passionately with the De Koonings at the Cedar Bar alongside Mark Rothko and Albert Pinkham Ryder. It was an age when a generation of American artists were united by a sense of empathy in the way pioneers who confront perilous lands can be. In just a few decades so many of those artists would be decorated with the distinction of defining not just abstract but contemporary art in a new way, not just for New York but for the United States—and all of this transpired at that evanescent moment when America gleamed with the self-satisfaction that comes of being the umbilical point of the world. That moment can never be recaptured, likely can never be rivaled—it is unlikely that even New York can overgo its past. Now another city is making a bid for a place in both the U.S. and world arts scene. It is a city that has spent decades as a cultural backwater (with the exception of those four days in December when it hosts Art Basel): Miami, Florida.

AmoralesAt 5 p.m. on January 19, 2014, I found myself at the Center for Visual Communication in Miami, Florida. Poised to deliver a lecture, I was perched atop a giant spider’s web of a platform spun by Mexican artist Carlos Amorales from over four hundred wooden blocks—I was bereft of notes and shoeless (the latter in deference to the integrity of Amorales’ sculpture’s surface). A regular art critic for The Brooklyn Rail and an occasional contributor to Art in America, I had been invited to Miami as the latest Visiting Writer in collaboration with The Brooklyn Rail’s sister publication, The Miami Rail. A quixotic forty-eight hours of gallery and museum visits, exhibition reviews and artist interviews from Little Haiti to Miami Beach had culminated in that lecture which I titled, with a nod to T.S. Eliot, “ ‘The Way of Dispossession’: The Art of Keeping Time and Miami.”

One might wonder what time and dispossession have to do with the Miami art scene. They have everything to do with it. In a brief measure of hours, it becomes obvious to any arts commentator—or anyone with a critical eye— that the city’s art community is a defiant adolescent straining towards an adulthood that is perhaps attainable but only in the future tense. Like youth on the threshold of maturity, the Miami scene is seemingly conscious of aesthetic complexities but uncertain of how to countenance them, thrilled with expectations, ambitions and a tentative optimism about its own future, but troubled by an awareness that optimism cannot vouchsafe success. What is most interesting about Miami is less about accomplishment and more about the struggle for it, about whether it can manage to achieve and sustain something substantive, unique, meaningful.

And Miami is indisputably making an aggressive bid for recognition: a surfeit of new galleries has burgeoned in just a decade in the Design and Wynwood districts—the latter recovering from years as an industrial hinterland. Seemingly every night a new invitation for “cultural enrichment” materializes through the city’s endless round of exhibition openings, interviews, lectures and “in conversation” events. Though there is an inchoate community taking shape, Miami’s development is severely compromised by something that haunts any rebellious youth: identity. It has difficulty defining one. And without isolating and articulating its haecceity, the Miami art scene cannot coalesce into a distinctive force.

History frustrates that bid for identity which, imagined and otherwise, needs a past to define itself, howsoever fictionalized or mutable that past might be. As Stephen Daedalus puts it “I, entelechy, form of forms am I by memory.” But Miami is uncomfortable with Cleo. Insistence that in Miami, history is treated with the same disregard as ephemera is a diffuse position, practically tautological—and practical all the same. Historic buildings are regularly destroyed in ignorance of their meaning, and art museums were founded only in recent decades and have expanded from the meager single gallery operations they were to bona fide cultural institutions in the last ten years. Though it is likely to become a significant cultural landmark locally and has an architectural design that has already made it a popular destination, the Pérez Art Museum Miami opened only months ago, in December 2013. It currently possesses less than 2,000 objects in its permanent collection.

But why should Miami’s relationship to history foretell the success or failure of its future ambitions? After those two days of exposure to the Miami art scene, I mounted that Morales sculpture to explain to an audience filled with individuals energetically making a bid for international recognition why countenancing history is not a luxury but should be a necessity. I began by recalling late art critic Arthur Danto’s appropriation of the Hegelian “pale of history.” What for Hegel had been used to describe geographical regions—the Africas and Siberias of the globe—that were supposedly estranged from history was used by Danto to describe a temporal dislocation, in particular the dislocation of contemporary art in relation to its past—the art historical narrative from art modern to Minoan. The etiology of the phrase, which shifts from describing spatial exile to a temporal one resonates in Miami’s arts community—where an art estranged from the security of an unbroken art historical narrative is being made in a place that is itself exiled from a single, secure historical narrative.

