It's almost the new year, and the floor of Dimensions Variable gallery is covered in banyan branches. The remains of its Art Basel exhibit burst through the far gallery wall and stretch across the floor in all directions. Part of artist Fabian Peña's "Death of a Printed Story" exhibit, the tree grows into adjacent walls, while twigs fan out across a floor of magazines and newsprint shaped like tree stumps.
Gallery cofounder Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova says this is the type of art he likes best: experimental, unorthodox, and not even really resembling traditional art. "I'm always looking for things that are talking about what's happening in the world in a non-art way," he says.
The idea of a tree stretching in all directions and breaking through walls is an apt metaphor for Dimensions Variable, which will celebrate five years of experimental exhibits in Miami with the fundraiser Eat Drink Support Art: Dimensions Variable Turns 5.
The gallery was founded by Rodriguez-Casanova and Frances Trombly. She was an artist whose work had been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Fredric Snitzer Gallery, and Emerson Dorsch. He was also an artist and had run an exhibition space, Box, in southwest Miami. "It was a really cool scene because a lot of these kids were coming back from college, so there was a whole young generation of Miami that was starting there. [It was] musicians, other artists who've blown up out of Miami."
Rodriguez-Casanova was young, and so was his approach. "It took money to run [Box], but we had this utopian idea that we would have no board, no outside input, for it to remain what it was," he says. "Financially, it didn't make sense, so in 2003 I just cut out and made my [own] work." A couple of years later, he paired with Trombly, who had successfully petitioned Design District developer Craig Robbins for a free exhibition space in the neighborhood. Together, the duo set about scheduling shows with two goals in mind: "One, to add more to the community, create more dialog, that's always a good thing. And two, [to gain] some kind of negotiating power in the future for having a free studio." Dimensions Variable was officially launched in late 2009.
Five years later, the two have achieved both of their original goals. Run today with the help of fellow artist Adler Guerrier, Dimensions Variable operates in a space funded through grants and donations, where members have studios of their own. And the gallery ranks among the city's top art galleries, in part due to its unique perspective. "Forget about the walls. Forget about filling the space. Do something there," Rodriguez-Casanova says, explaining the DV philosophy. "Whether it's small, whether it's large, whether it's whatever, you don't have to worry about this idea that you need to have inventory on the walls. This is what we want."
Rodriguez-Casanova and Trombly have also made it their mission to bring outside talent to work in Miami. Partnerships with fellow arts organizations such as Cannonball (formerly LegalArt) and the Fountainhead Residency have allowed DV to offer international artists free places to live while they created work for the space. In the early days, Rodriguez-Casanova says, that alone was enough to lure exciting talent. (Today, DV also offers a $1,000 stipend.)
The gallery also supports local artists. Peña is based in Miami, as is Lynne Golob Gelfman, whose work was shown at DV last year. But it's mainly committed to artists with a non-Miami perspective. "Everybody in the city is realizing how important it is to bring the outside in," Rodriguez-Casanova says. "Bringing people in benefits the artists and the community that are working here."
From the beginning, DV shows challenged both artists and audiences. Its first exhibition, "Buildup," featured New York's Shane Aslan Selzer and Miami's Tom Scicluna working side by side but never actually meeting, in an exhibit that unfolded over the course of nearly two months. "We told them: 'Listen, we want you to come into the space at separate times when the other is not here, and we want you to build on each other's works,' " Rodriguez-Casanova explains. "The opening actually happened at the end of the show."
The Design District gallery also hosted exhibits by Magnus Sigurdarson, who installed a roomful of empty canvas frames; Lisa Slominski, who broadcast mundane text messages across a series of mirrors; and an Art Basel karaoke event by the End/Spring Break's Domingo Castillo, who refused to let in anyone but his friends as a commentary on Miami Art Week's famously exclusive parties.
In 2012, redevelopment claimed DV's Design District gallery. Its artists eventually settled downtown in a space provided free by the Miami Worldcenter. The warehouse, formerly home to Captain Harry's Fishing Supply, is not far from Pérez Art Museum Miami.
The exhibit that launched the new location ranks among DV's highlights, Rodriguez-Casanova says. Titled "A Rake's Progress," it featured London artist Julie Hill's detailed staging of a financial meltdown. "She had all these credit cards all over the place, traditional gold-leaf credit cards, just thrown everywhere," Rodriguez-Casanova says. "So you walked in here and it looked like somebody left a financial disaster." The new building, which still bore the pegboard-lined walls and dirty floor left behind by Harry's, contributed to the effect of a company deep in the money pit.
Dimensions Variable has earned a reputation as an institution that respects artists, in part because of its hands-off approach to its exhibits. Often, Rodriguez-Casanova says, he and Trombly have only a vague idea of how an invited artist will transform the warehouse. "We're proudest of taking chances," he explains. "We have faith in the artists. We just keep our hands off and let them do what they're gonna do."
Later this month, Norwegian artist Margrethe Aanestad will take over the space. Though Rodriguez-Casanova is familiar with her oeuvre -- "she pulls a lot from minimalist language; she's using basic shapes and muted colors to create these layers and planes" -- he says he has little idea what she'll produce onsite at DV.
Rodriguez-Casanova and Trombly were among the first pioneers to stake out a place for art downtown. It's not uncommon to find clubgoers still passed out in their cars nearby at 10 or 11 a.m., Rodriguez-Casanova says. But the location also helps pay the bills. DV rents studios above the gallery and also rents parking spaces to PAMM employees. Those subsidies help to cover the space's operating costs, keeping DV's annual budget shockingly low: $6,000 per year, just enough to pay stipends to artists for the six exhibits it stages each year. Compare that to the shiny, new monolith by the bay, Rodriguez-Casanova says: "You could write a gigantic check of like $5 million to PAMM and probably get a lot of bang for your buck. Or you could write a tiny, minuscule check for a small space like ours and... get a lot of attention in terms of being a supporter who's part of the founding of a small space."
That puts the $40 cover charge for DV's birthday party in perspective: 150 partygoers will fund a year's worth of art experiments. DV promises a DJ, live music, and performance art. Plus, an installation by the art collective 3PQ will take over the covered garage outside the gallery's front doors. It involves plastic wrap, light projections, and smoke machines. There will also be a silent auction with donated works by Peña, Aanestad, TM Sisters, Jim Drain, and others. Hey, you can always hit up the nearby clubs afterward.
Eat Drink Support Art: Dimensions Variable Turns 5. 7 p.m. to midnight Friday, January 9, at Dimensions Variable, 100 NE 11th St., Miami; 305-607-5527; dimensionsvariable.net. Tickets cost $40 per person.
Follow Ciara on Twitter: @ciaralavelle