There is no doubt about it: Little Havana is bubbling over. The 6street visual arts collective phenomenon seems to have spread. Even a cautious observer would have been impressed by what happened on Friday, May 26, when about seven blocks of SW Eighth Street -- between Twelfth and Nineteenth avenues -- opened up and let their contents flow as part of Viernes Culturales, a last-Friday-of-each-month 'hood walk. Part of this effort to build an art scene on renovated Calle Ocho is Tower Arts Center, which just opened with "Beyond the Millennium," an exhibition of paintings by Marcela Santa Maria, Pedro Damian, Aldo Amador, Raymundo Garcia, and Silvio Gayton. West of this new arts venue sits La Vena del Gusto, a little place sponsored by Tere Martinez that is showing a bunch of artists, including Nestor Diaz de Villegas, the Curras brothers, Pedro Portal, Adalberto Delgado, Laura Luna, Tony Lopez, and Gilberto Marino (in collaboration with El Pub Restaurant, a landmark fixture).
The turnout for "Beyond the Millennium" was large and lively, but the display lacked an expert eye. Paintings were too close to one another and did not mix well. After the opening festivities, plastic cups, food bits, and napkins were left next to the artwork -- a sight in poor, well, taste. Still the mixed-use space could be a creative center for Calle Ocho. Also a movie theater, the Tower shows alternative films from Miami, Latin America, and Spain -- alternative meaning things you won't see on cheap-novella-saturated Spanish TV. Not surprisingly El Florida, by generation ñ's Bill Teck, is showing.
La Vena del Gusto was more successful. White and black, young and old mixed: Too many visitors tried to view the artwork in such a tiny space, but La Vena wasn't about the art, really. It was a concept, a mood to savor. Along with the art there was dancing and singing in a pungent guaguancó-filled atmosphere, the music courtesy of a group of young black rumberos just out of Cuba. The crowd's dynamism was surprising.
"Perceptions" and "Manscape"
Broman Fine Art, "Perceptions," featuring Maria Brito, Lilian Cuenca and Carolina Sardi, runs through June 26 at Broman Fine Art, 2800 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 305-552-0008.
"Manscape" by Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte, through July 3 at Jos Alonso Fine Arts, 3072 SW 38th Ave; 305-448-0007.
It is a hot night, and drinks are scarce. In search of a beer we encounter Joaquin Pasto, a rafter from Santiago de Cuba who owns El Pescador, a tasty dive across the street from La Vena. "This is what we needed here; with art, we can conquer," he communicates in not-so-bad English. It sounds like a slogan, but tonight, in this context, it makes absolute sense. Pasto is promoting his own artsy Fridays, which include beer.
Some of the work, including a couple of absorbing dreamscapes from Carlos Franco, found its way to the street. Next to Franco is Victor Flores, a Peruvian artist showing bluish, erotic surrealist paintings, one of them lying on the ground. Artist George Gonzalez and Bill Teck are among the assembled, ecstatic at the intensity.
By 9:00 p.m. the walk is jumping. A long caravan of cars slows down. Mostly young, the drivers and passengers check out the event with curiosity, and they look baffled. This is their neighborhood, but they've never seen this much noise over art.
We pass by Susan Caraballo's Space 742, a groovy performance arena. It looks like a black box and has the potential to be a springboard for innovative local talent; artists such as Adrian Castro, Gustavo Matamoros, and Lourdes Simon already have performed here. Suddenly the rumba party moves to the street outside of La Vena. Maria Elena Garcia, from Iroko Dance Company, heads the exodus. The musicians drive the dancing, electric crowd west to Casa Panza. Soon after, a call to order: The police arrive and try to keep people on the sidewalk. "This is not a protest. Don't be afraid," an old woman tells a young officer. He returns a friendly smile.
Another gallery of sorts is uncovered at Casa Panza, a well-known local Spanish eatery, which is all the more pleasant because of its air conditioning. Owner José Lopez admits he is a novice. "I know nothing about art, but I want to help the artists and the neighborhood with a meeting place," he remarks. Tavern art, of course, has a long history; restaurants, bars, and clubs can be good vehicles to bring art to the public. Still, nurturing a creative location takes time and patience. Aside from a few drawings, the art here needs a facelift. Most paintings were derivatively sophomoric, making it clear the active AC was indeed the main attraction. "Give these people the most rancid conceptual art, and I bet they would love it," says Diaz de Villegas, in his biting commentary. "People are thirsty here," says Vivian Martell from lab6, referring not to the crowd's physical desires but its cultural ones. She knows. José Reyes's orange-color window installation, "Living a Better Life," in which Reyes lived, dressed in an orange suit, for three days, attracted the attention of the whole neighborhood to lab6. "You don't see this response in Little Havana, at least not over art," declares Gaby Meszaros, a Hungarian artist. "Perhaps they've never had a chance, beyond the once-a-year predictable carnival escape," adds Rafael Fornes, an architecture theorist.
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Regardless of the merits of some of the art, one thing is clear this evening: People are having fun -- true, spontaneous fun. There is a legitimate desire by merchants, artists, and the public to make things happen. Fornes sums it up: "This is Calle Ocho post-Elian, a promise for better things to come."
From Calle Ocho to the Gables that same Friday night, two other exhibitions rocked the town. Broman Fine Art showed Perceptions (Percepciones), curated by Manola Payares, highlighting artists Maria Brito, Lilian Cuenca and Carolina Sardi. "Perceptions" sets the tone for a contemporary line of work Manola Payares wants to bring to the Gables, with toil and patience. The work is dark, but it pays off. Lilian Cuenca works in a kind of neosymbolism, with influences from Böcklin to von Stuck. Her semiabstract images take on the spirit of the movement, not the nostalgia. The brushwork is ponderously liquid, with big washes of light and shadow. She's convincing with these decadent quasi abstractions, hinting at a paragon beyond the mundane. For some time now Maria Brito's iconography has explored the tortures of the modern soul. Her powerful installations/paintings explore a kind of surreal realism in which she invites us to confront our own beasts. Brito produces unique assemblages where traumatic memories dwell amid bizarre chambers with duct-filled furniture for human exudation. Carolina Sardi's sculptures express the negation, or rather the deferral, of solidity: She reduces volume and turns content into fluid motion. Some of the pieces evoke self-inflicted pain and muted aggressiveness. Her later work, though, has moved out from darkness to a lighter, offbeat neominimalism, where less is better.
From Gables to off-Gables, Manscape, by photographer Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte, opened at José Alonso Fine Arts. Rodriguez-Duarte naturalizes the male penis very much the way Ansel Adams eroticized nature: The gonad metamorphosizes from rocket to flower to elephant's trunk to Lilliputian. He manages to present an aesthetic, humanistic view of a difficult and overrated subject. Yet for an exhibition that proposes to portray the male landscape broadly, the show includes only the genitalia of Caucasian men. That said, José Alonso's gesture in presenting this work is still quite daring for our sometimes conceptually provincial Miami.