On the sultry evening of October 10, Wynwood's Dorsch Gallery (151 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-576-1278) was as clotted as a heart attack victim's arteries. There were scores of artists, collectors, filmmakers, serious art enthusiasts, and fashionistas. They ogled hyperrealist sculptures of a crumpled car hood, a fire extinguisher, a trash can, a rusting bucket, a deflated basketball, and a dented suitcase. All were made from wood.
"Oh my God," exclaimed 24-year-old Christine Pujadas, a fashion and merchandising major at Miami International University of Art & Design. She was dressed in a black-and-white ensemble that hugged her ample curves. A tiny checked hat was clipped to her crown. "I never realized that there would be such a young and trendy crowd at this event."
Just then, a scruffy stranger passed by. "I love the way you accessorize," he remarked.
Wynwood Art Walk
Art has become the dynamo fueling the cultural engine of Miami. The Wynwood Art District's Second Saturday openings are where you see the new city. There's international talent, edgy performances, DJs, live music, free booze, and pricey paintings. The events attract throngs of art lovers and revelers like sugar cubes draw ants.
Pujadas was attending Second Saturday for the first time. She was accompanied by a group of college students and young professionals who were also neophytes. Their experience reflects the new blood that continues seeping into the neighborhood and energizing the increasingly popular event. When gallery owner Brook Dorsch began explaining the show to Pujadas, her buddy Marlene Rodriguez, a 37-year-old local attorney, reached out to touch a corroded bucket covered in a moss green patina and rusty dents and emblazoned with a drawing of Samuel Beckett. All the deceptively banal-looking sculptures were made by Miami artist Richard Haden.
"Wow, that's impressive. I've never seen anything like it," she gasped. "This is simply unbelievable. I never thought an artist could carve something out of wood and make it appear so real."
"Did you see his basketball?" Pujadas asked, pointing to the squashed orb sitting on the gallery floor. "At first I thought, OK, what is the big deal ? until I touched it and saw it was actually made out of wood. This artist is amazing. He blew my mind."
In an adjacent room, two 20-something spectators admired small jewel-like paintings by Miami homeboy John Sanchez that evocatively used light and shadow to convey an atmospheric mood. One of the onlookers, Ronnie Quiros, a 29-year-old music and production student, pointed at a work called Sound Check, which portrayed an empty concert stage. "Look at how he has used this translucent green light to give the painting a weird glow," he gushed.
"You almost feel like the artist is transporting you to a stage before a concert," responded Juan Motos, a dapper 29-year-old computer science major at Miami Dade College. "Man, this almost looks like a photograph when you step back from it."
Not far away, at Pan American Art Projects (2450 NW Second Ave., Miami; 305-573-2400), the gallery hit the jackpot with artist Armando Mariño's "Drilling America" show. The exhibit featured large paintings in the $8,000 to $17,000 range and a suite of intriguing drawings going for $1,600 a pop scattered throughout the space. Through garish, color-saturated images of offshore oil rigs and pipelines running through the Oval Office, the works depicted America's crippling dependence on foreign oil.
"For me, this is a very impressive scene," said Mariño, a 40-year-old Cuban artist who now lives in Madrid. "In my 20-year career, I have never experienced this type of crowd. I have literally lost my voice greeting people."
Added the gallery's director, Janda Wetherington: "This is one of our busiest openings ever. We have had hundreds of people we have never seen before come through the gallery. We sold two of his drawings, and his largest canvas has been placed on hold for one of our clients."
Ronald Baez, a 20-year-old music and literature major at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, spent several minutes chatting with Mariño. The student received a thoughtful personal tour of the work and came away impressed. "He took the time to explain his concept and his approach to painting in a way that was understandable and not over your head," Baez said. "It was great."
Rodriguez, Motos, Quiroz, Baez, and Pujada moved on to the Design District. They quickly discovered the tony neighborhood also was chock-a-block with a boisterous mass. Outside 101 Exhibit (101 NE 40th St., Miami; 305-573-2101), conga players and fire jugglers entertained a cheering crowd of close to 500 people in a tawdry circus-like atmosphere. "This is cheesy," Rodriguez remarked. "It takes away from the classiness of the event."
Inside 101, Jason Shawn Alexander's solo show, "Insomnious," featured ominous, psychologically charged canvases and drawings. One painting of a two-headed, panty-clad Asian woman uttering a primal scream froze Baez's attention. So did a work depicting a scrawny, two-faced mook dangling from puppet strings next to a naked hag ferociously tugging her own hair. The unsightly crone was painted in a deathly gray pallor, with sagging breasts and mangled genitalia that looked like chewed-up bubblegum scraped from under a school desk.
"These paintings are interesting for their technical artistry and substance," Baez remarked. "Even though they are somewhat morbid in nature, they are strong in concept and creep up on you emotionally."
Sloan Schaffer, the gallery's owner, said he had sold five canvases in the $6,000 to $10,000 range that night. "We have had over a thousand people come through," he marveled. "On a 95-degree night in October, I was amazed to see so many new faces out, and that spells well leading into Basel."
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Back in Wynwood, about a half-mile away, the troupe of flame jugglers had appeared. They had migrated from the Design District and set up shop outside Nina Johnson's Gallery Diet (174 NW 23rd St., Miami; 305-571-2288). The gallery was exhibiting works by Richard Höglund, riffing on 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza's tome, Ethics. The space featured pristine canvases and drawings covered in labor-intensive graphite scrawls. A sculpture of an imploded dodecahedron cut out of black rubber hung from a black rope in the center of the room. Höglund, who lives in Paris and whose prices vary from about $2,000 to $6,500, attracted buyers for two of his drawings, and one of his canvases was placed on hold.
Last year, Johnson was among several area gallery owners who stopped serving liquor so the loons would stay away. "I did it because we didn't want to be held liable for underage drinkers and because someone spilled a martini on a sculpture last year. Now with these flamethrowers here, we don't have insurance if they set a fire outside," Johnson groaned. "Fortunately, we've had a lot of people come who appeared sick of hearing about the downtrodden economy and eager to buy or put an option on art again."
Although none of the group of Wynwood tyros purchased work, they each engaged the dealers and artists, who took time to answer their questions and make them feel welcome. That's vital at a time when some spaces have shuttered their doors and others have expressed worries over dismal sales. The local art business appears to be picking up steam as Art Basel nears, but — as with the economy overall — the future is unclear.
"Looks like the circus is still in town," Quiros quipped as he watched the flame jugglers recede into the distance in his rear-view mirror. Inside the car, the group appeared quite happy they had gotten their Wynwood cherries popped during the muggy, surreal trawl. They'll return for bigger heaps of Second Saturday.