Down and Hip in Miami

Yet another house is transformed into a contemporary nongallery in ur-urban space

The House, the latest in a series of alternative art spaces popping up around Miami, seems to reflect a generational trend. Martin Oppel, Bhakti Baxter, and Tao Rey are three artists just out of a serious art-brewing operation: New World School of the Arts. They rented an old house off Biscayne Boulevard, repaired it, and in the blink of an eye had it ready for their colleagues to show their stuff. The works inside such do-it-yourself spaces have an aura of immediacy, removed from the dictates of established venues. First of all there's no upfront sales pitch. Second the artwork is selected via word of mouth by a close-knit community. And yes, the work may fit adequately.

These younger-than-young artists relish the freedom to produce something that instantly relates to their peers. Artists, performers, cinema buffs, would-be-actors, neohippie literati, and dandy cyber-punks share a bohemian flare and an up-to-date lexicon of production. Romantic they are, but they're also firmly self-involved. Although art is their goal, I sense a need for truer collective interaction, an outlet to express legitimate urban problems. They are searching for a voice, a sense of belonging, as if art could serve a higher social purpose.

Their primary motivation is to give their cohorts the opportunity to create without the "gallery process," as they refer to it. But they also negotiate with the potential of attracting establishment attention. I don't see them as naive -- maybe this generation is more mature about its pretensions. Absent is the bitterness cliché or antiestablishment façade. Although these young artists are informed of the pressing social issues, it's as if they know how to get around the system.

There's a block party forming in old Miami
There's a block party forming in old Miami

Details

Work by Tom Scicluna and Nicolas DaSillvera through March 20, 305-576-0274
The House, 2330 NE 4th Ave

With a smart mix of a ground-floor exhibition space and upstairs studios, The House presents its second show, "Places and Things," with artists Nicolas DaSillvera and Tom Scicluna, students at the University of Miami who have been recruited by Oppel, Baxter, and Rey specifically for this show. Both DaSillvera and Scicluna's works reflect political issues in the public space through materials that seem alienated from their daily urban use. Scicluna does it by signaling the limits and directions of city traffic in claustrophobic, odd contexts, while DaSillvera politicizes semirural, barbed-wire property boundaries that exist within the confines of the open metropolis.

Within the confines of our metropolis, the former New World students developed a plan. "We moved in August, and up until December we worked in the house," explains Oppel. "The whole thing was in bad shape and needed a pretty intensive renovation." According to Baxter the plan was to create a forum for emerging artists to express themselves outside the system. This is interesting, because it's not as if all galleries are ignoring them. Snitzer and Ambrosino, for instance, have consistently shown and exposed some of these up-and-coming locals. A recent Museum of Contemporary Art show also catered to a bunch of them.

Baxter says matter-of-factly: "We're artists, and it's natural to come with our own space, instead of waiting for an opportunity to grab."

Oppel puts it another way: "When you are an emerging artist, you want to express yourself and may not need or want to have to wait for institutional validation filters. It's kind of frustrating having to depend on people to express yourself." He says young artists need the process of producing and showing as part of their growth experience.

For Rey alternative spaces such as The House provide the possibility for social immediacy. He identifies a crucial angle: "Our projects are essentially urban, that is, the society that you see day by day, walking in the street. I feel we're more directly influenced by it than anything else."

The Miami arthouse experiment gained momentum after the opening of Locust Projects (a space now going through a nonprofit's rite of passage). Baxter, Rey, and Oppel's reasons for freedom and immediacy are similar to those of Locust's, or, for that matter, the Box's or Dorsch's -- but not quite. Those "veterans" (it's been a little more than a year) struggled to bring a contemporary alternative to the Miami art scene based on a clear lack of younger contemporary local output. In the case of The House and downtown's Green Door, the issue is not so much the need for more contemporary shop windows out there somewhere as much as it is about creating an urban milieu that caters to this age group. This younger generation craves the space in which to instantly say something very important about their condition, and their need produces the generational empowerment with which to bypass the system.

Which issues and themes will these artists explore? One caveat is that artistic gratification without lasting cohesion across social boundaries may undermine the very effort of these artists, particularly in our diverse city. A healthy art scene needs meaningful social attachments, not just fads. I don't see young black artists in most of these alternative gatherings, but that's no fault of these young people. It does, however, speak of a pressing issue amid the urban fabric they inhabit. Contemporary art still is perceived -- not unjustly -- by many blacks as something foreign or ethnocentrically Western.

Can alternative spaces like this effectively address their own generation while reaching out to other marginal groups? Will they make contemporary art more accessible? It would be nice if they did what the establishment has not yet done in this segregated, short-term, hypersensorial, and off-kilter urban landscape we call Miami. The House's next show, "Time in Space," is scheduled to open on Saturday, April 14.

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