Miami's Big Moment in the Arts Hits the Screen

A pair of filmmakers kicks off a series of home movies with the Wet Heat Project.

Since moving here from New York City in 1996, Bill Bilowit and Grela Orihuela have had front-row seats to the art brushfire that has engulfed this town.

"Art is the currency of Miami now," Orihuela says.

Bert Rodriguez gets paid.
Bert Rodriguez gets paid.
Hernan Bas, an elusive trade.
Hernan Bas, an elusive trade.

"It's become a global nexus where art has found a comfortable home," Bilowit pipes in. "We've noticed that at every strata, from the bottom to the top, people are enthusiastic about the development of the art scene, and that it has helped open the world's eyes to the city itself."

Bilowit is a director and writer whose credits include working on George Romero's Creepshow and B horror cult classics including C.H.U.D. and Sleepaway Camp. Orihuela produced concerts for legendary rock impresario Bill Graham and later worked as an executive producer for Telemundo.

A few years ago, they returned to their roots and started Tareco Pictures in Miami, producing music videos and indie films such as Round Trip, shot in Miami and Tokyo and featuring a cast of local artists, musicians, actors, and even a gallerist.

Their newest venture, Wet Heat, offers an insightful take on a critical moment for our city and the cultural engine driving it. "The overall concept of the project is to produce documentary content about the historically amazing Miami art scene, and the rise of this place at this moment to achieve its new identity as a global art destination," explains Bilowit.

For Wet Heat, the duo is producing a seven-part documentary series called Miami Artists Now, targeted at PBS, arts cable network broadcasts, and screenings for museums, arts organizations, and schools. They plan on screening the project during this year's Art Basel confab in December.

"For us, it was a no-brainer," Orihuela says. "Bill sees the world through a lens, and I produce. If we take a moment to reflect, in one way or another, this is what we've been doing since we were kids."

The arts confluence unfolding on their doorstep and the opportunity to chronicle living history is the Ariadne's thread that binds these films.

"Each edition is an in-depth, cinema verité, behind-the-scenes profile of a Miami-based artist at a milestone moment in their career," Bilowit states.

They just wrapped filming locals Bert Rodriguez and Hernan Bas. The hour-long documentaries are in production; excerpts can be viewed online.

The documentaries shadow the artists in their studios and at art openings and fairs, and feature interviews with dealers, collectors, critics, and high-art honchos, conveying the subject's development as well as telling the story of Miami's dramatic upswing.

"The style is more experiential than didactic. More like a Maysles brothers documentary than Ken Burns," Bilowit says.

They chose an impromptu and informal approach to filming that allows viewers to make their own connections with the artists rather than being spoon-fed the theory behind their work.

The results have been amazingly candid, Orihuela says. "For the Hernan Bas documentary, we were able to get all these people to talk about the art market and how it affects an artist during the early stages of their career."

Among those filmed for the piece are Bas's Miami, New York, and London dealers; Vanity Fair and ARTNews contributor Barbara Pollack; and artist Ross Bleckner, who experienced an equally meteoric rise early in his career. Bleckner remains the youngest artist ever to have a solo show at the Guggenheim.

"We didn't choose to interview Bleckner because he was the 'it boy' back then and Hernan might be considered so now," Bilowit says. "Bleckner didn't even speak about his past but rather chose to focus on Hernan and the social aspect of his work now — that was the beauty of it."

Bas's Miami dealer, Fredric Snitzer, reflects on the secondary market and how at auctions the artist's work often sells for up to five times more than what it goes for in his gallery shows. What drives these prices is basic economics: Demand exceeds production. Snitzer says he has close to 200 collectors on a waiting list for Bas's work.

ARTNews's Pollack, who calls Bas "the genuine article," concurs. "I hate it when people act as if the artist has done something scurrilous and that's why they have these high prices," she says in the interview. "There's no big manipulation beyond people's desire for the work."

She agrees that the high prices are due to the scarcity of Bas's work. Unlike "Jeff Koons or Murakami," who have armies of assistants churning out work from "factories," Bas does not. "The fact that he makes his own work is more and more a rarity now."

Orihuela and Bilowit decided on the 30-year-old Bas as a subject because of his impressive 10-year survey on display at the Rubell Family Collection, which opened during last year's Basel and marks a milestone in his career.

Bilowit and Orihuela themselves were early Bas supporters and bought a suite of his 2001 watercolor-on-paper works priced from $500 to $1,500 at the time, "before the Basel marching band came to town," says Bilowit.

