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Little Havana Heights

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The genesis for "I Do, I Do" came when one of Yovani Bauta's frustrated art students blurted, "I want to torch my wedding dress!" in his portrait painting class. Bauta had been teaching the tight-knit group of mostly middle-age Latin American women during community education classes at Miami Dade College's InterAmerican Campus for the past two years. After hearing his student's comment, he challenged them to explore their own histories and the institution of marriage by creating self-portraits in the form of a wedding dress, rather than through painting.

"Some were immediately enthusiastic about the project," Bauta explains. "Others seemed a bit intimidated about working with new materials and started painting wedding gowns at first."

After a year of tinkering with the concept, the fledging artists -- who call themselves W-10 -- recently were rewarded with an exhibit at Contemporanea Fine Arts during Little Havana's monthly Viernes Culturales event.


Little Havana art galleries

Contemporanea Fine Arts, 1555 SW 8th St, Miami; 305-642-3080. 801 Projects, 801 SW 3rd Ave, Miami; 786-399-7375, www.myspace.com/801projects, www.camposition.org. Open studios, through July 3, by appointment.

Visitors to this new space are not going to encounter the ubiquitous paintings of fighting cocks or nostalgic landscapes of Cuba typical of many of the area's galleries, according to owner Lily Martin.

"You won't find any of that stuff here. We are more of an alternative space with a focus on edgier work, and we want to show contemporary artists, stage performances, and organize themed events. I also believe it's important to support serious student projects like this," the high-energy Martin gushed while preparing for the opening of the funky bridal show.

Once upon a Time, gynecologist Maria Castillo's wedding gown, was draped on a mannequin torso and featured a stretch pearl-covered bodice and ruffled skirt painted in swaths of pastels collaged over with pictures of her wedding in Nicaragua decades ago.

Brazilian Cristina Beltrami, who met and married her husband while vacationing in Cuba, exhibited the actual sundress she wore during her nuptials; on the shimmering white garment, she painted herself sunbathing at Varadero. Her piece, My Cathedral, was emblazoned with colorful circular patches, several depicting portraits of her two children.

One of the funnier works was Esther Mendoza's installation Never Again, which included a handful of wedding gown studies she painted to psych herself up for the project. The Colombian artist, who is on the verge of retiring as a financial aid counselor at Miami Dade College, stuffed a wedding dress into a garbage can along with an empty champagne bottle, a rotting floral bouquet, shoes, a thong, and a garter, and crowned her opus with a photo of the ex-hubby replete with devil horns drawn on his noggin.

Across from it, Aleida Foristieri's Baile de Ilusiones showed some sculptural flair as well. The Santo Domingo woman's crafty confection featured a crystal-trimmed bustier, flowing ecru lace veil, and a full chicken-wire-and-Christmas-light hoop skirt, its cagelike nature somewhat evocative of a trap.

Roots, Elcira Chomat's nod to her Cuban heritage, incorporated coconut palm husks and burlap fabric into what was one of the most original pieces on display. The elegant gown, boasting a strapless bodice and a semicathedral train, appeared ripe for a catwalk spin in a haute couture bridal show.

The youngest of Bauta's students, Diani Safdeye and Aurora Molina, the first a Jewish Colombian, the second a Catholic Cuban -- and both barely in their twenties -- were the spirited dynamos sparking the show.

Bauta says the two dragged a sewing machine into class as soon as the idea for the wedding gown self-portraits was hatched and were a source of inspiration for classmates double and triple their age.

"They immediately began incorporating a sculptural sensibility in their work, inspiring the others to loosen up their approach and follow suit," the instructor says.

Never having tied the knot themselves, the young artists created A Dress's History, a stunning show-stealer fashioned out of flesh-tone latex and quilt batting and embroidered throughout with multiple portraits of the women in their families and reflections on their marriages.

With its raw concrete floors, uncluttered walls, and neatly displayed work, the Contemporanea space seems way off the reservation compared to the dozen other galleries peppering the two-block strip.

"Contemporanea has taken on a double challenge with this show," Bauta intones. "First of all, Lily Martin is showing work that is closer to concept rather than the traditional exhibits common on Calle Ocho. More importantly, she has given an opportunity to a group of unrecognized artists who are at the very beginning of their careers."

Observing the crush of people bursting Contemporanea's seams during the opening of "I Do, I Do," it appeared like a match made in heaven for those desperately seeking fresh blood in the hood.

The following Saturday night, on the far eastern fringe of Little Havana, 801 Projects organized an open studio bash featuring one of performance artist Octavio Campos's Subversive Cabaret works.

Nestled next to the I-95 overpass on SW Eighth Street, 801 Projects houses nearly a dozen studios and the Camposition Lab Space, through which nine resident artists and nearly seventy visiting artists have engaged in exhibits, performances, and workshops over the past year, Campos says.

While visiting the building's second-floor studios, I was amazed by how large a crowd the event had attracted during Memorial Day weekend.

The halls and studios were choked like cholesterol-clogged arteries as the public wended its way through the warren of spaces, in which artists were holding forth about their work. The vibe was more like a gathering of friends than a hit-and-run gallery crawl.

