Imagine Dubya slamming shots of Wild Turkey and playing war games on his Crawford, Texas ranch, and you begin to get a picture of Nestor Arenas's bone-crunching work.
The artist uses road kill, action figures, and toy soldiers to cook up photographs depicting a world where violence is the supreme authority and naked force is counted on to save the day.
The photos are on exhibit in "Delivered," a group show curated by Orestes Diaz of the nomadic ISM Gallery and on view at the Fire Haus Project, an alternative space that opened this past December in an old house in West Miami-Dade County.
The exhibition also includes work by Serge Lis, Ahmed Gomez, and Gerry Stecca, but it is Arenas who steals the thunder in a cunning, cheesy action film kind of way.
The Cuban-born artist constructs complex scenes out of a combination of miniature models, dead animals, creepy crawlies, and insects arranged in brutal fire fights that deliver a scathing indictment on the Iraq War.
SLD-4, a four-panel digital print isolated in a closet in a back room, depicts a pancaked raccoon surrounded by a platoon of toy soldiers firing bazookas while teeth and guts ooze out of the animal's mouth.
Arenas says he gets up at the crack of dawn and carries a box of toy figures with him while combing the Tamiami Trail near the Everglades to create the shot-on-site tableaux seen in many of his photographs.
He has to work fast to avoid getting clipped by oncoming traffic generally it's still dark. Arenas says that if he doesn't hit the killing grounds early he risks "other predators making a meal" of his protagonists, or park rangers squirreling him away.
Arenas has used frogs, turtles, gators, ducks, birds, and fish in his work. He's been forced to stop shooting by park officials and warned that "photographing dead animals is illegal," he laughs.
To avoid getting pinched, the artist has started bringing back trophy carcasses to his studio, allowing him to create even more elaborate scenes in which he incorporates architectural maquettes as in the stunning SLD-SK-9. In the nine-panel digital print on canvas work, a group of commandos is seen storming a house where a coiled serpent clamps its maw on the unit's dog as carnage unfolds.
"Snakes are the easiest to find because they crawl out onto the road to sun themselves, and get run over by cars," Arenas says.
Other postcard-size images are more playful, depicting a giant grasshopper wreaking havoc in a crowded park, or a Mickey Mouse-eared tyke astride a squirrel. But these lack the visceral impact of Arenas's fun-ass militaristic scenes which, in combining innocent childhood toys with nature as the enemy, darkly suggest a picture of a doddering prez wrapping himself up in Old Glory and urging Congress to sign off on killing anything with more than two legs.
In another room, Venezuelan artist Gerry Stecca's sculptural installations hint at emotional violence through the bittersweet tangle of failed love.
In his Memories of Past Lovers series, he cocoons traces of former flames in tiny death shrouds, lashing them upside down to iron gates or hanging them from chains.
All the Lovers I Hate is comprised of small doll-size clay figurines wrapped in white cloth, then suffocated with string. The handful of figures is suspended from the ceiling by lengths of chain and looks somewhat like a butcher's shop sausage display.
In With Memories of Past Lovers II the artist uses the metal entrails of a foldout bed, to which he ties dozens of the shrouded talismanic figurines, suggesting unused tampons festooning the armature's springs.
Nearby, in a closet, Gates to Memories of Past Lovers is like a dreary attic stuffed with discarded, moldering toys. The artist has tied his voodoolike amulets to a rusting iron gate as if bunches of flowers rotting over a grave.
There is a raw, makeshift quality to Stecca's work that sparks interest in what their secrets might hold. Yet rather than committing to the cause of anger and woe he's strip-mining for impact, here he frets about why love sucks in a way that's repetitive and leaves little space for maneuvering. It rings hollow instead.
Serge Lis's hand-colored digital prints from his Theatre of Fantasy series, in which the Russian artist writes scripts and then poses models in erotically charged scenes, are given pride of place at the entrance of the space.
Wind of Change depicts three comely vixens clad only in lingerie and standing on what appears to be a bridge in downtown St. Petersburg. The women assume heroic poses, poking fun at Socialist Realism and state-sanctioned control of what was deemed by the Soviets as "decadent" art. The girl on the left is caught pulling her skirt over her head, the one on the far right appears to be wearing a chef's hat, and the one in the middle casts a sinister glance at the spectator through the slits of a black hood.
In Pleasure, a girl scout crowned with a fur hat dangles a stem of grapes near her gob as the Soviet flag is hung behind her to dry on a rickety clothesline.
On an adjacent wall, Ahmed Gomez's The Red Menace fuses the golden age of pin-up posters with shades of Russian propaganda at the intersection of figuration and abstraction, where the paint barely floats on the canvases' surfaces.
Another eye-catching oil on canvas work is his Moscow No Longer Believes in Tears, in which a loosely modeled dame sits cross-legged in the center of the composition while the word Moscow is scrawled in Cyrillic lettering to the lower left.
Just as compelling a reason to make the trip to Westchester is video artist Natalia Benedetti's "You've got to trust space," part of Dr. Arturo Mosquera's Art @ Work project, in which the orthodontist showcases the work of local artists at his office in West Miami-Dade.
Near the office entrance, check out Perfume, a video piece in which a veil of mist detonates over what appears to be the bottom of a copper pot. As the fountain catches the light like a Fourth of July sparkler, the sweet scent of lavender from an atomizer freshens the air.
In Everything in Between, colorful grains of rice appear to magically fall from the sky atop a metal surface filling the screen and ricocheting off as they produce the sound of a tinny drum. The green, yellow, blue, and pink candylike bits fly about the screen like salmon swimming upstream until a hand appears to clear the mound in a clean sweep.
On a small DVD monitor tucked in the far lobby corner, The Sun and the Moon captures incandescent drops of water as they accumulate on a pane of glass. The light illuminating the rising steam from behind gives the impression of a canopy of stars under the night sky. Next to the monitor, the artist has drawn a pair of disembodied hands with graphite right onto the wall, which appears to hover in space in a prayerful pose.
For anyone who still believe that the further west one drives, the more of a cultural wasteland Miami becomes, these two offerings may convince you to shift gears.
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