Little Havana Heights

Flourishing among kitsch, a couple of gems off Calle Ocho

The genesis for "I Do, I Do" came when one of Yovani Bauta's frustrated art students blurted, "I want to torch my wedding dress!" in his portrait painting class. Bauta had been teaching the tight-knit group of mostly middle-age Latin American women during community education classes at Miami Dade College's InterAmerican Campus for the past two years. After hearing his student's comment, he challenged them to explore their own histories and the institution of marriage by creating self-portraits in the form of a wedding dress, rather than through painting.

"Some were immediately enthusiastic about the project," Bauta explains. "Others seemed a bit intimidated about working with new materials and started painting wedding gowns at first."

After a year of tinkering with the concept, the fledging artists -- who call themselves W-10 -- recently were rewarded with an exhibit at Contemporanea Fine Arts during Little Havana's monthly Viernes Culturales event.

One freaky health seminar
One freaky health seminar

Details

Contemporanea Fine Arts, 1555 SW 8th St, Miami; 305-642-3080. 801 Projects, 801 SW 3rd Ave, Miami; 786-399-7375, www.myspace.com/801projects, www.camposition.org. Open studios, through July 3, by appointment.

Visitors to this new space are not going to encounter the ubiquitous paintings of fighting cocks or nostalgic landscapes of Cuba typical of many of the area's galleries, according to owner Lily Martin.

"You won't find any of that stuff here. We are more of an alternative space with a focus on edgier work, and we want to show contemporary artists, stage performances, and organize themed events. I also believe it's important to support serious student projects like this," the high-energy Martin gushed while preparing for the opening of the funky bridal show.

Once upon a Time, gynecologist Maria Castillo's wedding gown, was draped on a mannequin torso and featured a stretch pearl-covered bodice and ruffled skirt painted in swaths of pastels collaged over with pictures of her wedding in Nicaragua decades ago.

Brazilian Cristina Beltrami, who met and married her husband while vacationing in Cuba, exhibited the actual sundress she wore during her nuptials; on the shimmering white garment, she painted herself sunbathing at Varadero. Her piece, My Cathedral, was emblazoned with colorful circular patches, several depicting portraits of her two children.

One of the funnier works was Esther Mendoza's installation Never Again, which included a handful of wedding gown studies she painted to psych herself up for the project. The Colombian artist, who is on the verge of retiring as a financial aid counselor at Miami Dade College, stuffed a wedding dress into a garbage can along with an empty champagne bottle, a rotting floral bouquet, shoes, a thong, and a garter, and crowned her opus with a photo of the ex-hubby replete with devil horns drawn on his noggin.

Across from it, Aleida Foristieri's Baile de Ilusiones showed some sculptural flair as well. The Santo Domingo woman's crafty confection featured a crystal-trimmed bustier, flowing ecru lace veil, and a full chicken-wire-and-Christmas-light hoop skirt, its cagelike nature somewhat evocative of a trap.

Roots, Elcira Chomat's nod to her Cuban heritage, incorporated coconut palm husks and burlap fabric into what was one of the most original pieces on display. The elegant gown, boasting a strapless bodice and a semicathedral train, appeared ripe for a catwalk spin in a haute couture bridal show.

The youngest of Bauta's students, Diani Safdeye and Aurora Molina, the first a Jewish Colombian, the second a Catholic Cuban -- and both barely in their twenties -- were the spirited dynamos sparking the show.

Bauta says the two dragged a sewing machine into class as soon as the idea for the wedding gown self-portraits was hatched and were a source of inspiration for classmates double and triple their age.

"They immediately began incorporating a sculptural sensibility in their work, inspiring the others to loosen up their approach and follow suit," the instructor says.

Never having tied the knot themselves, the young artists created A Dress's History, a stunning show-stealer fashioned out of flesh-tone latex and quilt batting and embroidered throughout with multiple portraits of the women in their families and reflections on their marriages.

With its raw concrete floors, uncluttered walls, and neatly displayed work, the Contemporanea space seems way off the reservation compared to the dozen other galleries peppering the two-block strip.

"Contemporanea has taken on a double challenge with this show," Bauta intones. "First of all, Lily Martin is showing work that is closer to concept rather than the traditional exhibits common on Calle Ocho. More importantly, she has given an opportunity to a group of unrecognized artists who are at the very beginning of their careers."

Observing the crush of people bursting Contemporanea's seams during the opening of "I Do, I Do," it appeared like a match made in heaven for those desperately seeking fresh blood in the hood.

The following Saturday night, on the far eastern fringe of Little Havana, 801 Projects organized an open studio bash featuring one of performance artist Octavio Campos's Subversive Cabaret works.

Nestled next to the I-95 overpass on SW Eighth Street, 801 Projects houses nearly a dozen studios and the Camposition Lab Space, through which nine resident artists and nearly seventy visiting artists have engaged in exhibits, performances, and workshops over the past year, Campos says.

While visiting the building's second-floor studios, I was amazed by how large a crowd the event had attracted during Memorial Day weekend.

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