Sights, sounds, and movements will spill out of galleries and homes next week in the biggest showing of local art in Miami history. More than 200 artists will cram their photographs, installations, and paintings, their words, music, and actions into four small spaces -- all of it brought together for one purpose and by one man.
The purpose is to garner money and publicity for the effort to defeat the anti-gay-rights referendum that comes to a vote September 10. That cause has given the event its name: the "No Shows." The man behind the extravaganza is Miami artist Robert Chambers -- which helps explain why no one knows exactly what we'll see and hear, even as opening night fast approaches. And why the experience itself will likely remain an exuberant blur even afterward. Improvised sensory overload is a Chambers trademark.
Chambers -- sculptor, teacher, cheerleader, curator, creative tinkerer. He doesn't want you to study the art, he wants you to inhale it. He wants to create such a noisy and colorful commotion that you will be infected by it. He wants you to vote No on September 10. And then he wants you to take note that Miami's vibrant contemporary art scene is ready to explode onto the world stage.
He's done it before. Late last year Chambers curated a show for the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach called "globe>miami>island," a sensational exhibit that still has buzz. Ask anyone in the local art community about the show's opening this past December 15 and you'll hear descriptions such as electric, overwhelming, and the best Miami's ever had. Ask anyone in that same community about the artist/curator himself, and you'll hear similar adjectives: enthusiastic, passionate, gifted.
It's possible only Chambers could have pulled together those 60 artists along with about 100 of their works and produced a show with such energy that for one evening everyone forgot Art Basel -- the world's most prestigious contemporary art fair -- had recently canceled its Miami debut. Possibly only Chambers could have fused young and old, veteran and novice; juggled their egos and crammed their visual and audio creations onto walls, floors, ceilings, stairs, elevators -- and ended up with something now acclaimed as a seminal art event. Next week he'll try it again.
That Chambers believes there are hundreds of talented locals he can recruit for the "No Shows" suggests that something interesting is happening here. Over the past couple of years the work of Miami artists has been popping up on gallery and museum walls with unprecedented frequency. The New World School of the Arts, the Design and Architecture High School, and the art programs at the University of Miami and Florida International University have been producing exceptional graduates. Perhaps most significant, artists young and old, immigrant and native, have been staying put in Miami. The result is a cauldron of creativity such as this town has never seen.
Next Tuesday night, September 3, many of those artists will leave their marks all over Fredric Snitzer's gallery, where sales of work that evening will benefit SAVE Dade's "Vote No to Discrimination" campaign. It's possible you'll nearly trip over some multihued pile of objects created by Charo Oquet, or get dizzy staring into Bhakti Baxter's vision of infinity, or remember why painting can still be moving as you get drawn into the color scheme of Purvis Young.
Over at Bernice Steinbaum's Design District gallery you'll be able to take in the big vision created by the trio known as FeCuOp -- Jason Ferguson, Christian Curiel, and Brandon Opalka -- who've put up a "No to Discrimination" mural on her exterior wall. On September 8, El Solar Arts House will host the "No Performance Show," a night of artistic theater courtesy of people such as Maritza Molina, Jiae Hwang, Carlos Ochoa, and Juan Lezcano. Then on September 9, the night before the vote, the home of artist Eugenia Vargas will be transformed by the likes of Pablo Cano, David Rohn, and Lydia Rubio, who will be part of the "No Home Show."
Some would say none of these shows will be curated, at least not in the commonly understood sense of that word. Depending on who you ask, that could be good or bad. But one thing seems certain: The hyperactive Chambers "No Shows" will inject more adrenaline into Miami's already-lively art scene.
In the spirit world of the orishas, the god Elegguá often takes the form of a mischievous child who might suddenly appear along your path and open doors to future endeavors. In the world of Miami art, our Elegguá is Robert Chambers. Indeed his impish spirit is sometimes all you can find -- the man can be as elusive as he is effusive, a frustrating experience for artists trying to work with him and writers trying to find him. He was born here, went to school and later taught at the University of Miami. But now he divides his time among Miami, New York, and, it often seems, the entire globe.
