On Avant-Garde in Little Havana
It's 9:00 on a breezy night in early spring, and the sounds of live music and people chatting announce this first studio crawl, a way to acquaint the public with the 6street visual arts collective. They make up a quarter-block of artists' studios off South Twelfth Avenue that stand alone in tone from most of the one-story dwellings in the rest of the neighborhood. The art homes are furnished with ceramics, painting, conceptual art, and video and are on view as part of the Welcome to the Hood exhibition. The crawl also is an occasion to introduce artists Gerardo Gonzalez-Quevedo and Morgen Chesonis, both newly arrived from the Big Apple. The rest of the exhibiting crew includes Carlos Suarez de Jesus and Vivian Marthell from lab6, Carlos Alves, and J.C. Carroll. Adalberto Delgado's 6g studio is closest to Twelfth Avenue, next to Los Latinos Market, a colorful little bodega.
All the studios lead to a communal inner patio where the New Relics, a recently formed band, plays introspective rock. Several television monitors placed on the roof show recurring images from video artist Gabriel Orenstein. The atmosphere is soothing, and the crowd responds favorably. Across the street stands the Church of Santa Barbara; next to it a wall banner marks a newly opened Honduran barbershop. It's an interesting mix. The event draws the curiosity of locals, who gather to check out the flash while children play across the street.
This is not a picture of the swank Gables walk, but one of a momentous occasion in the very heart of Little Havana. It feels more similar to recent openings at the Dorsch Gallery and Locust Projects near the Design District than to the gilded Friday evenings off Ponce. Miami's art scene is gradually flourishing and opening up, with more galleries and studios sprouting in diverse areas. And though these hot spots may indeed help promote other economic growth, their greatest benefit at the moment may be bringing us a much-needed sense of social cohesion.
What's special about this particular enclave is that these artists have a bond with their community, either by culture or because they live here. One can sense their art isn't strange to the day-to-day concerns of the neighborhood. For instance Choclo, a Nicaraguan ex-Sandinista turned unemployed plumber, doesn't know much about art but has strong views. "These people are crazy," he comments, pointing to his temple, "but they're more sane than you and I put together."
From lab6 Vivian Marthell produces challenging statements with a feminist bent. Her conceptual pieces weave together the DNA of the Information Age with social misconceptions of women. Check out two such works: Cojonuda and Enter-Racial. Sharing the same studio is self-taught Carlos Suarez de Jesus, an artist who borrows from Afro-Caribbean culture to produce a kind of minimal Ur-iconography. He paints on treated industrial paper. The crusted, indented surfaces (colored in minimal hues of gray and ochre) take us back to the dawn of form. Suarez de Jesus's figures are angular and totemic, their contours almost like slits in the paper's skin. The narrative is reduced to a simple yet beautiful gesture. So hermetic is the force of his work that he might be better off applying a minimalist principle to the framing of his paintings: The simpler the better.
Carlos Alves is a well-known ceramist whose works and commissions are spread all over Miami, including city hall. Other commissions include a project for the Miami Children's Museum and a tile bar for Lario's on the Beach. Alves moved to Little Havana last November and is still "unpacking." No wonder the first impression of his studio is a kind of hodgepodge of the sacred and the profane. This is Alves's strong point. His work is difficult to categorize, because he does best with constellations of disparate elements put together in consistent wholes. They happen because of Alves's obsession with recycling elements from failed bakes. "I'm an artist, a ceramist," Alves says, describing the sometimes startling juxtaposition of basic designs, like ceramic ashtrays or sea horses set next to some challenging piece. "What you see here depends on the context in which you see it."
His Red Cross Nurse and Soldier are two tables with colorful glazed fruits seemingly glued to the furniture's surface. Not so. If you remove the fruit, you find statements written on back of each piece and on the tables. For Alves these works are statements of "ceramaphobia," that is, no one ever dares or thinks to remove the fruit to discover these precious secrets. When asked about the neighborhood, he responds, "It's a miracle." He points to the statue of Santa Barbara across the street: "When I got here and saw her, I knew this was my place."
The 6street visual arts collective is made up of studios, not galleries. The artists show their work and invite people over to see it. Yet they could display their stuff in a more cohesive manner. They might benefit from some in-house discussion about what they want to do and how to accomplish it when they exhibit together. A curatorial "eye" never hurts.
Adalberto Delgado would agree. He is a video artist and a veteran from NADA, a group of artists that includes Tony Allegro, Fred Snitzer, Jane Paparelli, and José Gonzalez-Boada. "I grew up in this neighborhood," says Delgado, who was the first to move to SW Sixth Street. He wants to offer exhibition opportunities to newcomers. "When I first moved, there was nobody here, and it looked pretty bad. A botánica at the corner ... and a secondhand thrift store trying to make it. As the guys moved, things got better," he says, referring to his fellow artists. Still, few are living off their art alone. (Delgado dabbles with Websites and dot.coms to support his family.)
North on Twelfth Avenue, a sign announces the recent opening of Freddie's pizzeria, a multiculti dive that offers live music on Saturday nights. The night after crawling through Welcome to the Hood, we returned with a bunch of friends and hung at Freddie's until past midnight. To a group of mostly Central Americans, a Cuban balsero sang mariachi songs. Later we danced to Freddie's improvised pregones, set to salsa rhythms from a tape. Finally the night ended with excerpts from Nestor Diaz de Villegas's poetry, inspired by the Marquis de Sade. Now that's total cultural immersion.
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