Miami’s Year in Art

Slumped on a barren Wynwood sidewalk in the wee hours of a recent Saturday morning, a group of Big Apple bohos in town for Art Basel wondered whether the local scene could maintain an elevated profile the rest of the year.

"It seems like everyone we know is here for the fair, but does anything serious really happen in Miami when it's gone?" one wag croaked, offering a hot beer from his backpack to soften the dig.

His sting might have prickled in past years, when a lull in activity and quality followed in the wake of the fair. South Florida galleries and museums had traditionally saved their big guns for Basel; arsenals were often left depleted to low-caliber pop shots in the aftermath.

Cynics and Miami haters take note: That has changed. And if 2007 offers any indication, our city is poised to continue flexing cultural muscle. Here are some examples of the Magic City's ongoing maturation as an arts town:

Goya: The Engravings of the Caixanova Collection: At the Freedom Tower, Francisco Goya's caustic series of 218 engravings, created between 1799 and 1823, struck a chord still relevant today. Exhibited together for the first time in the United States and presented by Miami Dade College, the works depicted the Spanish master's brush with state-sponsored terror during the Inquisition, as well as the brutality of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. The stunning exhibit demonstrated why art historians now recognize Goya as the first modernist and why the 80 engravings that compose The Caprices remain one of history's most powerful indictments of man's inhumanity to man.

Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted: Miami Art Museum's stellar show marked the first major U.S. exhibition of Rufino Tamayo's work in nearly 30 years, and featured close to 100 paintings culled from private and institutional collections across the globe. Many of the captivating pieces at MAM had not been publicly displayed for decades. The sprawling show examined 70 years of the Mexican master's prolific career and lasting impact.

Karen Kilimnik: The first American survey of Kilimnik's career, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, featured more than 90 works spanning the past two decades. Her darkly provocative, awkwardly executed paintings, drawings, photographs, assemblage, and installations mirrored why the enigmatic artist has become known as one of the most important talents of her generation. The Red Room in the Modern Architecture, a white cube within a white cube near the museum's entrance, opened onto a gaudy Victorian-style parlor where 19th-century Russian ballet, British romantic painting, classical literature, popular consumer culture, and whiffs of the Brothers Grimm combined with dazzling effect.

Make Your Own Life: Artists in and out of Cologne: This edgy survey of Cologne's mythic alternative scene of the late Eighties and early Nineties corralled more than 25 European and American artists under one roof at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It distilled the cultural hive that reshaped the industrial burg on the Rhine, flattened by allied bombing raids during World War II and transformed into a contemporary art capital rivaling New York in the span of a generation.

Constructing New Berlin: The Bass Museum's heavy-hitting show captured the rebirth of Berlin following the collapse of the Wall in 1989 and marked the first major survey of contemporary art created in the über-hip, anything-goes creative playground that rose from the rubble of the Cold War. It featured 15 Berlin-based artists of diverse nationalities and included painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, sound, and performance art, most of it created in the 21st Century and some specifically for the show. The Berlin Files, a collaborative work by Canadians Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, roped spectators into a bizarre, fragmented narrative and left us craving more of the talented couple's work.

The Killing Machine and Other Stories 1995-2007: This sensational first entry in the MAC @ MAM sweeps features 11 multimedia installations by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, delivering breathtaking works that mix opera, art films, and literature with B movies, rock and roll, and radio broadcasts, defying pigeonholing. The Killing Machine, from which the show takes its name, was inspired by Franz Kafka's story In the Penal Colony. Intended as a meditation on capital punishment in America, the robotic, electric-chairlike contraption elicits chills as it telegraphs what terror suspects, held at covert prisons operated by the United States and other "enlightened" governments, might actually be encountering today. (The show is on view through January 20 at MAM.)

Coming Attractions: Arguably among the most head-turning exhibits in a local gallery this year, Arnold Meches's sweeping show at the Dorsch Gallery gathered 40 staggering works by the 84-year-old painter, who has been slinging pigment since Truman was in the White House. He proved to be on an entirely different frequency than artists a third his age, fermenting his canvases in an Insane Clown Posse-meets-Edgar Allan Poe vibe that delivered skull-staving blows.

Of course, it wouldn't be Miami without missteps, and there were a few of those this year as well:

Calle Ocho Art District Association: Founded at the beginning of 2007 to freshen the image of what many consider the ass crack of Miami's cultural scene, the 13 spaces composing Little Havana's arts community still find themselves in a woeful state. Despite banding together for a show of force, these galleries can't lure serious art aficionados to the bustling nabe. Forget photography, video, installation, or conceptual work — one has to scratch like a rooster grubbing for worms to find it here. During a visit to several spaces in the hood during Basel, some shops were shuttered, while other gallery owners bitched and moaned. "We've had zero visitors," Agustin Gainza said. "It's as surreal outside my gallery as it is inside." We couldn't agree more.

Cathartic: Debra Holt's squirrelly tribute to the events of 9/11, during a yearlong exhibit at her space, Abba Fine Art, raised the bar on self-serving bad taste. The artist lobbed a grenade at the national tragedy in a jumbled kitschfest where photos of victims and fallen firefighters mixed with faded newspaper headlines, withered flowers, candles, seashells, sand dollars, animal figurines, porcelain roses, and silver crucifix candelabra in maudlin, cheesy displays.

Wynwood Sculpture Garden: Inaugurated during Art Basel amid much rhapsodizing by local developers and pomp and circumstance courtesy of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, Hans Van de Bovenkamp's five monumental brushed stainless-steel sculptures reflect the galloping hype polluting the city's cultural growing pangs. The crimped-off "sculpture garden" — sandwiched between two warehouses, at 2229 NW Second Ave., where a garbage dump was replaced practically overnight with quickly laid sod and kitty litter walkways — makes Gary Nader's parking lot a few blocks away look like the Champs Elysées.

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus