Miami is often audaciously referred to as the Latin American art capital, a title that Coral Gables dealer Gary Nader has even claimed as a trademark for his annual Latin American art auction. In a city in which the majority of the population is Hispanic, with inextricable ties to Cuba, the prevalence of works by artists from Latin America in local galleries and museums is only logical. And in such an environment, the appropriation of the work of Latin American artists by an expanding number of interested parties as a marketing tool or a propagandistic symbol of national identity is unavoidable. The Miami audience is more familiar with Latin American cultures than most other places in the United States. Nevertheless, art from Latin American countries is still widely stereotyped and ghettoized here, relegated to "Latin American" collections or grouped together in "Latin American" shows. Artists are lionized or ostracized, depending on their social or political standing. Last spring, the Center for the Fine Arts (CFA) "disinvited" a Cuban art critic from a speaking engagement in deference to members of the exile community. It was one in a string of recent notorious incidents that have spawned a debate over freedom of speech.
Anyone interested in a better understanding of the politics of culture in Hispanic Miami should read Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America, a collection of essays by fifteen Hispanic writers examining the production and international exhibition of contemporary art from Latin America. Published by MIT Press, the book was edited by Gerardo Mosquera, the art historian and critic whose invitation to lecture at the CFA last May was rescinded because he maintains a residence in his native Cuba.
While catalogues written by American curators and scholarly tomes by American academics about Latin American art abound, a current book on the state of contemporary art by Latin Americans has not been available in English. The theoretical essays in Beyond the Fantastic examine specific art and artists within an international context, while bringing into play pertinent issues such as immigration, poverty, and shifting views on the so-called periphery and the mainstream.
"This book is for any reader interested in the international debate and anyone who wants to know about the debate from a Latin American perspective," says Mosquera, who is currently in New York, where he is a curatorial adviser to The New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo. "The book is not criticism about art in Latin America. It's criticism from Latin America. From our own context, from our own values, from our own understanding."
The essays included in Beyond the Fantastic were written over the past decade by a group of critics and artists who are well-known to readers of Spanish-language art publications or, in the case of contributors like performance artist Guillermo Gomez- Pena, American art magazines.
"These new thinkers -- the critics and the artists -- are moving toward a new perspective, a contemporary Latin American art scene that is participating in a general global perspective on art and culture," asserts Mosquera. "Postmodernity, cultural studies, feminism, multicultural issues ... I think that the Latin American discussions on identity that were so important belong to the past.
"There's a whole new view that's expanding," continues Mosquera. "It's breaking out from this paradigm of Latin American art being fantastic or exotic or political. Even though those things have their rationale, they become cliches."
The title of the book was adopted from Mari Carmen Ramirez's essay "Beyond the 'Fantastic': Framing Identity in U.S. Exhibitions of Latin Art." Ramirez, the Puerto Rican director of the University of Texas at Austin's Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, examines the political and economic factors behind the explosion in the Eighties of large-scale Latin American art exhibitions in American museums. For example, art shows present a perfect opportunity for corporations to appeal to the Hispanic market. (To wit, "Latin American Women Artists," the gratuitous survey now at the CFA, is sponsored by Philip Morris. The tobacco company's name figures prominently in advertisements for the exhibition.)
Among the other essays included are "Modernity After Postmodernity," by Nestor Garcia Canclini, author of Hybrid Cultures; critic Nelly Richard on women and dissidence in Chile; Luis Camnitzer on "Spanglish Art"; George Yudice on the global brokering of art; and Carolina Ponce de Leon's "Random Trails for the Noble Savage," on multiculturalism and political correctness. Mosquera writes about Wifredo Lam's significance as an Afro-Cuban modernist.
At The New Museum, Mosquera has been helping to organize an upcoming show of installations by three artists, including Miami native Teresita Fernandez. In a telephone interview, Mosquera had little desire to revisit the CFA incident. He did allow that he had not sworn off Miami because of it. "If I receive a serious invitation to do something in Miami that will have cultural meaning, why not?" he questions. "I go to Miami as I go anywhere else. But I don't want to be a Ping-Pong ball in this tense political situation."
Beyond the Fantastic is available at local bookstores (including Books & Books and Borders). The CFA bookshop is not carrying the book. Shop manager Cristina Velez says she has no plans to order it.
Reports about the demise of Ambrosino Gallery have been greatly exaggerated.
Genaro Ambrosino, who owns the Coral Gables space, shut down in July to take a trip to Italy, Israel, and Denmark. By mid-August several sources, who asked to remain anonymous, told New Times that the art dealer had in fact embarked on a permanent vacation. The scuttlebutt was that the gallery had gone bankrupt and would not reopen. Ambrosino was gone.
"You know how this city is," sighs Ambrosino, who has returned from his trip and has no intentions of closing shop. "It's gossip all the time."
The rumors started when the IRS posted a citation on the door of the building at 3155 Ponce de Leon Blvd. The feds, however, were not after Ambrosino. The document targeted the former owner of the building, who had failed to pay taxes on a southwest Miami property. That delinquent property would be put up for auction if the owner did not pay.
"The citation did not even have my name on it," scoffs Ambrosino. "But tongues were wagging."
Until further notice, Ambrosino Gallery will continue to stand out among the resale boutique galleries that line the boulevard by showing multimedia works and installations by young artists. Work by Cuban artist Glexis Novoa, who moved to Miami from Mexico earlier this year, goes on view September 12. Novoa's large canvases in acrylic and pencil depict the monumental landscape of Havana as a futuristic fascist metropolis.
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One of Miami's finest roadside attractions is Kevin Doyle's muffler zoo. Alligators, giraffes, cobras, and dogs crowd the lot outside the Mad Hatter Muffler Shop at 10051 NW Seventh Ave. A grinning ten-foot-tall tin man wearing leather work boots waves at passing cars.
A muffler man or two made by enterprising mechanics during slow spells is a fairly common sight at body shops around the country. But Doyle, age 42, who owns Mad Hatter with his father-in-law, can't stop at just one. He started making sculptures from mufflers and exhaust pipes when he got into the business in 1972, playing with castoffs while he waited for customers and putting them out on the lot. The ever-growing zoo has expanded to Mad Hatter's second location, at 4950 S. State Road 7 in Hollywood, where, Doyle reports, he's got "fifteen silly things and a car" made from old automotive parts.
To Doyle's surprise, people have started buying them. "It wasn't intentional," he explains. "First they said, 'Please, please let me have one,' and I didn't want to. But then I said okay." Prices range from fifty bucks for a two-foot iguana to $350 for a large flute player.
Customers and passersby have been buying the junk sculptures almost daily and even commissioning work. But Doyle still isn't calling himself an artist. "This is strictly a sideline," he says firmly. "It has to be done during down time, between cars.