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During the day, Boris Lopez works for a company that flushes out radiators. But when the sun sets, the self-taught artist trolls neighborhood strip joints for inspiration.
"He has a foot fetish and uses the dancers as models for his paintings," says Steve Meeks, owner of the Miami Center for the Photographic Arts. "Boris says he can often judge a person just by looking at their feet."
Lopez's luminous paintings of saintly virgins wearing flip-flops and ruby-red toenails are on display as part of the "21st Annual NAEMI Art Exhibition" at Meeks' Little Havana gallery.
Organized by Juan Martin, executive director of the National Art Exhibitions by the Mentally Ill, the eye-opening show consists of 50 works by 17 artists with mental illness from the United States, England, Spain, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
NAEMI is an international organization dedicated to discovering, promoting, and exhibiting work by artists with mental illness. "We are also trying to educate the community on outsider art, help eradicate prejudice against mental illnesses, and reaffirm the creative capacity of mentally ill patients," Martin says.
The mostly mixed-media works on display sell for $200 to $400. All proceeds go directly to the primarily self-taught artists. Some of them use the money to buy art materials, but in many cases, the money goes for food and clothing, Martin says.
Lopez, who battles depression, sold four of his paintings to a Pennsylvania collector on opening night, each for $1,200. He has painted mystical figures brandishing AK-47s or wearing sumptuous see-through frocks over bras and panties and continues to evolve his richly ornate style.
In La Virgen Cubana, the patron saint of Havana is cloaked in a lavish blue and gold gown flecked with what appears to be sparkling gems. Lopez has densely clotted the background with undulating swirls and amoeba-like shapes that seem to vibrate and are reminiscent of Australian aboriginal paintings. As the virgin cradles a red-clad Christ child figure in her arms, two black, bat-winged angels sporting mango-hued dancer's unitards joyously flit about her head.
Texas-based Roger Sadler, another featured artist, has shifted from working with photography to creating arresting mixed-media sculptures using found objects.
In Quan Yin, he pays tribute to the Buddhist deity associated with compassion, employing a toy cash register, a soldier, and the decapitated head of a porcelain statue of the Buddhist goddess. The piece is designed to be a commentary on rampant capitalism and war.
Sadler also turns the head with a piece titled Outrigger in which he has cobbled together costume jewelry, canceled postage stamps, an empty candy tin, a wooden box, stone animal figurines, and a petrified sea horse to create a whimsical 3-D wall collage.
Billy Malone, another Texas-based talent, pokes fun at the contemporary art world with his marker and pencil drawings on paper. Santa Clause depicts a muddy, child-like rainbow at the upper left corner of his composition while the words modern art are printed across from it. As an insect-shaped face buzzes at the center of his drawing, a pair of disembodied legs bristling with caterpillar-like appendages dance a sprightly jig below it.
"Billy Malone is one of the most authentic individuals we work with," says Martin. "He often sends us these incredible drawings on torn or dirty paper without regard to form or format and is very secure in what he's creating."
One of the most haunting images on display is Mario Mesa's untitled painting depicting a green-eyed female Cyclops dripping blood from her maw and clutching an extracted molar in her talons. Mesa, who suffers from schizophrenia, has sandwiched his unsightly vision between glowing Christmas trees.
Equally discomfiting is Fred Soler's acrylic on board Ghost in the Machine, which depicts another one-eyed creature with a purple noggin floating against a tarry, squid ink void. This marks the first time the Miami Beach artist has exhibited with NAEMI.
One artist whose visions hew to the fanciful is Carlos Abela. Abela's painting Regando Magia ("Spreading Magic") features a creature whose lower extremities are fashioned from an open umbrella. The winged, fairy-like figure appears holding a water can and irrigating a field of sprouting flowers.
Martin reports that during his recent trip to Asuncion, Paraguay, a neighborhood center for budding outsider artists called "Unidos en el Arte" was inaugurated due to NAEMI's efforts in the region.
"Professional artists and dancers volunteered their time to assist people at the margins in developing their talents," Martin says. "Next we will be organizing a show of local and international Hispanic artists to take on tour to Latin America and Spain."
At the MCPA Gallery, NAEMI's commitment to promoting unique work rarely seen in a commercial gallery peels back the veil on less visible talent and places it front and center in an evocative and unforgettable fashion.