As Miami gallery owner Kevin Bruk guesses, maybe Chambers really is more orisha than man. "He could be a figment of everyone's imagination -- the Keyser Soze of the art world," he says, referring to the mystery man in the movie The Usual Suspects. As if to prove the point, Chambers was nowhere to be found just a week before he was to have provided pieces for a July show at Bruk's Design District gallery. "He's disappeared," Bruk shrugged at the time. But at the last moment Chambers appeared and dropped off two sculptures, including a fiberglass-and-Kevlar helicopter that lit up and vibrated on the floor.
"Mad scientist" is another appellation Chambers evokes. He likes to experiment with his artwork. UM art history professor Paula Harper remembers several pieces in particular. "He did a whole series using a very unusual material: hair gel. You know, that really gel stuff that maybe your mother used -- a green, a purple, a red. He made it into sculptures that were Plexiglas spheres, and inside was hair gel, and in the hair gel you could see eyelashes and pieces of hair." One hair-gel work made it to the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1997 as part of the collection of New York dealer Kenny Schachter, who owns a number of Chambers's works.
Genaro Ambrosino, who owns a gallery that often highlights local artists, recalls the installation Chambers did in 1997 at his former gallery in Coral Gables, before he transplanted to North Miami: "The whole room was black, and there were these pools of chemicals on the floor that made a moving painting. People walked on these paintings. It needed participation of the viewer. That's a very important component of his work."
Others know him as a teacher. Artist Daniel Arsham, part of the under-26 set working out of the Edgewater alternative art space called The House, was in high school when Chambers visited his class. "He was probably the first person I saw who was different from Picasso and the classical painters," Arsham recounts. "He showed us this really weird piece. It was a video that showed all these stacks of hay, and he's just standing there by this train track and all of a sudden this train comes by, and you see him start running after the train and he puts this big hook on the back of the train and it's tied to the haystacks, these enormous big blocks of hay, and they're just bouncing behind the train."
A year ago Arsham and his colleagues at The House sought to capitalize on some great publicity they'd recently received. North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art was featuring fourteen of them in a show titled "The House at MoCA," a remarkable tribute to a bunch of youngsters just out of school. While public interest in them was fresh, they wanted to draw attention to The House, an aging two-story home at 2330 NE Fourth Ave. They needed a curator who could pull together something special in a short period of time. "Who could we get?" Arsham recalls asking. "Well, Robert. We've always known him. He comes to the shows. He's kinda like a teacher, our teacher. I don't think he really was any of our teachers, but he's always been there."
So the 44-year-old Chambers produced "The Sears Building," a reference to the historic tower a few blocks south on Biscayne Boulevard and an exploration of what the venerable company and its catalogue have meant to us. The resulting event was a kaleidoscopic and kinetic adventure in aesthetics. Artist Eugenia Vargas piled bread into stacks in the back yard until it fell down, then began stacking again. Others played music on the roof, danced, or made a giant pan of paella. Some artists contributed actual physical works. It wasn't so much an exhibit as a piece of improvisational art theater. It also reflected the ebullient man behind it. "That show had so many people, so much going on. Chambers just put his all into it," says Arsham, who will be in the "No Show" next week. "He has his own way of putting things together so that the whole thing kind of became his installation." In fact, remembers Arsham, "He put stuff everywhere. It was kind of absurd, kind of like what he did at the Bass."
And in retrospect, Arsham muses, "I don't think that Bass show would have happened without the House one."
That Bass show. On opening night so many people flooded into the museum that viewing art became a contact sport. A spiked heel painfully stabbing your foot made it hard to concentrate on the rows of photos and paintings lining the ramp to the second floor, though it was a reminder of what performance artist Maritza Molina was experiencing as she lay prone on a bed made of stilettos. And the noise. It was everywhere at once: the snare drums in Paul Ramirez Jonas's installation, the computer-filtered sounds Gustavo Matamoros was burning onto CDs, the literal "Sound of Music" in the elevator commandeered by Bert Rodriguez.
