By Hans Morgenstern
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Harold Golen felt like a prizefighter dropped by a dirty shot to the kidney when he arrived at his eponymous Wynwood gallery the morning of December 11 and found it ablaze. The fire gutted the place and destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of artworks, collectibles, and furniture.
"I was dazed," laments Golen. "There were four fire trucks outside, and black smoke was pouring out of the building. I couldn't accept it and still don't believe it."
Indeed he won't surrender. Golen plans to open a show this Saturday in a temporarily leased warehouse just a few blocks from the charred ruins of his building at NW 29th Street and Sixth Avenue. He also intends to rebuild his gallery in the next six months.
"It's incredible he's opened a new space in such a short period," notes Skot Olsen, one of several artists whose work was destroyed in the inferno. "I got drunk when he told me, but Harold was back in the saddle the next day. It's a tribute to his can-do spirit and it has rubbed off on many of the artists he works with."
As the 44-year-old Golen speaks, it's obvious his DNA bristles with a scrapper's genes. His parents came to Miami from Poland after World War II, having languished in European refugee camps for nearly five years. They stayed with his father's great-aunt, Celia Goldstein, a Miami pioneer who arrived at the turn of the century and later operated a fish market that supplied Joe's Stone Crab. His paternal grandmother, Jenny Golenbioski, kept a diary in Yiddish documenting wartime struggles that was translated and published as a book, Search for Survival, after she died.
"My family later moved to Little Havana, and that's where I grew up during the early Cuban influx," the dealer recalls. "My grandfather lived in the same building until he was 101, and learned Spanish to communicate with his neighbors," Golen smiles. "I'm a Miami boy through and through and couldn't think of closing down or moving anywhere else."
Local performance artist Jasmine Kastel calls Golen a "hard worker" and isn't surprised that her friend responded to the fire with a defiant show of spine. He persuaded her to crash the Basel Vernissage — the chichi invitation-only opening reception — with butterfly nets to snag some Baselites and take them over to his space.
"He hired me to promote his gallery, and I wore my cyber-coil costume and passed out invites to his show," Kastel says. "I couldn't believe that just several days later, his gallery burned to the ground. What doesn't surprise me is that he's back doing what he does.... He's a successful businessman and passionate about everything he does."
Golen, who specializes in Lowbrow and Pop Surrealist works, opened his gallery this past September, galvanizing South Florida's Lowbrow scene. It is the only gallery strictly catering to all things Lowbrow in town. "It quickly generated a lot of buzz and was definitely one of the nicest galleries of its type on the East Coast," Olsen observes.
A former architect, Golen filled his gallery with vintage modern furniture and spacey lighting fixtures, creating a funky retro-futuristic vibe that stood apart from the stale white cubes typical of neighboring galleries. "I wanted to make it more of an experience for visitors and to reflect more of the Lowbrow lifestyle," Golen says. "It's not just about buying a painting and putting it on your wall. I want to emphasize how music, art, clothing, and furniture are all part of this scene. My goal has always been about taking Lowbrow to the next level."
For his Basel show that opened December 7, Golen organized "Subjective Reality," a Neo-Psychedelic group show anchored by a large suite of Olsen's recent paintings depicting religious icons and the use of hallucinogenic plants throughout Latin America. It was all filtered through the lens of Catholicism. For Olsen, the 11 paintings marked a departure from earlier work. Golen says there were more than 20 artists participating in the exhibit: Tim Biskup, Ron English, Niagra, Mars One, and Olsen were among those who had artwork damaged or destroyed.
When the fire started around 3:30 a.m., Golen was at home, where his alarm company contacted him. The blaze was roiling as firefighters arrived. They tried to contain the flames, but the roof began to collapse, forcing them outside.
Later that day, City of Miami Fire Department officials attributed an advertising balloon rubbing against electrical wires as the cause of the fire. But they were wrong. Insurance investigators have since determined it was set when an FPL meter box shot off sparks and ignited termite-damaged wood.
Much of Golen's personal art collection, stored at the gallery, was scorched or lost along with vintage furniture and other collectibles that can't be replaced. Although he is devastated that artists' work was lost, he is humbled that many have been quick to respond with support.
Olsen, for one, says he was stunned when his phone rang at 4:30 a.m. and Golen told him two years of his work had gone up in flames. "The fire ruined 21 of my paintings, 11 of which were on exhibit at the time and 10 in the storage room which were burnt to ash. It was a major setback." He adds that the collection was worth $165,000. "After the shock wore off, I began to think about those people who lost their homes in the Malibu fires and everyone left suffering after Hurricane Katrina. What's been difficult to deal with is that I never had the chance to photograph some of these works, and that's hard."
The staggering blow might have buckled the fainthearted, but Golen was determined to not pull the plug on the lineup of artists scheduled for this Saturday's "Live! Nude! $6 T-bones!" show. It will feature works by Mitch O'Connell, Kirsten Easthope, Derek Yaniger, and Ewik (Eric Rider).
O'Connell's work has been featured in Newsweek, and his tattoo designs are a fixture on the walls of tattoo parlors worldwide. Easthope is known for glam pin-up paintings on vintage bowling pins, and her sultry femme fatales have graced everything from custom Fender guitars to Rocketbuster cowboy boots. Yaniger's hillbilly chic regularly pops up anywhere from Marvel Comics to the Cartoon Network, and Ewik has showcased his pieces through genre shows like Glamourcon, VAMP, and Comic Con.
Golen will organize a fundraiser in February at his temporary locale and might even exhibit some of the seared remains of the paintings if insurers permit him. "This has all been very last-minute. I'm still figuring out how to organize a benefit for the artists using the pieces that can't be restored," he says.
For the event, Olsen hopes to exhibit a painting he finished in 2006 that was unscathed. Hurricane Season: Saint Genevieve Brings Relief depicts the sixth-century ascetic French nun in a cherry picker, raining blessings over storm-ravaged modern homes. "She's the patron saint of disasters," Olsen laughs.
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