Miami cannot grasp its own past, let alone use some form of communal memory to articulate a singular identity with any kind of clarity with any more depth or skill.

Moving from theory to practice, I lingered on a number of examples—culled from my past reviews—where history either changed interpretation, compromised it, made art contemporary memorable or accomplished completely the reverse. I linger on that afternoon’s lecture only because the most immediate response was so notable. Many members of that Miami audience were critically engaged and asked the questions to prove it. Others, however, were so transfixed by what they perceived as critiques against a single artist, New Yorker Andrew Kuo—whom I had reviewed unfavorably in Art in America— that they proceeded to attempt to roil the waters in the most unproductive, sophomoric way possible. It would have been an amusing exchange had it been possible to ignite a scintilla of intelligent disagreement or intellectual rigor from their questions. One embraced a line of passive-aggressive questioning, repeatedly asking me to explain the “organization” of my talk because he had “difficulty understanding it.” After several attempts at sketching the architecture of the lecture failed, I was forced to dilute my ideas to an outline so simplistic that resistance to comprehension became impossible. Another took issue with their favored Kuo. All understanding of the foregoing lecture had been lost, apparently, when my critique (which revolved upon Kuo’s tendency to embrace every beat of popular culture’s most solipsistic traits while allowing his own painting to wither) raised his hackles with all the poise of maturity a sixteen-year old girl might muster when she perceives her favored heart-throb had been insulted. A particularly amusing voice in the trio was that of an individual who, although she “arrived late and wasn’t sure what was going on” questioned my academic credentials and then insisted that the overall idea of the talk was “unclear.” Not every Miami lecture-goer was as loutish or unsophisticated—far from it. It was not dissent that signaled an amateurish arts community; it was the grounds for the dissent and the persistency wedded to belabored, callow attempts to articulate said dissent that bespoke a lack of intellectual maturity and an aesthetic shallowness. This was a group that did not want to hear about valuing the past and how it might relate to their own efforts to define Miami; they were too distracted by the petty allegiances that ruled them in the present.

THAT IN MIAMI art and history do not keep easy company is indirectly telegraphed by The Birth of Rome, at the Wolfsonian Museum at Florida International University (through May 18, 2014). The exhibition is an accidental index of just how fraught Miami’s relationship to history must be. The exhibition—perhaps one of the city’s most thoughtfully curated in recent months—highlighted how the vocabulary of ancient Rome was appropriated by modern Italy as that nation mythologized their past. Significantly, this process was not innocent: The Birth of Rome was documenting the strategy as it was used to legitimate not just a modern Italy, but a fascist Italy: Mussolini’s Italy.

As numerous intellectual historians might note, the past is inevitably the commerce of the present. Memory is not eternal or inviolate; it is, as historian Alon Confino has said, “the mental equipment of a society, of an age.” Birth of Rome was incidentally an expression of naïveté about how identity is formed (as if it presupposed that a social identity could avoid mythologizing the past) and an awareness that an idealized identity is unlikely to exist without an appropriation and fictionalization of the past. Tellingly, this ambivalence played out at the Wolfsonian through the triangulation of history, identity and fascism.
Much of the art in play in Miami galleries and museums could be dismissed as jejune or simply derivative. The very best of the worst art in Miami likely exists at galleries like Collection Privée, which is filled with pieces that are possible parodies of artistic efforts. It has an abundance of metal sculptures featuring triumphantly naked women with large, impossibly perky breasts poised on spheres or rugged rock outcroppings. These tacky goddesses bear aloft tiny spherical objects which they regard with enthusiasm or an air of contemplation.

