Ella's Gift

Cifo is an oasis in a desert of concrete rot

The image of a woman pointing a gun in one's face in "10 Defining Experiments" at the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (cifo) could not be a more apt metaphor for the still-crappy nabe that is home to the gallery.

After all, it's difficult not to believe most folks would feel safer packing heat when they venture into this desolate patch of downtown, where crack monsters skulk around in the shadows of derelict buildings a rock's toss away.

In large part that's what makes a visit to cifo a spot-on experience of the power that art possesses to mainline juice into the city's collapsed veins.

From Regina José Galindo's Plomo project
From Regina José Galindo's Plomo project

Details

Through November 12
Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, 1018 N Miami Ave, Miami; 305-455-3380

Located on the corner of NW Tenth Street and North Miami Avenue, cifo is an oasis in a desert of concrete rot. The façade of the fortresslike structure is covered in a spectacular 4500-square-foot mosaic that depicts a bamboo jungle scene commissioned from architect Rene Gonzalez and created in more than 200 hues of Bisazza glass tiles.

In the wrought-iron gated plaza out front, lush thickets of bamboo snake skyward from islands of river bed stones. The place is drop-dead gorgeous, and the artwork it houses is world-class.

One must tip the chapeau to Ella Fontanals-Cisneros for having the guts to be among the first to stake a claim in the blighted hood — especially given she's rich enough to have done so anywhere she damn pleased.

Cifo's current exhibit is another sign that when it comes to promoting Miami's cultural landscape, the philanthropist puts her money where her mouth is.

"10 Defining Experiments" is cifo's inaugural grants program exhibition and features the work of ten contemporary Latin American artists the nonprofit funded to create new works for the show.

Inside the space, near the entrance, Emilia Azcarate's untitled large-scale sculptural installation swallows an entire wall. The Venezuelan artist fashioned the piece — measuring a whopping 16 by 26 feet — using thousands of bobby pins she wove together to create what looks like a giant chainlink fence.

Azcarate, who says her installation stems from the idea of interpreting a brushstroke as a 3-D artwork, calls the piece an expansion of the limits of painting.

The delicate work links row upon row of mandala shapes in a fishnet stocking pattern that cascades from the ceiling to floor, wraps around the corner of a wall, and catches the light in an undulating interplay of shadows.

Across from it, Chilean artist Josefina Guilisasti has parsed classical paintings from art history and then painted fractions of the works on eight door-size linen panels propped in a row against the wall.

In her series, Fragmento II (Fragment II), the artist has used sections of Jean-Baptiste Chardin's The Jar of Apricots (1758), Diego Velázquez's Old Woman Cooking (1618), and Sophie Calle's Double Game II (1994).

Guilisasti has placed her small grids of appropriated imagery in the upper middle of the otherwise barren panels, at eye-level, forcing spectators to consider the isolated pictorial elements on their own.

In her Calle painting, the artist has rendered a ham and cheese sandwich, tomato slices, and a kitchen knife on a dinner plate. In the Velázquez fragment, she depicts a pair of eggs frying sunny side up in a copper pan on a stove. For the Chardin piece she focused on a floral-print teacup on a table. These works offer a succinct commentary about the receding genre of still life in contemporary art.

For his project, Skeptical Definitions (Nazca Phase), Rubén Gutiérrez filmed a twenty-minute color video of his visit to Peru, where he was reconnoitering the countryside for a landscape "intervention," consisting of drawing a gigantic X in the desert viewable only by plane or satellite imaging.

Fascinated by the ceremonial lines made by the Nazca culture, he plans to execute his intervention next year in order to instigate reflection about the search for meaning in Latin American society.

At cifo, the current phase of his project also consists of a suite of five drawings and a laptop computer screen showing Web art.

The Mexican artist's drawings exude a scribbly, doodlelike vibe. They depict monkeys dueling with swords, a skull trepanation, a dragon and a Cessna colliding in midair, and a closeup of a feral rodent's face as a nude woman dances in the background.

Gutiérrez's video, helmed on a hand-held camera, has the veneer of rough-around-the-edges slackness and depicts the artist's through-the-lens perspective of a stroll through an old cemetery, dogs chasing a car, and shadows of a prop plane as it flies over a mountainside.

Nearby, the sounds of gunfire emanating from a darkened room demand attention. Outside the space, three paper targets hang at eye level as proof of Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo's dexterity with firearms.

Her project, Plomo (Clases para Aprender Manejar Armas) (Lead [Classes to Learn How to Handle Weapons]), is based on a crash course the artist recently took at a gun range.

In three large video projections, Galindo is seen becoming a crack shot with a .38 revolver, a 9mm pistol, and a shotgun. The diminutive artist, who appears to be no older than a teenager, blasts round after round of buckshot from a pump-action shotgun, leaving her targets in shreds.

One of the targets hanging outside, which was peppered with bullets from Galindo's long-barrel .38, shows she hit the bull's-eye almost every time.

With violence against women a hot-button topic, and the artist's homeland a region where violence permeates daily life, the riveting video performances seem to advocate that everyone should stay strapped if they want to survive in a hostile world.

Venezuelan Alessandro Balteo's UNstabile-Mobile links the histories of art, politics, and power in an installation referencing the natural contours of Iraqi oil fields in an Alexander Calder-esque sculpture. He includes historical documentation and wall text alluding to the region's instability and occupation by military forces.

Among the documentation Balteo has placed as a handout for his project are Iraqi oil field maps relinquished under a March 5, 2003 Freedom of Information Act lawsuit concerning the activities of the 2001 Cheney Energy Task Force.

The artist's sculpture, assembled from pieces prefabricated industrially from petrochemical materials, conveys a sense of the pipelines and oil fields depicted on the map.

Carlos Motta takes the spectator on a journey through the history of Saint Petersburg, Russia, in his provocative series of videos, Leningrad, Petrograd, Petersburg.

In one video, the Colombian artist offers a poignant take on the Leningrad that underwent years of political repression under Stalin's rule. Two poems — Anna Akhmatova's "Petrograd, 1919" and Osip Mandelstam's "Leningrad (1930)" — are heard solemnly intoned in Russian over the video montage of modern-day Saint Petersburg in stark black-and-white.

The image of a seagull is seen gliding in the sky in one scene, and a slow-motion closeup of a man speaking into a microphone is captured in the next. Other scenes jump to sailors wearing striped tank tops while swabbing a ship's deck.

As a woman's voice reads lines from the poems, subtitles reveal the words: "I live in a black, black staircase, and a bell ripped from its meat kicks and stabs at my forehead."

In one segment of the video, the camera lingers on the shoes of someone walking on a rain-slicked street, as the umbrella the person is holding overhead casts a shadowy nimbus on the ground.

These works — and those of Mariana Castillo Deball, Jacqueline Lacasa, Rubens Mano, and Carla Zaccagnini, also on display — not only are remarkable for their diversity, but also leave one praying that cifo's accomplishment here will somehow breathe life into the necrotic streets outside.

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