It's a little after midnight on a recent weekday, and downtown Miami is eerily quiet. A few cars cruise along East Flagler Street, slowing for a spectral cloud mushrooming from an open storefront. The dust and grit rise above the rain-slicked asphalt as if a bomb has just gone off in the empty space. Suddenly, a car's headlights glimmer through the dirty veil cloaking Flagler.
A motor screeches like a wounded bat flapping into the darkness, and Christopher Miro emerges dust-covered and masked with a respirator from his soon-to-open eponymous contemporary gallery.
"This is like we just dropped some suicide bombs in the place," the 27-year-old dealer cracks while he catches his breath. "This is crazy. I can't see four feet in front of me."
New Miami art galleries
"The New Frontier": Through October 7 at Christopher Miro Gallery, 71 E. Flagler St., Miami; 305-741-0058; christophermirogallery.com. Thursday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. "Get It Fresh": Through October 7 at 6th Street Container of Little Havana, 1155 Rear SW 6th St., Miami; 786-587-5279; firstname.lastname@example.org. Wednesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Miro and his friend Javier Gonzales recently tore out the wet brown carpet covering the 1,100-square-foot space that used to be the home of NYC Shoes. For most of the night, the pair has been grinding the cement floor with an odd contraption rented at Home Depot.
"This is literally like a lawn mower with a diamond blade," Miro says. "I don't really know what I'm doing — just trying to learn as I go along."
Two weeks later, Miro's space, nestled between a perfume shop and an electronics store, is ready for business. "I'm hoping to start a new trend in the area," he explains. "I want downtown to develop like SoHo, Miami-style."
Miro, who cut his teeth as assistant director at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery, is blazing a new trail this Thursday at 7 p.m. with "The New Frontier," a group show featuring photography, painting, sculpture, drawings, and a video.
Inspired by the down-at-the-heels merchant area, the artists are new urban pioneers laying claim to uncharted terrain, Miro says. They include Nicholas Arehart, Nick Klein, Jose Felix Perez, Nicole Duran, Tatiana Vahan, Reinier Gamboa, Juan Travieso, Adalberto Delgado, James Quinaz, Jessica Laino, and Jose Roberto Perez.
Among the show's highlights is Laino's untitled mixed-media sculpture that resembles the gutted innards of a straw mattress stuffed into a clear plastic casing and doubled over on the gallery floor. It brings to mind a bale of pot or the square groupers that occasionally washed up during the '80s behind the Miami Herald building on Biscayne Bay.
Another eye-catching piece is Arehart's witty commentary on copyright infringement, featuring a digitally doctored cigarette ad. It depicts a leering dolt wearing a striped purple shirt and holding an assault rifle while schilling a pack of Newports.
Miro, a graduate of the New World School of the Arts, says he is eager to partner with his alma mater to teach students how to curate and hang shows, as well as to work with the Miami Art Museum, the Arsht Center, and other arts organizations in the area to culturally develop downtown.
"You have to think five years ahead," he says. "We will have a new museum in place by then and a thriving gallery scene here, I am convinced. This is where we can expose Miami art to the world. It may be a frontier for art now, but the streets are still full of people here every day."
Across town in Little Havana, on the corner of SW 12th Avenue and Sixth Street, at the grittier margins of the Viernes Culturales art scene, the boundaries of culture take a sharp swerve to the underground and surreal.
On this recent day, the ArtSpoken Performance Art Center — whose building also houses several art spaces, a dance studio, a bakery, a photo studio, and a storefront church — is closed and shows little signs of life other than a book propped open on a table near the window. The tome documents Fidel Castro's history of fomenting guerrilla movements in Latin America and beyond the past 50 years.
Adjacent to the space, the shoebox-sized Cosecha de Cristo church is barren except for a huge sign near the entrance that reads, "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength." Next door to the tiny temple sits Yale Law School grad-turned-artist Joan Tumpson's studio space. On view through her front window is a pair of large canvases depicting squawking parrots and a colorful pig.
In 2000, the building was a hive of alternative activity, boasting spaces such as Adalberto Delgado's 6G, Carlos Alves's ceramic studio, this writer and partner Vivian Marthell's lab6, and Susan Caraballo's iconic black-box performance space, PS742.
Each weekend hosted hypnotic rhythms of bata drums during a wild night at Delgado's temple of rumba, or an edgy exhibit or performance at any one of the quirky spaces at the funky, subversive enclave. Now the building is slowly showing evidence of life again.
Delgado, who pioneered the alt arts community at the time, has returned to his old stomping grounds with partner Maria Amores and is opening a new exhibit at his current space in the back alley of the building.
"I had a need for a studio and came by the building, and the new owners, Bill Fuller and Martin Pinilla, rented me a space in the back of the building and allowed me to organize exhibits in their empty storefronts," Delgado says.
"I brought in some friends and designers who are opening a vegetarian bistro and music joint called Zona Verde, I have opened a space in my studio for art exhibits, and we have plans to do a comedy night on Thursdays soon and bring back the rumbas Friday nights again," he says.
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His bare-bones exhibition space, called the 6th Street Container of Little Havana, opens at 7 p.m. this Friday with the exhibit "Get It Fresh," featuring paintings and sculptures by locals Julio Antonio, Luisa Basnuevo, Elisabeth Condon, Robert Huff, William Nute, and Janet Paparelli.
Delgado's return to the area and dynamic proposals to jump-start culture in the surrounding hood bodes well for a once-vibrant Little Havana arts scene that caters more and more to the tourist trade and has increasingly grown moribund in recent years.