Privée also features a number of sculptures by the mononomial “Kurtzman,” whose fascination with distorting body parts—often legs or arms—while dwarfing the rest of the subject gives a sense less of a rejection of proportion and more a study inspired by seventeenth-century lithographs cataloguing dropsy.

But Miami certainly does not hold a monopoly on bad art nor should its artistic ambitions be blighted by galleries such as Privée, which are more a punchline to a joke nobody recited than a substantive index to Miami’s art scene, which is polarized at the deepest level, caught between fascination with two opposing themes, insincerity and authenticity. Both articulate an obsession with identity.
From the first, insincerity, radiates an idolatry of surface. Projects of this sort deal in glossy depthlessness. They often trope on superficiality and seem to captivate viewers by the wit of semblances and doppelgängers. Such is the passion for this breed of art that even hopelessly derivative works in this spirit are popular. At Bass Fisher Invitational, the charm of one work (which, tellingly was made by a New York artist several years ago, but has migrated to Miami where it enjoys especial popularity) lies in how perfectly it replicates a Paris Hilton C.D. by a sleight-of-hand with embossed foil. The print is a perfect replica in two-dimensions of the artistic expression of a dubious celebrity notorious for superficiality.

Similarly, the hyperrealism of Bryan Drury’s paintings—which record every wrinkle or crease in the fabric worn by his subjects, thus imparting the illusion of a mimetic exhaustion—has proven wildly popular. Tellingly, Drury (whose portrait of Pope Francis furnished the cover for a recent issue of Time Magazine) charmed patrons so thoroughly that not a single painting at his recent exhibition in Miami Beach was available. The works, which were priced between $30,000 to $65,000, had already been purchased.

For Miami, creativity is outstripped by the delight in the conceit of claims to sincerity subverted by art, ground to dust in a capitalist system.

Meanwhile, an installation by Virginia Poundstone at Locust Projects, BOG-MIA, focused on, as the gallery press release puts it “ the vast industrial system producing the aesthetics of popular emotion.” To decode, Poundstone’s installation troped on the flower trade between Miami and Bogotá. The exhibition included footage of Columbian laborers preparing roses, stacks of boxes designed for shipping flowers and a series of perfectly preserved roses, their petals still soft, that had been “eternalized,” in a feat of floral sorcery that rivaled the art of any taxidermist in the Adirondacks. Fittingly, Locust Projects was simultaneously hosting an exhibition that put insincerity on parade with Nobody knows me better than you, by Alan Gutierrez. The exhibition centers on a group of paintings that consist solely of embossed “AGs”—the artist’s initials. The play between objectification, art and commodity is an old trick, a narcissistic Brillo Box of sorts and would not likely find its way to a gallery in New York’s Chelsea area. For Miami, however, creativity is outstripped by the delight in the conceit of claims to sincerity subverted by art, ground to dust in a capitalist system.

When not mooning over the lure of mere appearances and the charms of the disingenuous, exhibitions betray a fascination with embracing an authentic identity as firmly as possible. Part of Miami’s complexity lies in ethnic diversity, with a particularly vibrant Latino community. There is an entire set of works that embrace exoticized visions of ethnic identity to the point where identity seems a near-caricatures distillations not of what an identity might be, but what it is expected to be. Sometimes, identity is established through fantasy, a strategy followed by Saya Woolfalk. Seven works by Woollfalk were recently on view at Emerson Dorsch in Chimera, which showcased Woolfalk’s images of figures inspired by a fictional race of women who cross species and races, metamorphosing all the while. Some of Woolfalk’s works portray winged women or feathered faces on ink jet print on watercolor paper. Two objects in the exhibition are unsightly unions of plastic beads, kimono fabric and acrylic gel bedizening plastic skulls. Though the works are intended to express the fusion of identities that comes of belonging to multiple ethnic backgrounds, it is difficult to distinguish Woolfalk’s work from that of an enthusiastic sci-fi fan after a manic episode at the local craft store. So eager is Woolfalk to chase impossible pasts and extract from them an adequate approximation of present identity that the latter remains elusive.

