Little Havana Heights

Flourishing among kitsch, a couple of gems off Calle Ocho

The halls and studios were choked like cholesterol-clogged arteries as the public wended its way through the warren of spaces, in which artists were holding forth about their work. The vibe was more like a gathering of friends than a hit-and-run gallery crawl.

Spectators engaged artists in conversations about works in progress while lounging on couches and chairs, drinking wine, and smoking cigars.

In Pedro Portal's studio, the El Nuevo Herald lensman pulled out a series of photographs he has been working on for an upcoming show in Spain, "Historias de Barcelona," inspired by Juan Abreu's book Diosas.

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.

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As he arranged the erotic series of eye-popping digital prints on the floor, Portal explained he had taken the provocative shots while staying with Abreu in Barcelona this past spring. "It's a much more open society over there," Portal said.

One of the works depicted a closeup of a bound woman whose vulva was covered by worms. Another picture showed a blindfolded brunet. And in yet another, a woman curled around her own knees, a lit candle glowing from inside her labia.

A striking closeup of a woman's splayed legs and vagina revealed disembodied hands bracketing a dinner plate on which a cockroach laid.

While shuffling about, Portal patiently discussed his work and the conceptual process behind it while visitors kneeled, transfixed, around the images.

Across from his space the aromatic scent of a puro wafted out of Nereida Garca-Ferraz's neatly organized workspace.

The artist graciously offered a stogy and a glass of French wine from her personal stash while hosting the dime tour and entertaining visitors with tales of her recent month-long Paris sojourn.

A tantalizing series of drawings on newspapers, based on Cuban patriot Jos' Mart, was pinned like moths to a wall over her desk. Explaining her process, she mentioned that she blacks out the newsprint with spray paint, creating a chalkboard effect, before loosely rendering her images with white and red pastel sticks.

A large graphite-on-paper painting, La Leccin, depicted a young Muslim boy engrossed in the Koran; an image of a hand grenade covered a page of the sacred text.

At one point, several tattooed graffiti rats elbowed their way through a group of middle-age artists in town from West Palm Beach to talk shop with Sergio Garcia in his studio.

One of the scruffy youngbloods, who goes by the moniker AholSniffsGlue and had styled himself in black socks with ratty flip-flops, chatted Garcia up about the graybeard artist's punk aesthetic.

Garcia became animated while talking about Lord-Man, a large painting in progress soaked in acid yellows and pinks, depicting several spectral figures, one of them holding a dagger over his heart and sporting a fiery broken wing.

Next door Ben Weinberg, who gave up lawyering for the canvas and brush, his first love, juked me out of my shoes with a whopping hyperrealist painting of his infant son surrounded by stuffed toys in his crib. At first glance, Baby's Dream appeared to be a blown-up photograph because of its impossibly crisp details. Even upon closer inspection, I had to focus my gun sights with laser precision to detect traces of Weinberg's hand.

Angela Vallela, one of the founding members of 801 Projects and also a founder of Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH), who retired recently after fifteen years of teaching at the school, nearly had to whip out a fly swatter to clear out hangers-on and make way for those clamoring for a peek inside her packed space.

After squeezing into her bustling studio, all I could manage was a fleeting glimpse of some of her exquisite oil-and-graphite-on-Mylar works, including Disciplinary Action, a frenetic vision of a soaring skyscraper festooned with red flags and surrounded by the exoskeletal silhouettes of boom cranes not unlike the view outside her window.

The highlight of the evening was Campos's Subversive Cabaret IV- Fashionable Diseases, in which Dr. Alexis Powell and pharmaceutical rep Richard Standifer joined the choreographer and collaborators Natasha Tsakos and Heather Maloney in concocting an intoxicating brew of diseases, drugs, fashion, science, dance, and theater inside a glass-enclosed, candle-lit caf' setting.

This series of performance labs, fluidly involving audience participation, serves as source material for Campos's new work The Bug Chasers, premiering at the Carnival Center this coming fall.

The work's title takes its name from gay men who compulsively try to become HIV positive in what Campos calls an "eroticized game of viral Russian roulette."

Upon entering the space, audience members were greeted by people wearing lab coats and asked to pull a folded paper from a bag for a raffle that would conclude the show.

As doctors discussed a series of "fashionable diseases" and cited statistics, the performers strutted their stuff in front of a video projection: Maloney in the corner, squeezing her skull into a purple porcupine-shape shower cap; Campos cocooning himself in a see-through plastic bag behind a pane of glass; and Tsakos using a wet-vac hose to suck the air out of his shorts.

The mentions of female desire disorder and smooth vaginal muscle tone drew titters from the crowd as Tsakos heatedly fanned herself and chugged water from a bottle while squirming atop a microwave popping corn.

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