The swarming sea of heads with hats and hairdos, that amazingly huge crowd, didn't help lines of vision either. It was difficult to digest, really -- Edouard Duval-Carrié's white altar shrouded by filmy curtains; the cans of food and liquor and coffee on José Bedia's own boat-shaped altar; the encased cubaneo knickknacks in Cesar Trasobares's Elián in Wonderland; the words on Tao Rey's canvas -- what did they say? Trying to remember all those works in "globe>miami>island," bumping up against each other on every available surface. No, you'd have to return to take it all in.
That there was anything at all in the Bass that December evening came as a surprise to some. The museum had been going through its own trauma. Delay after delay in opening a new wing, designed by Arata Isosaki, threatened to turn the Bass into a joke -- an especially bad joke if the museum wouldn't be ready to host a high-quality exhibition for the international art crowd that would soon be arriving for the Art Basel fair. But Robert Chambers was willing to gamble, to try putting together something big relatively quickly, and to do so in a museum that wasn't even officially open. It's unlikely any professional curator would have dared take on such an assignment.
Then Art Basel pulled out in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It was a body blow to an arts community that had finally felt ready to show itself off to the world. Ho hum. Who wants to do a big show for yourself?
And there was the question of Chambers himself. Yes, he had lots of spirit. But some wondered if that was all he had. For one thing, he seemed incapable of saying no to the many artists who hoped to be included in a show that would have an international audience of dealers and wealthy collectors.
"I really didn't know if he could pull it off," recalls the Haitian-born Duval-Carrié, a well-known Miami artist whose ethereal altar was one of the most remarkable works in the show. "I was worried about what it would look like, what my piece would look like, because the list [of artists] kept growing and growing. It became voluminous. And then because everyone was so excited about it, everyone was going to make a major piece, gigantic installations! And then I was really worried. Where in the world would he put all that art?"
Where indeed, asked Fredric Snitzer, whose gallery for years has specialized in the work of contemporary local artists. "When he was telling me about the Bass, I thought it was going to be a disaster," says the former Philadelphian, who has known Chambers since the artist was about nineteen years old. "It sounded like he had too many artists, impossible to organize. Visually I was worried because, well, I represent people like José Bedia and I was worried what it would look like without being able to see it beforehand." Cuban-born Bedia's contribution, To Bomb My Own People, its altar of food and drink a reference to war and embargoes, turned out to be another masterstroke. Snitzer agreed: "Robert hit a home run."
Duval-Carrié's misgivings were also allayed: "He did it." The show's audacious sweep turned out to be an asset, the artist says: "In the end we all followed the inclusive, democratic feel to the whole thing and just sort of let it happen, which is a Robert trait, one of his best traits." He does remember that not everyone felt so democratic. "Oh yes, there were of course some stories of bruised egos, people who wanted their stuff put in central positions and didn't get what they wanted. It's the art world after all. But for the most part people felt the spirit of it. In the end it must have been the most-attended art event ever in Miami's history. Who wouldn't have wanted to be a part?"
Artist and curator Cesar Trasobares also wanted to contribute a memorable work, and he knew what it should be: the symbolism of Elian Gonzalez, how the child meant so many different things to different people, and how symbols themselves carry different meanings depending on who is viewing them. A very Miami installation. "To some he was a lamb, to some a symbol of exile," he explains. "He was also Alice in Wonderland, which I reread when I decided to do the piece." Hence the title Elián in Wonderland and the large transparent cabinets filled with toys and knickknacks, surrounded by propaganda images and slogans and infused with a dose of humor.
Argentines Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt are known for their monumental public productions -- theirs are the expansive murals and the giant living room, complete with sofa and flanking lamps, that decorate the Design District. "At first we thought we would do something large again," remembers Marquardt. "That changed when we saw the space. When we saw all the art we said, 'We will do something quiet. We only want a little corner.'" And even then, Behar laughs when recalling: "Someone moved our piece. I said, 'My God, we have the smallest piece in town. Don't move our piece!' It was crazy." Their work was a suitcase that, when you looked closely, was suspended inches from the floor, hanging from a large white balloon. Atop the suitcase were small figures in a boxing ring, or performance ring. "A suitcase represents globe and Miami, as we are all immigrants. And we are always moving," says Behar. "The piece is linked with our experience here."
