“It's interesting that when we're young, we do everything in our power to avoid becoming like our parents,” says John Sevigny. “It's a natural part of becoming independent, and I'm a little suspicious of young people who aren't rebellious in that respect.”
A photographer and Miami native, Sevigny has always been a rebel. Local music fans may remember him as a former stalwart of Miami's underground scene, performing with outfits such as the Human Oddities and the Feebles; others know him for his relation to actor Chloë Sevigny. In his time away from Miami, Sevigny honed his camera skills, walking the line between the worlds of straightforward documentarian and artistic photographer. Now he's back with "La Fiesta Brava," an exhibit of photos taken in Central America that feature often-ignored, wholly surreal environments.
Sevigny says his aesthetic — part documentarian, part artist — helps set his work apart in Miami's crowded art scene. “That's one of the things that makes it so attractive to nonphotographers, which is to say the vast majority of people who care,” he explains.
Not falling within accepted norms suits Sevigny well, and it is evident in his work. Surreal without manipulation, whimsical without naiveté, it is allegorical of the human condition he happens to capture as he walks by. Sevigny immerses himself in the societies where he shoots, and that intimacy is the greatest boon to his work. He cites painters Caravaggio and Velázquez as influences before he references photographers, which speaks volumes about his eye for color, the power of darkness, and compositional balance within a frame.
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“There's a very diverse range of feelings, tones, flavors, and ideas in the body of work I've made, not because I planned it that way, but because I work on instinct, very much from the gut," Sevigny says. “Not everyone likes all of my pictures, but I have at least one picture for everyone. A photo editor at National Geographic has one of my prints on an office wall, but so does a bishop in Mexico. I have photographed prostitutes and gang members.”
"La Fiesta Brava," his latest show at Stacy Conde’s recently launched Conde Contemporary Project Space (CCPS), is a collection of work from Sevigny’s travels throughout Central America, specifically to critical areas that rarely get the attention they deserve — places such as El Salvador and Guatemala, better known for corruption and strife than their aesthetic appeal. Sevigny has spent five years teaching postgraduate photography in El Salvador, and though it's evident he doesn't see through his lens as a native, he does have an appreciation for the culture and an understanding of how truly surreal these developing nations can be.
That subject matter has special resonance in Miami, where 70 percent of the population is Hispanic. Sevigny might not have known it before he set out to put this show together, but this exhibit will force Miami’s artistic elite to examine not only the work but also the context in which the work is shown: a project space in Little Havana.
Along with the exhibit, Sevigny — ever the educator — will host a series of classes on photography, called Learning to See, as well as a walking tour of the neighborhood. He says his goal is to create an experience that translates beyond the walls where his photos hang.
“Little Havana had to become what it has. It's a kind of gentrification, but it's not as soul-killing as what I've seen in New York, Chicago, or even Mexico City,” Sevigny observes. “It's certainly not South Beach, which, with the exception of the art deco façades, was gutted and rebuilt in Day-Glo colors rather than the sea-and-sky pastels of the past. Little Havana has maintained its identity even as it's become a draw for tourists... I can't imagine a better place [for the exhibit]. Both the work and the neighborhood are polished but still gritty. It's perfect.”
John Sevigny’s "La Fiesta Brava" opens at 7 p.m. Friday, September 9, at Conde Contemporary Project Space, 1007 SW Eighth St., Miami. The show will run through September 30. Visit condecontemporary.com.