Take a Bow

Who cares about Art Basel? The Bass exhibition proves Miami already had it going on.

By the end of the summer, every local artist in Miami was making plans for a series of shows in conjunction with Art Basel 2001, and yes, Basel was going to be a great plug for Miami (though some of the artists' responses seemed just too opportunistic in their want of some picture publicity). What truly bothered me was our Miami inferiority complex in an art world that is not defined anymore by huge art centers.

Then, following Basel's cancellation as a result of September 11, most people realized Miami's response to non-Basel had become -- as a local gallerist put it -- "an artistic imperative." So Robert Chambers went on to curate his big project; and after much work and patience, we are presented at the Bass Museum of Art with the best art show I've seen in years in Miami: "Globe, Miami, Island."

With an amazing night such as this opening, a little mismatch can be forgiven. With more than 60 talented artists showing works, what matters here is the overall result. "People want to see and to be seen, to talk and enjoy the experience," says Steve Bollman, an artist and curator. And indeed so much was going on so quickly, this writer could only hastily jot down brief notes on a pad.

Purvis Young painted the Bass Museum walls in an exhibition that makes Miami shine
Purvis Young painted the Bass Museum walls in an exhibition that makes Miami shine

Details

Through February 3; 305-673-7530
Bass Museum of Art, 2121 Park Ave, Miami Beach

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Some moments: Just the right light and music mixes with the audience's chitchat as Maria Arjona turns heads while walking at a snail's pace holding two suitcases (she's endured some difficult performance feats in the past). Not far away, a group of dancers embodies Isadora Duncan choreography next to Carlos Betancourt's huge self-portrait photo, while Maritza Molina carries out a sleep routine (fakir-style) on a bed of high-heeled shoes.

One local professor of architecture is absorbed by Juan Lezcano's corner installation, which couldn't be more unobtrusive and hip: A nice arrangement of blocks adds just the right touch. The trip to the second floor reveals Karen Rifas's trademark: delicate crisscrossed leaf motifs, breathing a frail harmony between the ramp and the first floor's ceiling. "It makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Who would be so silly as to take off that piece?" comments Mark Ormond, a well-known curator and art historian. "It evens enhances the look of the ramp," he says while pointing to the large walls filled with paintings, salon style.

The arrangement on both sides of the ramp works: Emilio Perez's blue and green oval-like inventions and Julie Kahn's photo of juveniles in shooting pose are eye-catchers, as are far-out teenage visions by Chris Curriel (particularly his Lightning Boy) and a weird-looking yellow piece by John Espinosa. Off the walls: a tattoo performance and a fashionable young woman dressed in an exquisite Wendy Wischer hair suit.

Other reflections: Bahkti Baxter's poinciana twigs, rising from the ramp edge, look like hair transplants; and William Cordova's latest, a column of vinyl LPs, announces the force and fragility of pop culture. Roberto Behar describes his piece with Rosario Marquardt as a floating suitcase with a miniature boxer inside a ring being pulled up by a balloon, symbolizing the moon.

And what a second floor! People were captivated by Glexis Novoa's wall-length metaphysical drawing; Teresita Fernandez's sensual, multihued, tilelike installation of little marble squares; Mette Tommerup's red, blue, and green computerized image distortions; and Kevin Arrow's trippy darkroom, with bright projections dancing on a half-dome complemented by audio loops. There are also subtle sets, like Shahreyar Ataie's Zen-ish music video of revolving details being projected on what I took to be a Geisha doll. Inside the elevator a gem of a music piece by Bert Rodriguez leads to Purvis Young's frescoes, providing a landmark. The powerful sculpture by Ursula Von Rydingsvard is absorbing, but what is it? It's a huge concave structure of cedar planks, coarsely sawn and glued together to conjure up a fossil skeleton.

Close by is an imposing white altar, partially covered by a long white curtain hanging from the ceiling, with sculptures by Edouard Duval-Carrié. The piece revisits old Duval-Carrié territory, only now with an artificially pompous accent, akin to Alejo Carpentier's accounts of the adventures of Dessalines and Henry Christophe during Haiti's independence. Carrié's historic piece plays well against Cooper's literally noisy abstract installation, which contains a rectangular inverted dome and ladder amid big piles of hay. Cooper's noise piece resonates next to Paul Ramirez Jonas's self-playing, computer-generated drum orchestra, decorated with small TVs, flags, and banners. As the percussive ensemble played, I peered at a tiny monitor: "Workers of the World: Unite."

José Bedia's raftlike altar of foodstuffs against a colossal, black-painted Cuban deity is a tour de force. Find your bodega's inventory on Bedia's altar: rows of guava bars, coffee, mojo, big plastic bottles of Ironbeer, canned Goya products, and plenty of aguardiente. Besides the idea of cultural empowerment, I read Bedia's message as deeply political in tone (anti-embargo?). Only this message remains subversive on both sides of the debate.

An exhibition within an exhibition is Cesar Trasobares's Elián in Wonderland, a multifaceted installation displaying trinkets of all sorts, cheap figurines, toy soldiers, Barbies and Kens, along with original posters from the Elian days and -- just for the opening -- a live young model inside a fish tank with two inflatable dolphins. It's a microcosm of Cuban culture, nationalist kitsch, and a caustic analysis worth more than any textbook on the subject.

Finally, there's Charo's soaring wooden tower, a discombobulated construction, part trash-architecture, part baby-world. Supported by think-tree branches, and filled with a disparate array of stuffed animals, dolls of all sizes, toy trucks, cheap jewelry, and whatnot, it remains a bizarre superimposition of old and new.

Coming down the stairs you hear Edith Piaf's rendition of "Autumn Leaves" at Pablo Cano's little silver-painted stage theater, with a Cubist-looking piano and singer with antennas. Neatly dressed, the artist proceeds to act upon his puppets with detached parsimony, in a bittersweet story of his own concoction.

Around the corner in a small room, Gustavo Matamoros performs his music, equipped with a Mac G-4 and a bunch of odd little utensils in a quasi-serious affair. "Let me see what elements I'll use for this composition," he utters. Stretching filaments, blowing into little vials, scratching surfaces with needles and toothpicks, and dropping threads of sand on miniscule surface mikes, Matamoros rewards the small audience with a weird and yet exquisite fusion of sounds. The composer burned CDs for $9.99, right on the spot.

Someone outside tells me to check Eugenia Vargas's piece by the pool at the museum entrance: a beat-up chassis -- as if just taken from the junkyard -- squirting delicate bubbles. A hell-of-a-ready-made, if considered in the context of a public sculpture next to Arata Isozaki's Modernist addition to the Bass. Yet on its own, the piece still works as a metaphor for death and rebirth.

Robert Chambers's wonderful effort has a sense of timing. An artist and a teacher with an easygoing personality, Chambers knows how to include other people and deal with big egos. "This is a springboard for what Miami has to offer, an international crossroads that includes Florida, which is extremely important," says Chambers. "Miami is, artistically, both a big stopping point and a happening place." He proves it by posting a list (at the museum entrance) of other venues that currently feature each artist's works, along with 29 maps for each of the 29 locations in Miami. After tonight's opening Chambers has become the hottest art producer in town.

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