Spectators engaged artists in conversations about works in progress while lounging on couches and chairs, drinking wine, and smoking cigars.

In Pedro Portal's studio, the El Nuevo Herald lensman pulled out a series of photographs he has been working on for an upcoming show in Spain, "Historias de Barcelona," inspired by Juan Abreu's book Diosas.

As he arranged the erotic series of eye-popping digital prints on the floor, Portal explained he had taken the provocative shots while staying with Abreu in Barcelona this past spring. "It's a much more open society over there," Portal said.

One of the works depicted a closeup of a bound woman whose vulva was covered by worms. Another picture showed a blindfolded brunet. And in yet another, a woman curled around her own knees, a lit candle glowing from inside her labia.

A striking closeup of a woman's splayed legs and vagina revealed disembodied hands bracketing a dinner plate on which a cockroach laid.

While shuffling about, Portal patiently discussed his work and the conceptual process behind it while visitors kneeled, transfixed, around the images.

Across from his space the aromatic scent of a puro wafted out of Nereida Garca-Ferraz's neatly organized workspace.

The artist graciously offered a stogy and a glass of French wine from her personal stash while hosting the dime tour and entertaining visitors with tales of her recent month-long Paris sojourn.

A tantalizing series of drawings on newspapers, based on Cuban patriot Jos' Mart, was pinned like moths to a wall over her desk. Explaining her process, she mentioned that she blacks out the newsprint with spray paint, creating a chalkboard effect, before loosely rendering her images with white and red pastel sticks.

A large graphite-on-paper painting, La Leccin, depicted a young Muslim boy engrossed in the Koran; an image of a hand grenade covered a page of the sacred text.

At one point, several tattooed graffiti rats elbowed their way through a group of middle-age artists in town from West Palm Beach to talk shop with Sergio Garcia in his studio.

One of the scruffy youngbloods, who goes by the moniker AholSniffsGlue and had styled himself in black socks with ratty flip-flops, chatted Garcia up about the graybeard artist's punk aesthetic.

Garcia became animated while talking about Lord-Man, a large painting in progress soaked in acid yellows and pinks, depicting several spectral figures, one of them holding a dagger over his heart and sporting a fiery broken wing.

Next door Ben Weinberg, who gave up lawyering for the canvas and brush, his first love, juked me out of my shoes with a whopping hyperrealist painting of his infant son surrounded by stuffed toys in his crib. At first glance, Baby's Dream appeared to be a blown-up photograph because of its impossibly crisp details. Even upon closer inspection, I had to focus my gun sights with laser precision to detect traces of Weinberg's hand.

Angela Vallela, one of the founding members of 801 Projects and also a founder of Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH), who retired recently after fifteen years of teaching at the school, nearly had to whip out a fly swatter to clear out hangers-on and make way for those clamoring for a peek inside her packed space.

After squeezing into her bustling studio, all I could manage was a fleeting glimpse of some of her exquisite oil-and-graphite-on-Mylar works, including Disciplinary Action, a frenetic vision of a soaring skyscraper festooned with red flags and surrounded by the exoskeletal silhouettes of boom cranes not unlike the view outside her window.

The highlight of the evening was Campos's Subversive Cabaret IV- Fashionable Diseases, in which Dr. Alexis Powell and pharmaceutical rep Richard Standifer joined the choreographer and collaborators Natasha Tsakos and Heather Maloney in concocting an intoxicating brew of diseases, drugs, fashion, science, dance, and theater inside a glass-enclosed, candle-lit caf' setting.

This series of performance labs, fluidly involving audience participation, serves as source material for Campos's new work The Bug Chasers, premiering at the Carnival Center this coming fall.

The work's title takes its name from gay men who compulsively try to become HIV positive in what Campos calls an "eroticized game of viral Russian roulette."

Upon entering the space, audience members were greeted by people wearing lab coats and asked to pull a folded paper from a bag for a raffle that would conclude the show.

As doctors discussed a series of "fashionable diseases" and cited statistics, the performers strutted their stuff in front of a video projection: Maloney in the corner, squeezing her skull into a purple porcupine-shape shower cap; Campos cocooning himself in a see-through plastic bag behind a pane of glass; and Tsakos using a wet-vac hose to suck the air out of his shorts.

The mentions of female desire disorder and smooth vaginal muscle tone drew titters from the crowd as Tsakos heatedly fanned herself and chugged water from a bottle while squirming atop a microwave popping corn.

The screen switched to a YouTube snippet featuring an obese snaggletoothed black man wearing tighty whiteys and scratching his bare midriff while moaning that a bout of chicken pox was driving him mad.

The performers waded into the audience with magic markers, contaminating each other and the public with a red rash, hitting home hard with the premise behind the audacious Bug Chasers.

At the end of the performance, Campos asked audience members to whip out their raffle tickets to see who had won.

Mine read "poz" (as in HIV-positive), leaving my head spinning with an overdose of stimuli, yet echoing how fulfilling my two-night foray into alternative Little Havana had been.

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