Despite the glint of a diamond stud in his ear, Steve Meeks emits a whiff of Sergeant Rock as he pulls on a fat cheroot outside his Borders mega-framing shop in Little Havana.
The Kentucky native moved his family-run operation, which caters largely to the artist, collector, and museum trade, to the old La Tijera building at SW 16th Avenue and First Street eight years ago, after more than a decade in the Gables.
Today neighbors tell Meeks their families used to shop in his space when it was La Tijera five-and-dime. During the Sixties and Seventies, many Cuban tailors, barbers, seamstresses, and manicurists kibitzed about toppling Castro while having their scissors sharpened there.
"The New Masters"
Through September 10. Miami Center for Photographic Arts, 1601 SW 1st St, Miami; 305-649-0324, www.mcpagallery.com.
Meeks, an unassuming old dogface, recalls undergoing Special Forces training during the Cuban Missile Crisis. "At the time, I was sent to Fort Bragg, which got me out of the classroom and into jumping out of helicopters. That was a hell of a kick," he says with a laugh.
An early-Eighties Miami transplant, Meeks feels strong ties to local history: the cocaine cowboys, the riots, the waves of immigration, the city's identity spasms. "I've seen it all," he says.
Flicking his stogy butt to the gutter, he waves a paw around while musing on the virtues of his Little Havana hood. "I love it here — people are friendly, working-class — and the rent in the Gables was killing us."
The 65-year-old former commando opened the Miami Center for Photographic Arts (MCPA) in the back of his sprawling shop 18 months ago. Since then, the gallery has quietly organized more than a dozen photography shows.
At the entrance to Borders, an oldfangled coin-operated photo booth telegraphs Meeks's love for the media. Inside the shop is a state-of-the-art darkroom that local shutterbugs can rent by the hour to hone their craft.
His modest MCPA space is currently exhibiting "The New Masters," a group show featuring the work of locals Robert Davila, Lamia Endara, Marina Font, Angela Christine Helwig, Erin Holzman, and Miriam Sredni. They are all recent MFA grads from South Florida colleges.
Helwig's series of untitled, gutted books, which house playing-card-size silver gelatin prints, was originally exhibited as part of Novel Antiquities, her March 2006 thesis project at Barry University. The photographer used a medium-format film camera (Pentax 67II) to produce pallid snaps that appear weathered by age. Adding to her work's fleeting time complexion are green-and-red bound books, which boast covers emblazoned with a pair of griffins holding a torch aloft. The antique tomes were published by New York's Walter J. Black Company in the 1920s.
Her lyrical, staged still lifes are tiny gems. Within The Collected Works of Chekov, one glimpses a pear and a dove in ornate gilded picture frames. These images reappear throughout her work. A Cellini tome bears a lone walnut in a wooden box, and a Flaubert volume hugs an ancient Royal typewriter and a trio of sewing spools. The combination of the books and photos heightens the quaint past-century patina of the pieces while remaining enigmatic and coy.
Another artist who successfully toys with mixed media and photography is Font. There is a sense of suffering and spiritual transcendence in her gelatin-silver print, beeswax, nail, fabric, acrylic, and wood assemblages, which are the most ambitious works in the show.
In Escalera, a ladder extends from the bottom of a flaglike plywood surface into an empty space above. Next to it is the photographic profile of a woman, whose head is clean-shaven; her eyes blissfully follow the ladder's rungs heavenward. The woman's image is echoed by several cutouts as if she were praying in waves, the blacked-out expanse behind her evoking a daunting trial.
Font took the photos of the woman, a friend who survived breast cancer, three years ago, and she appears in many of the artist's arresting pieces here.
Legado depicts the woman, with a wisp of white fabric draped over her shoulder, from behind in a photo taken during the stages of chemotherapy. From the wooden-framed image of the woman extends a length of the fabric, which pools on the floor like a discarded shroud.
Equally dramatic is a Plexiglas-encased piece on a nearby column. In it a crate full of eggs is pierced by nails whose sharp ends stab upward at the spectator. Upon closer inspection, one can see that several of the eggs are cracked. Inside are nude images of the cancer patient, curled up in a fetal ball. They are suspended in beeswax.
Ambivalente, one of Font's larger pieces, is curtained over in black burlap strips. Observing her work, one comes away with a sense of the artist's creative process, how she tills the furrow of ideas, cutting and pasting thoughts and following through. In this work, Font has placed a small image of her chum in the upper right corner, like a postage stamp on a loaded envelope, to deliver a message. It is the only one of Font's pieces in which the woman looks out at the viewer with a smile smacking of deliverance. Underneath the woman's hopeful visage, though, Font has shiftily placed a sealed box, tied off with flowing white string. The artist seems to hint that inside us all, true meaning is confined.
Davila incorporates the raw technology of primitive pinhole cameras to create wonderfully atmospheric abstract images of the Florida landscape. One of his works captures a rundown clapboard shack with broken window panes and a roof overrun with clinging vines. Another work, bathed in glowing antifreeze greens, appears to be a shot of a toxic mudflat taken from overhead through a leafy canopy. An ant's-eye-view of a mangrove crops up in yet another of Davila's pictures, which remain evocative despite their simplicity.
Holzman's self-styled identity-reclamation project flat-lines by comparison. The artist gambols through a gamut of emotions in her slow-exposure digital prints in which she seeks to capture herself at her most vulnerable.
Green features the nude artist in 28 poses laid out in a grid. She squats, bends, sits, washes, and towels herself in a shower. For Blue, 20 pics also laid out in a grid, she claws at her face and then mugs for the camera. She fares slightly better in Warm Black, another 20-snap grid notable for its chiaroscuro effect and effusive lighting — Holzman appears flapping her wings, sticking her tongue out, and eating a daisy. Rather than bushwhacking the spectator with a refined sense of insight, the works are fragmented and puzzling, unraveling in a blur.
Sredni's color photographs of French hotel rooms show some promise. There is a varnish of mystery in her pictures. Her images are subtle, mostly devoid of narrative, and imbued with low-level tension.
Paris Room #2 (Hotel Nouvel Opera) depicts a lifeless room where a pair of jeans and a fashion magazine lie atop a made bed while an accordion door in the background folds into a bathroom. "Where or who are the occupants?" she teases. Another photo reveals an empty bathroom, shot from above, in which a towel and slippers have been carelessly dropped on the floor.
Total absence is the subject of one of Sredni's more unusual works. She offers a closeup of what appears to be a room's gray carpet. She seems to be tweaking a sense of dislocation in the viewer, forcing one to fumble with a moment before losing it.
By far the most polished work on exhibit comes from the Egyptian-born Endara, whose huge carbon-print-on-clear-film photographs yank the neck around.
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Self-Portrait as Eve features the artist nude with her arms freighted under the canon of religious history. The brunet's lips are carved into a rictus as she wearily locks eyes with the viewer. Not unlike the Tower of Babel, a stack of books — including the Kabala, the Bible, the Torah, and other tomes ranging in topics from jihad to Jesus — rises from the ground in front of her feet, impeding her movement.
In Educated, another powerful piece, the brainy Endara stands ramrod-stiff, burdened equally by books on art history and titles like The Vagina Monologues.
Meeks says he couldn't be more tickled by the bumper crop of talent emerging locally, as evidenced by the six-pack of photographers in his current show. "I have a passion for photography and have been collecting it for 30 years. I don't understand a lot of contemporary art," he cracks. Let's hope his gumption will take root and endure.