The intimate, evocative pieces depict Boy Scouts at a campground and reflect awkward moments of male bonding and budding sexual awareness.

Since then, Bas's secondary market prices have gone stratospheric. A work roughly the same size, from 2005, commanded $32,200 at auction last month. His large canvases typically go for six figures. Bas doesn't see a dime of the fortunes dropped on his work in the secondary market these days.

"The dangers of these hedge fund managers and speculators investing in art on the secondary market is brought out in these interviews," Orihuela says. "Because it has hurt artists before, these people behind the scenes on the business end offer invaluable advice for an artist's career."

During his interview, Bas muses on the written word's power to move, and says that, as much as he loves painting, a good line in a song or a poem is what pierces him.

"It takes a lot for art to move me dramatically enough compared to a great song or damn great poem or damn great story," he reflects. "Art has a lot more to catch up with to live up to that emotional weight. And I'm always trying to live up to that standard of, like, Oh my God!" he gestures, placing a hand over his heart.

"You know? I think I've hit that maybe once or twice. It's probably one of the reasons I'm my own worst critic, 'cause I'm holding myself to that standard — not to art standards, but, like, slay you standards," he reveals.

Bilowit and Orihuela chose Bert Rodriguez as a subject because he was included in the Whitney Biennial this past March.

Rodriguez's installation at the Whitney was called In the Beginning and featured a large white minimalist cube containing two leather arm chairs facing each other, a small coffee table, and some potted plants.

"It was kind of a mini version of Dr. Melfi's office in The Sopranos," Bilowit cracks.

Before heading to the Whitney, Bilowit followed Rodriguez to Los Angeles for the January ArtLA Fair. There the 32-year-old artist filled half of Fredric Snitzer's booth with what he calls a "clearance sale," in which he hawked hundreds of works spanning all the way back to grade school.

"Some of the stuff he was selling out there looked like something his mother might have tacked on a refrigerator with a magnet," Bilowit laughs. "But that's Bert. I asked him why he was selling stuff for 10 bucks and he said, 'because it's funny.'"

Rodriguez says that while he was purging himself of his old work, Snitzer was selling newer work in the $15,000 range.

"I took boxes and boxes of shit, sort of like a New Year's resolution to flush it out into the functioning art market, risking that it could potentially damage my career 10 years down the line," Rodriguez observes.

"But people who knew I would be in the Whitney in a couple of months snapped it up knowing it would be worth 10 times what they paid walking out the door. Besides, that's what you're supposed to do at an art fair — hawk shit," he snorts.

At the Whitney, Rodriguez offered "therapy" to more than 100 clients for the duration of the event, conducting up to six sessions a day. "At first, people were vague, knowing that they were part of an art project," he informs. "But after 15 minutes, some started opening up, even crying, and I had to keep my ass in check. I told myself that I couldn't break down and cry with them. I'm still trying to sort it all out," the artist sighs.

The Rodriguez documentary includes interviews with ArtForum contributing editor and author Steven Henry Madoff, clinical psychiatrist Dr. Scott McAfee, Rodriguez's high school and college instructors, and conceptual pioneer Vito Acconci.

It also includes exit interviews with selected "patients" and a talk with New York Times metro desk reporter Susan Dominus, who wrote a March 7 piece saying Rodriguez had burrowed into the Big Apple's psyche.

Rodriguez explains he is humbled, in an aw-shucks, refreshingly unpretentious way. "Holy shit — Vito Acconci has been an inspiration of mine since I started making stuff. It's a little bit embarrassing and humbling," he adds.

"That dude from ArtForum called my work 'benevolent and generous in a social way.' I had no idea. That guy's no idiot and has been around. The fact that he would pay attention to this fucking little Cuban retard from Miami will definitely keep me going."

Rodriguez says it's important for him to represent his hometown. "I'm honored to be making art here at this moment rather than gallivanting around. It's obvious Miami has become a viable place for an artist to make a name for themselves in the art world if you stick to your guns and don't fuck up."

One of the behind-the-scenes highlights that Orihuela and Bilowit cherish is their interview with Dominus in a conference room at the New York Times.

"She nailed Bert's piece, and she's not even an art critic," mentions Bilowit. "Here's this metro beat reporter who says she can give us a few minutes of her time because the paper's staff was working on a breaking story."

In the middle of the interview, Dominus had to dash out to cover the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal for the paper's online edition.

"Spitzer would have definitely benefited from a therapy session with Bert," quips Bilowit.

"You have no idea how many people joked about that with me while I was in New York," Rodriguez groans.

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