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Asked what would motivate a Miami-Dade County schoolteacher to open an art gallery in Wynwood, Orestes Diaz responds, "$22,000."
That's how much his artist father unexpectedly snagged during Art Basel two years ago for the first painting he ever sold.
"My dad had a painting up at Edge Zones, and a lady walked in and bought it on the spot," says Diaz, who adds that the woman returned last year to purchase two more of Tebelio Diaz's phonebook-page-on-canvas works.
"The lady was one of the owners of Hasbro toys. She's one of those rich collectors that come here every year for the art fair, and just fell in love with my dad's work. It was incredible."
Diaz, who teaches fifth grade at Fulford Elementary School in North Miami Beach, decided to give the art business a crack. He began by mounting nomadic shows around town, including one in an empty house in Westchester this past April. He also started a virtual gallery online and launched the Wynwood Art Guide in September.
"I'm not looking to get rich or make a ton of money," Diaz says. "But after a year of doing these shows, I thought now was the right time to open my own space."
He inaugurated ISM Gallery during the November 11 gallery crawl, drawing hundreds of people to the opening of "Salute," a two-man show featuring the works of Nestor Arenas and Angel Vapor. Diaz is now representing eight artists, including his father, an art teacher at Miami Dade College.
"I know this is a huge risk. It's been pretty hard on a teacher's salary. I mean, my wife has even been bitching about it. I just had my second kid and this is taking up a lot of my time."
Diaz, who calls himself a "one-man gang," designs the postcards for his shows, maintains his website, and writes and sends out his own press releases. "I spend about five days organizing my shows, do the business deals for my artists, and try to get collectors in to see their work. It's not easy, but I enjoy what I do."
Charo Oquet, founder of Edge Zones, where Diaz caught the art racket bug, says the teacher is not typical of the "pie-in-the-sky schemers" who open spaces during Basel in pursuit of a quick buck.
"He is serious about what he's trying to do, and I wish him the best," Oquet says. "But there is a learning curve involved in this business, and the competition is fierce. Wynwood is like a frontier town where everyone wants to get into the game. It's becoming a crapshoot, and it takes more than opening a space with a handful of artists to expect success."
Diaz remains undaunted and points to several European and South American artists eager to join his fledgling stable: "I have Russian, German, Venezuelan, and Brazilian artists who I'm working with, in addition to my local artists now.
For his current exhibit, Diaz is banking on Nestor Arenas, whose work combines childhood toys, architectural models, and roadkill for a scabrous effect that has begun catching local collectors' eyes. Arenas builds suitcase-size tableaux, photographs them from different angles, and then enlarges the images to create dark, chaotic scenes.
SLD-SK-08 is an eight-panel digital print depicting a blistering firefight in an apartment house between a squad of heavily armed G.I. Joes and a common garden snake. The reptile has its mouth wrapped around a toy attack dog while the soldiers pour machine gun fire into its flaccid corpse to save the snarling mutt. The piece seems as much a comment on our kill-happy culture as a satirical stab at America's fight against elusive enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One of the most chilling works is Arenas's Airplane Crash-10. The 12-panel piece seems to re-create the November 12, 2001 American Airlines Flight 587 crash into a residential area in Belle Harbor, New York, in which all 260 people aboard the plane and five people on the ground were killed.
A toy airplane plows into the dirt in Arenas's scenes before coming to rest near a tree-lined suburban street. A dead scorpion, Army tanks, wild horses, taxis, trucks, and rescue workers litter the wreckage site. A postcrash fire begins to glow like an orange smoke bomb.
A nifty counterbalance to Arenas's work are Angel Vapor's cast bronze and steel sculptures and laminated pen-on-paper drawings. Several of the sculptures, called Fragmentos, are locked and loaded with martial themes.
In a modest piece, a solitary hand emerges from a wall. From its fingers a copper-jacket assault rifle round dangles perilously from bits of fragile string. Another work, standing in the middle of the gallery floor, features a missle capped with a man's tiny head.
The drawings, which Vapor calls Laminated Documents, range from images of an East German prison matron to firefighters at disaster scenes.
In one of the works, two generals, their blouses bursting with fruit salad, sit across from one other at an empty table in a war room. They appear to be planning an incursion without any viable intelligence or logistical maps. The drawing is an indictment of our top military advisors and reflects how the president has become the nation's chief disturber of the peace.
The show also telegraphs that although Diaz might be a starry-eyed rookie in the ruthless business of art, he's far from giving the impression he has fallen off the mango truck and bumped his head. Instead he has arrived under the radar, with a damn solid eye.