Demi's "Family Portrait No. 3," from a series dedicated to her own family
Demi's "Family Portrait No. 3," from a series dedicated to her own family

Into the Picture

Little has been said about the ubiquitous effect of irony in much of today's art. Irony allows detachment, a trend that may have started with Dada, the first anarchic movement in modern art history. After a catastrophic first world war, Dadaists had good reasons to resent absolutes. When Genezyp Kapen, that between-wars dandy in Stanislaw Witkiewicz's darkly utopian novel Insatiability, warned, "Say whatever you may, but always keep a distance," he summarized the new era neatly.

We suspect much of what we see, not because we truly seek to but because our time encourages a self-indulgent conceptual asceticism. Enjoying something also includes sarcasm; but we end up confusing the critique of taste with the taste of the critique, and end up neither critiquing nor tasting. It has become advisable, almost a rule in art, to distance oneself from whatever we may purport. Irony lets us hide a bit.

In this context Demi's "Family Portraits" at Cernuda Arte could be seen on a different, and stimulating, level. The idea put across is disarmingly simple: What you see is what you get. Eleven paintings resembling a photo album show numerous perspectives of the same family: Mom, Dad, and three daughters. Dressed in their best attire, they invite us to share a moment that has passed. Enveloped in these unpretentious yet nicely furnished interiors filled with rural paintings, the devoted group faintly smiles. Looking at us and holding hands, they manage to communicate an almost timeless intimacy.


"Family Portrait"

Cernuda Arte, 3155 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables

By Demi, through March 24 at 305-461-1050

“Tridimensional” by Arturo Rodriguez, through March 30 at Elite Fine Arts, 3140 Ponce de Leon Blvd; Coral Gables; 305-448-3800

“New Paintings” by Peter Halley, through February 23 at Kevin Bruk Gallery, 3930 NE Second Ave, #201; 305-576-2000

Demi makes the most of details to create a mood. We see the delicate lace trimmings on the girls' dresses, the mother's embroidered Sunday outfit, the father's linen guayabera, and the bright flower arrangements sitting on the table's knitted mantelpiece. The family is not rich, but one clearly senses they preserve a tradition of cultivated manners. It's a sort of familial culture we're not used to these days. Seeing these faces without a trace of irony made me feel uneasy, almost manipulated by this mid-twentieth-century pathos (my own theoretical suspicion, no doubt).

Although coming up with this production is no small feat for Demi, "Family Portraits" is milder compared to the much darker expressionistic style for which she is known. At the exhibition a collector friend told me he didn't welcome Demi's turn. Instead he pointed approvingly to White Communion, a 1997 painting that may have started her portrait series, where the message is quite expressionistic. In my opinion he has reacted too early, putting labels on a production that's still in development. In Demi's case it's too soon to tell. Putting aside the obvious idiosyncrasies in the work -- those of a Cuban- and thus a Latin-American family -- most can relate to these paintings because they convey a reality from which we all come at some point.

Also in Coral Gables, Elite Fine Arts presented "Tridimensional," a show of small sculptures by Arturo Rodriguez. Using clay, wire, and even acrylic, Rodriguez explores a basic theme of spiritual homelessness, perhaps the existential riddle of modernity. In the show's catalogue, Rodriguez quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies: "Who has twisted us around like this, so that no matter what we do, we are in the posture of someone going away."

Rodriguez already has explored this idea. In his earlier paintings we came to understand the limits of human existence in a world of despair, yet one gets the impression that life, though precarious, is still worth living. "Tridimensional" is important because it follows Rodriguez's content development in relation to the sculpted medium. Mutilated, scarred, and crowned with pins, these colored and winged figurines, molded in clay and acrylic, are striking. While they communicate a troubled past, their on-the-brink postures also suggest impending devastation, but their destiny remains unknown. With the help of Rilke (the perpetual émigré), Rodriguez (the exile) implies that no matter where we are, we are always exiles from ourselves. "Tridimensional" strongly articulates a pessimistic outlook to our contemporary condition, which is why he chose to highlight Rilke's most foreboding elegy. Yet at no point is Rodriguez's work obscure -- maybe too sincere in its message but never cryptic.

The latest show at Kevin Bruk Gallery is Peter Halley's "New Paintings." The exhibition explores the artist's hard-edge abstract style. Halley's work is an array of postmodern images: prison cells, computer chips, puzzling details of city architecture. All in all it expresses the idea of human isolation in our increasingly and, perhaps, worsening high-tech world. Halley uses a variety of mixed media, colors, and textures, which may push the viewer off balance. A significant figure in the art world, Halley also is a published and respected critic, a teacher at Yale, and the publisher of Index magazine.

The Bruk Gallery opened in the Design District this past January. Bruk, who studied contemporary art history at Emory University in Atlanta, grew up in South Florida, where his parents moved when he was a boy. "Even when I didn't live in Miami, I always kept checking out what was happening here. I was very aware how the scene was changing and got closer and closer." Bruk believes Miami needs a real contemporary art gallery. "There are collectors, but there are no galleries to show contemporary work." He does commend Bonnie Clearwater's effort at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but says, "I feel that the masses are still in the dark about what we do." Bruk wants to change that. "A gallery is a perfect environment to absorb what contemporary art is about. You have the opportunity to spend time with the artists and ask questions. The environment is essential to get people to talk." Kevin Bruk hopes people will show up soon and start talking.


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