In the end the show was more than a mere display of local talent. It was a crystallizing moment for Miami's art scene. So much creative energy was packed into the confines of the Bass that the place seemed ready to detonate. It was a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. "Bass made a huge difference in how we look at ourselves," says Eugenia Vargas. "'Globe' was so exciting. It's just never been done before in Miami."
That is true, but in retrospect you can see the Bass show had its precursors. For instance, two and a half years ago, just before the Espirito Santo Bank on Brickell Avenue fell to the wrecking ball, Snitzer was asked to turn the nine-story building into a short-lived installation site. He brought in 44 local artists to take over offices, staircases, closets, bathrooms and turn them into pieces of art that would soon be hacked apart, then torn down with the doomed structure. The eclectic mix of ages and heritages -- a troupe of artists who would start showing up all over town -- and the transient nature of the show imbued it with a distinctly Miami sensibility.
Meanwhile several new alternative spaces and some commercial galleries like Snitzer's began filling up with local art. Then the museums jumped in. The Miami Art Museum produced its first-ever local series, "New Work Miami." The inaugural installment, in April 2001, showcased two artists, Frank Benson and Robert Chambers. Chambers's sculpture and installation had already been seen in shows at MoCA when that museum went all-local in two major exhibits in 2000 and 2001, the latter devoted to those fourteen recent graduates of the New World School of the Arts.
All this activity caught the eye of the national art magazines. Art Basel picked Miami out of the crowd. And then the New York Times decided to take a look, prompting Amei Wallach to write, "More often now, the artists return.... They're coming home to Miami. For this fifteen minutes, at least, Miami is where the art is."
Exactly what is happening in Miami's art world can be difficult to discern, as elements of boosterism and fad sometimes obscure the view. Clearly, however, a trickle of activity has turned into a stream, one that was funneled by Chambers, at just the right moment, into "globe>miami>island." UM's Paula Harper described "globe" for Art in America this way: "It arrived at a moment that lent the show historical importance as a state-of-the-art summary. Miami has long been touted as a geographical and cultural crossroads. Now its promise as a vital center for the visual arts appears fulfilled, in what seems like a sudden burst but is actually the result of synergy developed over the past several years among artists, galleries, alternative spaces, writers, museums, and collectors."
Asking Chambers himself about "globe," the "No Shows," or a rumored exhibit to coincide with Art Basel this year is no easy task. First you must find him. This past April he was in town for a while, then vanished. He was taking bits of the "globe" show up to Washington, D.C., or working in New York, or maybe in Cape Cod, or was tinkering around -- and fly fishing -- in Denmark, homeland of his wife Mette Tommerup.
Then Chambers did materialize, on a hot July afternoon at Scotty's Landing in Coconut Grove. Back on terra-firma Miami he was furiously rounding up artists for the "No Shows" (he'd have to leave for Maine shortly) and enthusiastically describing his approach to curating. His exhibits are intentionally an "overload" and as inclusive as possible, space be damned. The only real constraint seems to be time -- once the show opens, it's too late to join.
Plopped in a chair outdoors overlooking Biscayne Bay, he bears a slightly scruffy look in his long-sleeved black shirt and loose trousers, his handsome face and green eyes topped with graying curly hair. He remembers how he used to see manatees here when he was young; he even got in the water and played with them. "Did you know they're pachyderms?" he asks, often smiling when he talks. "That's right. They're related to the elephant."
He put serious work into "globe>miami>island," he explains. "Miami is an island unto itself. It's this incredibly diverse place, and people come here from all over to be part of it. Miami is the magnet.
"In Miami it's very easy to find talented artists," he continues. "It's a huge banquet, a feast out there." He even suggests that "all major universities, from the United States and abroad, should have annexes here to examine what's happening. The many groups here, all creating, it's building up like a volcano. The atoll here is starting to bubble."