deconreconhcfrostam2013At the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, overdeterminism of identity overshadowed any bid for authenticity in Humberto Castro: Tracing Antilles. The exhibition of Castro’s work was meant to take viewers on a figurative voyage through the Caribbean and across centuries to register how social, historical and political developments impacted the region and native populations. Though energetic in its incorporation of instillation elements such as a dense field of broken pottery, large-scale sculpture and paintings, the exhibition merely created a drama where the islands of the Caribbean came to embody nothing more than violations of a Lockean state of nature, overwhelmed by colonialism and exploitation. The symbol of the canoe, which Castro used to signify movement and shelter, and the recurring image of a conquistador’s armor recur throughout the exhibition. These simultaneously suggests a distinct identity and the most obvious threat to it, but in choosing to identify the Caribbean thus, it reduces the population whose history it attempts to relate to a vision of the Caribbean’s past that conforms perfectly to any stereotypical, simplified narrative one might imagine in a grade school primer.

Yet, not all is arrant superficiality and heavy-handed overdetermined expressions of identity in Miami. Perhaps the most exciting work is found in a series of paintings that could be loosely classified as works of geometric abstraction. In truth, they are elegant partite on the aesthetics of aporia. The artist, Lynne Golob Gelfman, recently exhibited these in Trued Surface at Dimensions Variable. In its design, Trued Surface is the chronicle of an idea and how it worked its way across the artist’s mind, across decades. Nearly half of the exhibition is dedicated to larger-scale paintings (generally 168 x 244 cm) that have been executed very recently, between 2013 through 2014. However, the other half of the exhibition features pieces composed on paper and on a much smaller scale (21 x 35 cm) in 1980. At the mid-point of the exhibition, balancing the two periods like a fulcrum is the work that came before all the rest, though it is placed after them, the “thru gold 2” (1978), which is roughly 152 cm both in length and height and is the exhibition’s dominant motif—a recurring triangle with angles softened like the sail of a boat. It is chromatically commanding—seemingly refulgent with its intricate patterns of triangles, row upon row turning first right then left then right again, ripening from gold to russet, fading into the chill of slate blue or sea green. Still, “thru gold 2” merely supplies a vocabulary, a way of expressing with bare form the kinds of things that elude capture by either the sedulous enumeration of florid description or the mimetic command Flemish-style detail might muster.

Indeed, the triangle becomes a means of expressing something beyond a simple bi-fold possibility. More than a question of something emerging or being effaced, arriving or departing, the later works represent visually what insinuation—like the compelling, inscrutable laughter of strangers—feels like on the most visceral level. Gelfman flirts with indeterminacy even in the arrangement of shape, persistently reminding us that a triangle is merely a square, halved diagonally—a point continually driven home by the pairing of chromatic triangles with a twin, a blank counterpart. More than this, however, Gelfman’s four latest paintings, “thru 1” through “thru 4” (2013-2014) are studies in the mystery of how a repeated shape, a predictability, can manage to not create but invoke the possibility of an encounter with what we will never, ultimately, know, the suggestion of places we can never see.

MIAMI CANNOT GRASP its own past, let alone use some form of communal memory to articulate a singular identity with any kind of clarity with any more depth or skill. Perhaps this is a matter of troubled adolescence, perhaps a function of a city founded only in 1896 with a history determined by the trade winds and a population built from the quarrels of distant potentates and the chaos besetting different lands.

The fact that Miami’s arts community has not yet coalesced does not mean it cannot. Moreover, the fact that it has not given Miami a certain energy that established art centers can never possess. It’s the excitement that possibility brings. Miami could mature into an exciting new art center. Or it could recede into inconsequence. Like a suggested presence in a Gelfman painting, it is uncertain. Risk of failure is, after all, the doublet of the possibility of success. And unless Miami’s art scene grows up fast, it is unlikely the latter will obtain.

Alana Shilling-Janoff comments on cultural events for the Fortnightly Review. Shilling-Janoff has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. Her special interests are reception history and the afterlife of Latin poetry in the Renaissance.


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