Franky Cruz's art career nearly derailed three years ago when he let a local tattoo and piercing artist known as Pinhead hang him from the ceiling of his studio.
It was 2010, and Cruz had invited Pinhead to his space inside New World School of the Arts' Art Seen building in Wynwood to do some extreme body modification. First, Pinhead used two stainless-steel rods the size of roofing nails to skewer the fleshy part of Cruz's back behind his shoulder blades. Next, he attached the rods to heavy custom-made forceps that look like boat tackle hooked to wire. Finally, Pinhead and several assistants hoisted the young artist high into the rafters, where he appeared to float above a small crowd of onlookers.
In the piercing community, this type of suspension is called a "suicide" because of the similarity of someone dangling from a noose — not to mention the risk of serious injury. But after a few minutes of flying heavenward while listening to music on his headphones, Cruz, bare-chested and sporting an owl tattoo on his upper torso, gazed down with a look of sheer ecstasy instead of unbearable agony.
Franky Cruz's "The World Is Yours" at Spinello Projects
"The World Is Yours" Through August 10 at Spinello Projects, 786-271-4223, spinelloprojects.com.
"For me, it was more about a spiritual search," Cruz says of the experience, which he captured on video. "It's based on a Native American initiation ritual called the o-kee-pa ceremony, or rite of passage, where you seek an out-of-body experience."
The stunt didn't hurt him physically — but when images of Cruz's suspension found their way online, New World administrators were mortified. They quickly suspended Cruz's studio privileges.
"I think Franky is very talented and always interested in exploring new ideas in his artwork, which keeps it fresh and growing," says Maggy Cuesta, New World's dean of students. "But we are part of Miami Dade College and have rules and regulations... It killed me to ask Franky to leave his studio, but we could have been shut down."
Luckily for Miami, the brouhaha was only a detour for the young artist, whose solo debut, "The World Is Yours," is now on view in the freshly minted Project Space at Spinello Projects.
In the show, Cruz references many of his past experiences, including the quest for a mystical awakening that got him booted off the New World reservation in the first place. The works show how Cruz has evolved into a multidisciplinary talent whose concentration branches across science, the metaphysical, art history, and pop culture.
Born in Santo Domingo and raised in Hialeah, Cruz was drawn to art at a very young age, says his father, Francisco Cruz. "He would draw everywhere since he was about 6 years old," recalls the elder Cruz, a seventh-degree black belt who teaches martial arts. "He would even take paper and crayons into the bathroom with him when he needed to use the toilet."
The artist's father also credits his son's talent with helping save his life. The senior Cruz had spiraled into a deep depression after his divorce from Franky's mother.
"It was a really dark period for me, and I began struggling with alcoholism," the elder Cruz says. "I came home one day, and Franky had hung a painting he made of a fat, derelict fighter draped across the corner of a boxing ring on a wall in our living room. The man looked beaten down and had an IV made out of a beer can dripping alcohol into his forearm. That painting shook me to my roots and made me give up drinking."
After graduating from Barbara Goleman High School in Miami Lakes, Cruz went on to New World. Though his suspension over the Pinhead performance was a bump in his schooling career, he says being barred from his studio actually unshackled his creativity.
"It was a positive thing for me. I was flying on endorphins for three days after my suspension, so when the dean called me in to tell me, I just smiled at her," Cruz says.
Cruz, who trained as a painter at New World, remained unfazed even though he was preparing for his BFA senior show prior to graduation. He had been creating large-scale self-portraits, one of which depicts his body disintegrating and transforming into an abstract, hallucinogenic field of energy. In another, his nude body quivers as a mess of translucent viscera oozes from his abdomen.
"I went to a Hialeah matadero to buy the guts in the painting. The other canvas is named for a fungus that invades the brains of insects and turns them into zombies before blooming as mushrooms from their dead bodies," Cruz says. "I have always been interested in how the things that man builds inevitably crumble and become corroded by nature."
Those early paintings impressed local art dealer Anthony Spinello, who offered Cruz a workplace in his gallery storage room so he could complete the works for his senior show. (He eventually graduated with honors.) Spinello also exhibited one of the young talent's canvases at the Scope Art Fair during Art Basel in Switzerland.
Today, the 28-year-old Cruz has moved far beyond his painting roots to create distinctly conceptual works.
His solo debut features objects found in Hialeah and Little Havana trash bins, including an iconic Tony Montana poster from which Cruz's exhibit takes its name. There's also a dilapidated red vinyl armchair and several large plasma TV screens featuring video coupled with music from the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
Cruz's videos directly reference his Pinhead piercing escapade. Filmed in his Hialeah kitchen using a camera placed atop a turntable, they suggest the view one might see if spinning while suspended by a wire. Another short film is screened on a large monitor that dangles overhead, re-creating the idea of Cruz soaring from the rafters. A hoodie obfuscates his face as he bobs in and out of the camera shot under his studio's yellowing popcorn ceiling.
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Not unlike the Icarus legend — an idea echoed in real life by his New World suspension — the Tony Montana reference alludes to hubris. The broken furniture and plants bursting through the gallery concrete are commentary on nature reclaiming what man builds.
Many of the concepts were the subject of meditation for Cruz on a recent visit with Emmanuel Fernandez, an artist and friend with whom he spent a month creating a dwelling in a Belize jungle.
"We spent time hand-building my house without electrical tools and visiting the Mayan pyramids in Lamanai... to talk about art that's out-of-the-box and exploring one's full potential," Fernandez says. "I'm really proud of Franky and the way he's evolving as an artist."
Overall, the hermetic exhibit marks a departure for a young artist who was trained as a painter but has moved on to employ diverse media and experiment with decidedly cerebral work.