Others in the art world are a bit more cautious, many believing it's still too early, and Miami still too young, to know if a thriving art scene can be sustained. Yes, artists are producing and galleries are showing, but are people really buying? Big crowds turn out for openings, but are they doing anything more than drinking free wine?
Chambers the teacher will have none of it. He says New York, where he sometimes works, can be boring. "You can expect what's going to happen. Down here, you never know," he marvels. "It's like helping a child develop skills, complex ideas. You can help take little bits of things and formulate them into very important things. I like that." He no longer teaches at the University of Miami; that was a period in his life and he's moved on to another. But he still wants to foster artists and ideas.
Chambers the artist is simultaneously thoughtful and whimsical. Bigger works, like the one he did for the show at Espirito Santo Bank, take some ingenuity. "I managed to break into the bank vault, which was locked. I brought all my special tools," he says with a grin. The vault was transformed into a viewing box. "I put a huge TV screen inside and when you looked in, there was a video I took of giant searchlights exposing the architecture of an enormous steel building's undercarriage in New York." It was a good fit for a show in which the building itself was part of the installation.
His Ballship sphere outside the Bass was inspired by the globe from the 1939 World's Fair in New York. During the day it appears to be solid white; at night it glows and dims, becoming translucent. And then there are those sensitive microphones he installed inside. "Night and day it picks up your voice and the sounds of the trees and the wind and the cars. And it records and plays it back all instantaneously. It engages people. Street people will come up and talk to it, tell it all their problems."
Now Chambers the democrat was jumping head and heart first into the "No Shows" project. "The concept came from the idea of home and privacy," he says. "If people don't vote No, your home and privacy will be invaded, and the long-term repercussions will be very ugly. If you don't get out and vote No, it's just wrong, wrong."
The home theme led him to Eugenia Vargas and her house, which she periodically turns over to artists as a kind of three-dimensional canvas. Initially Chambers wanted to squeeze 100 artists into Vargas's modest Miami Shores home, but within 48 hours of that inspiration, 100 had become an underestimate. So he asked Snitzer if he too would open his doors to accommodate the overabundance of artists for a one-night benefit "happening" at the gallery. The event at Vargas's home evolved into a month-long exhibit.
Chambers reaches into a big cardboard box he's been carrying around, one overflowing with papers covered in scribbled names and numbers. As he pulls out a list of confirmed artists, Chambers the orisha opens the doors further. "There's going to be a Website as well, and people can see who's in the show. And then if an artist wants to be in the show, and they have a good reason, then I will put them in."
The paper he has retrieved has women's names on the left side, men on the right, and as he reads some of them it's apparent that many artists from the Bass show will reappear: Luis Guispert, Wendy Wischer, Paul Stoppi, Martin Oppel, Pablo Cano, to name only a few. "The DNA of Miami will be there," he concludes in crescendo.
Like at the Bass, juggling all this art will take Chambers's brand of que sera sera. "Things will be spilling out, things will be in the bathroom, wherever. Artists will come and mark their space, but you know, artists are very good at cohabiting and adapting to the environment."
Maybe a nude covered in foliage, such as Naomi Fisher is wont to frame, will be shoved next to an aggressive, demanding image from Jordan Massengale, or almost literally on top of a cityscape crafted by a profusion of charcoal lines from Glexis Novoa. Who knows if whatever Cooper produces will make noise, if Tao Rey's will make sense, if Carlos Betancourt's will end up in that bathroom.
The artists indeed will have to adapt to the environment -- to that unique impromptu one created by Robert Chambers.
Three days after plotting at Scotty's he was on a plane again, this time for a residency in Maine. When he returned he added the performance-art night and the mural at Bernice Steinbaum's. Then he left for Oregon. But you'll know where to find his spirit, and that of local art, come September 3.
The No Banner Show, through September 22 on the north wall of Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, 3550 N Miami Ave, Miami.
The No Performance Show, 6:00 p.m.September 8 at El Solar Arts House,356 Malaga Ave, Coral Gables.
The No Home Show, 7:00 p.m. September 9 at the home of Eugenia Vargas, 890 NE 90th St, Miami Shores.
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