An originator of original exhibits: Locust Projects' 1999 show of Tatiana Garmendia
An originator of original exhibits: Locust Projects' 1999 show of Tatiana Garmendia

Conceptual Drag

The hoopla surrounding Art Basel is six months behind us now, which is why it's as good a time as any to step back and assess our current art scene. When looking at the art being done in Miami, it doesn't appear much different from what I saw three years ago -- not necessarily a good thing. We're stuck; it all seems so blasé. Of course this is a bit of a simplification, but you get the point.

How exciting, in comparison, were those days back in the spring of 2000. Box, an artist collective, was showing alternative art in a warehouse, next to the dusty tracks off Bird Road; Dorsch Gallery was atop a pharmacy, a second-floor living room Dorsch had turned into exhibition space for newcomers. On the other side of town, off the derelict Miami Avenue strip near the Design District, three young artists had transformed an old warehouse into Locust Projects. Another group, fresh from New World School of the Arts, worked in an abandoned two-story house in the heart of ghostly downtown, turning it into a cross-disciplinary space named Green Door Gallery. Finally there was the House off Biscayne Boulevard, filled with another company of young dreamers. So pervasive was the movement that even Little Havana turned contemporary with the grooves of Lab 6 and PS 742. They all deserved respect because, as opposed to galleries who show to make a profit, they would invest their scarce income in renovations and upkeeping. The principle was to show art for the love of it.

The art wasn't always good, but the art didn't matter that much -- one has to agree with Robert Hughes that "the new tests itself in the fault." History being made was more important than the details. And later the art got better.

Miami, formerly a torpid place, was transforming itself from the inside out. By the spring of 2001 the art scene had literally exploded -- due not only to the actual art but also to a change in the urban landscape. In fact artists are generally comfortable creatures involved in their own creations. They bitch, but are often unwilling to change places. Instead more than a few languish, or leave for the big city to come back years later. "Perhaps history would revise itself and take me as a footnote" were the last words of an émigré in the artsy Paris of the 1920s, a complacent attitude built by the "profession" of art and conditioned by schools and the market. What is difficult is to build a different space to show the art and attract attention, which involves a kind of training -- or mentality -- that you don't get in school.

I don't see those artists in 2000 as art entrepreneurs (as they were sometimes presented), but as idealistic with a weird connection to Miami. They loved this city and hated its soapy idleness. Although money came at a snail's pace, they had nothing to lose. This group understood that building a space meant building an audience. Applying this do-it-yourself approach with abandon and flexibility, they quietly moved on.

Others resented the attention. They labeled these kids as young, immature, and not prepared for the big time. Perhaps, but isn't this a young and immature city? Who cares in New York if people from France come to the city to check out the Met? They are it, and they know it. We, on the other hand, live dependent on other people's attention -- our "small city malaise" syndrome.

I dislike those who sing of Miami's art virtues without pondering that all this could be essentially short-lived. We are still a study in contrasts, and after Basel, a poor city turned neat destination to get a tan, buy cheap upcoming art, and have a martini to the sound of global lounge. After a Rhythm Foundation concert at the 73rd Street Bandshell in Miami Beach that had to end at 10:30 p.m. on the dot, I worry more about local authorities bending over to real estate interests, gentrifying our city before it becomes one.

What's going on? After viewing exhibitions over the last three weeks I left, with few exceptions, unimpressed. People seemed tired. The galleries at NoMi were empty, the work much of the same. Still I felt surrounded by boosterism, as if no one wanted to contemplate a downside (or slide) to our scene. When a few weeks back Locust Projects had a well-deserved, ritzy party at a nice house overlooking the sea, I felt that a part of all the protagonists' distinctiveness was gone (never mind Cooper outside reminding me otherwise; he knew). Perhaps it started to dull the minute Basel came to town with all its money and prestige.

Some may think I'm a party pooper, or that I exaggerate. Others may retort, "That's fine as long as I get my fifteen minutes." Some artists have made it and a few are in the process. But this is not about addressing individuals, but Miami as collective, a group of people united by a hope. Yes, I'm glad we've gotten some attention, but still say we have not much respect.

Curators' lack of awareness alarms me. Can they understand the distinction between the interests of museums they serve and their duty as purveyors of aesthetic and ethical lucidity? At a recent event, thrown for an exciting future Latin American art venture in town, I had a rare opportunity to meet curators from all over. They were in Miami, planning the big opening show. Shortly I realized most of their aesthetic criteria converged in almost everything. I wonder about this unbiased consensus, especially when one takes into consideration they'll be working in a closed community run by big interests, like a big family, talking constantly to one another and rehashing the same stuff.

In fact the repetitious motifs are getting exhausting: faddish subject matter, globalization, gender and cultural identity -- all dressed up as self-deprecating post-minimalist installation or conceptual art. I have problems with curators approaching cross-disciplinary issues as though they were ideologically sampling. They want people's attention, but don't necessarily get it. At Basel I carefully watched people momentarily being diverted by high-tech videos or sound bites before they drifted off to the next art station. Many simply did not pay attention.

As a homogenized, incestuous art market targets the Design District and people party in South Beach waiting for Basel the sequel, the world for the time being keeps looking. Museums and collectors bank on it, producing celebrities who in turn bring prestige to the collections, while important local artists who deserve exposure are not given a solo show or support structure.

We are also deceived by a façade of seriousness and attention to detail, plenty of well-dressed exhibits with profusely footnoted essays and interviews between curators and Poststructuralist theorists; frankly all the words mean little. More than ever, what matters is the art. And week after week we come back and talk about the last show, defending our turf and lending credibility, but in the process we lose something. Where is the artist's pain, the anguish? Where, the curator's keen eye and candidness that fights the fad and breaks the mold? Is there a collector with enough commitment to support local talent without a nod from an eye-for-hire?

Okay, so this is a rant and maybe spending a whole column on it only proves our inferiority complex -- oops, hope I'm not falling for my own fifteen minutes of fame.


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