Miami Art 2009: During tough economic times, artists turn to the otherworld

With impressive exhibits ranging from Salvador Dali to the Dalai Lama, 2009 was a year when South Florida museums and galleries appeared to survive major budget cuts and a crippled art market with grit. Local museums scaled back operations and extended shows to weather the financial crunch. Galleries put the almighty dollar on hold and took risks with more noncommercial shows.

A sense of gravitas was clearly palpable in several smartly curated and highly contemplative offerings that addressed spirituality and other somber themes reflecting our troubled times. The results made for a season that saw art spaces and institutions accomplish more with less, even though by the end of the year, some began to show cracks from the stress.

Recently at the Frost Art Museum, director and chief curator Carol Damian best summed up the challenges confronting Miami's art community. "Ideally we should have 25 full-time staff members for a museum this size," she observed. "But like most other museums in town, we have had to adapt to the challenges as best we can.

"We are making do with 15 devoted employees who often wear up to three different hats," she said. "I have my development officer hanging signs for shows and the security personnel painting the walls."

But despite green-stamp budgets and a decrease in philanthropy, it was hard for the most part to tell the local art community was suffering at all.

The year began with a coup at the Freedom Tower, where Miami Dade College's Art Gallery System organized an exhibit by surrealist master Salvador Dali.

"The Divine Comedy" featured 101 rare watercolor prints the Italian government commissioned from the Spanish painter to illustrate Dante's masterpiece on the occasion of the poet's 700th birthday.

From 1951 to 1954, Dali created a drawing for each of the iconic book's cantos for a deluxe edition of The Divine Comedy to be published by the State Press in Rome. But when the Italians learned a Spanish painter with fascist sympathies had been given the task of illustrating their nation's loftiest literary work, the outrage was widespread.

Not one to tuck tail and run, Dali forged on, pocketed the fat commission he had been paid by the Italians, and completed the drawings for a French publisher who produced them as wood engravings between 1959 and 1963. Dali considered the completed series the most important of his career.

At the Freedom Tower, the exhibit — arranged in three separate halls, each painted a different color to highlight Dante's Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise — made for a powerful statement that the marriage between painter and poet was both complex and heavenly.

A more earthly form of spirituality was also extolled. During the spring, Miami Art Museum weighed in with some major mojo mania in "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith."

The sprawling show conjured the religious beliefs of those who have migrated to the States from distant shores. It featured 50 works by 33 artists in a seething cauldron of media, ranging from sculpture and photography to assemblage, video, and performance.

Co-organized by the Menil Collection and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and curated by Franklin Sirmans, the potent show addressed ritual in the artistic process and the broader implications of spirituality in contemporary art.

Standouts included José Bedia's Palo Monte-inspired piece, The Things that Drag Me, fusing Afro-Cuban and Native American beliefs, and Radcliffe Bailey's Storm at Sea, which evoked the Middle Passage and the Yoruban god of thunder and lightning, Shango.

Another artist who made a visceral impact was Regina José Galindo, who sought to convey political injustice by exposing herself to violence. In an arresting series of videos, the performance artist allowed strangers to repeatedly zap her with a Taser on a crowded street and then let a hulking brute dunk her headfirst into an oil drum full of water.

Ironically, that old black magic seemed to snakebite MAM later in the year, when museum director Terence Riley unexpectedly resigned, leaving the institution in a lurch.

One of the most intriguing gallery shows of 2009 was "Reverón's Dolls" at the Leonard Tachmes Gallery in the Design District, which featured 37 hair-raising photographs by Venezuelan Luis Brito.

The artist transported the viewer into the surreal realm of his countryman Armando Reverón, who died in 1954 after a slow decline into dementia. During his lifetime, Reverón, one of the most enigmatic figures in Latin American art history, created macabre, life-size, anatomically correct muses out of burlap sacks plucked from garbage heaps.

Dressed in a loincloth, he lived in a ramshackle compound created from palm fronds and trash where he led an almost aboriginal existence. The mad genius used his dolls as models for his paintings and was rumored to have relations with them, even "fathering babies" with his moldy muses.

Brito documented the rotting carcasses of Reverón's harem for posterity, and the results on view at the Tachmes space, painted a dark eggplant hue for the occasion, were nightmarish.

Another unforgettable show with a ghoulish resonance was "Devil's Disciple," by graffiti-rat-turned-fine-artist NeckFace at O.H.W.O.W., which the street renegade transmogrified into a haunted house during Halloween.

The opening was one of the best-attended events on the year's cultural calendar and drew a crowd of more than 5,000, not to mention cops, who showed up to close down the show.

For the monster exhibit, NeckFace created a suite of drawings replete with blood-puking tots, amputees, and a raunchy cast of zombies, all arranged on walls covered floor to ceiling with gory crime scene photos of murder victims torn from Mexican pulp magazines.

His show was complemented by a display of pointy-toothed chrome masks exhibited on a pile of dirt covered with life-size caskets against a garish traffic-cone-orange wall.

In the haunted house, NeckFace's relatives, who gathered here from California for the frightful shindig, attempted to spook spectators while a phalanx of skateboarders zipped down a soaring wooden ramp to entertain the crowd.

The Frost Art Museum closed out the year and the decade with "The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama," corralling the works of more than 80 artists paying homage to the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and spiritual leader.

The show, which runs through this weekend, includes works by Chuck Close, Laurie Anderson, Bill Viola, Anish Kapoor, Jenny Holzer, Marina Abramovic, and many other top-drawer names.

In the rear of the museum gallery, Bodies of Light, a haunting Viola piece, depicts male and female figures on opposing video screens that seem charged with inner spiritual energy. As viewers watch the figures dissolve, eerie glowing orbs flutter across the vanishing pair, suggesting an alien abduction.

In spite of a year hobbled by shaky arts funding, these memorable exhibits offer a remarkable reminder that at a time when many cultural institutions and galleries have closed nationwide, Miami's art community remains on solid ground.

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus