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Vizcaya Assistant Curator Liz Shannon: Miami's Young Artists Are Thriving

Diego Gabaldon's Gestural III (2016), photographyEXPAND
Diego Gabaldon's Gestural III (2016), photography
Courtesy of YoungArts
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Apart from being a cultural melting pot, Miami has produced a fair number of talented artists for a city its size. Daniel Arsham, Hernan Bas, and many others have gone from high-school stars on the local art scene to national and international standouts. Apart from the tropical sun, the single thread connecting these artistic native sons is their affiliation with YoungArts — a national organization providing support for young creative minds at a seminal point in their development.

At its Biscayne Boulevard campus, YoungArts hosts a number of shows by national and local winners of its prestigious award. This Friday, the organization will exhibit work from local honorees in the areas of design, photography, and visual arts in a show spearheaded by Vizcaya Museum & Gardens' assistant curator, Liz Shannon.

The wide range of work features a mix of collage, installation, sculpture, assemblage, and mixed-media pieces that show off some of the city's most exciting and creative minds. Despite its participants' young age, the group show displays highly skilled work from artists with distinct and mature viewpoints.

As work is slowly transported to and installed at the YoungArts campus, New Times spoke with Shannon to get her perspective on how the organization culls such prolific talent.

New Times: How long have you been at Vizcaya? What's your background?

Liz Shannon: I have been assistant curator at Vizcaya since October 2016. Prior to that, I was exhibitions and programming director at Locust Projects. I came to Miami over three years ago to take up the Knight Curatorial Fellowship at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach.

I made art a long time ago, but I’m primarily trained as an art historian and have a PhD in the history of photography (my specialism is photo books). Alongside my art historical background, I’ve had a range of different roles in contemporary art. I ran a storefront space in Glasgow with an artist friend for a couple of years, showing site-specific contemporary work by emerging local artists; worked on a number of exhibitions at Dundee Contemporary Arts in Scotland; and interned with the Public Art Fund in New York City.

I’ve worked or had internships at a range of different types of art institutions, so my background is quite broad. I’ve worked in very small organizations and in big ones. I’ve also written about art for magazines and journals, and occasionally teach.

How did you start working with YoungArts? What was the impetus for the new show?

I met Letty Bassart, YoungArts' director of artistic programs, while I was at Locust Projects. We were exploring possible crossovers or linkups between YoungArts’ pool of young artists and Locust Art Builder, where around 20 Miami-Dade high-school students come together during the summer to produce a collaborative project, resulting in an exhibition. We occasionally had crossover with young people involved with LAB and YoungArts programs. In fact, I know one young artist whose work is included in this show from last year’s LAB.

Letty got in touch last year to ask if I was interested in curating their regional show. I am a great admirer of what YoungArts does, so of course I said yes.

Abbey Franklin's Human Relationships With Food, Part 1 (2016), collage with photography and mixed mediaEXPAND
Abbey Franklin's Human Relationships With Food, Part 1 (2016), collage with photography and mixed media
Courtesy of YoungArts

One of the challenges of curating a diverse group show is trying to keep it cohesive. How did you approach curating this show? Any themes or motifs you were looking to highlight?

I did think about how to create a cohesive show, but more than that, I thought about how each artist would be best and most effectively represented.

Each person submitted up to ten projects or pieces of work, so I looked carefully at each portfolio and read what the artist had to say about their practice. I tried to pick their strongest work and/or that which was most reflective of what I perceived they were trying to communicate.

Once the work was chosen, I have tried to create interesting and effective juxtapositions while still giving each work enough space to breathe.

I also wanted to avoid overwhelming the viewers with too much work. I want them to see the best of what was submitted and enjoy the experience of seeing what these young artists have produced.

Thalia Suri's Confined (2016), collageEXPAND
Thalia Suri's Confined (2016), collage
Courtesy of YoungArts

There seems to be a good amount of collage work, or assemblage pieces with photographic elements. Why did these pieces stand out to you?

I do tend to like collage, but I’m not sure if these works are particularly well represented. Collage or assemblage can be made of scrap materials or ephemera – things that most people have on hand – so it’s understandable why artists, particularly young ones who might not have the budget to buy a lot of materials, might create a lot of collage. It can also be a way of working through an idea – another way of making a sketch. The show includes two works on the same subject by Thalia Suri: One is a painting, and one is a study featuring elements of collage. I ended up including both in the show because while the subject is the same, the small collage has a very different feeling than the painting – it is more playful and equally interesting.

I was actually quite surprised by the amount of painting and drawing, and the relative lack of digital work that the artists submitted. There’s a good amount of photography (both by photographers and artists working with photography among a range of other media) and quite a few artists working with performance. The exhibition features video documentation of several artists’ performances alongside costumes and other elements used or produced during past performances. There will also be at least two live performances the night of the opening. The show features a healthy spread of media.

For a fairly small city, Miami has produced a decent batch of artists. What do you think makes the city such a creative hotbed? Is it the fusion of cultures, the educational opportunities, a burgeoning art scene?

I think Miami often punches above its weight in terms of the arts, in part because creativity is respected and valued here. I also think Miami benefits in some senses from being on the periphery – by not being New York or Los Angeles. You can talk about Miami’s collector base and Art Basel in Miami Beach, but parts of the city’s art scene have a DIY attitude and approach that I really love. There’s freedom to experiment and not be driven or distracted by what’s considered hot. The art magnet schools are also valuable for young people who have clear talent or have been directed down that route. YoungArts programs and masterclasses that bring in outstanding people from outside the city are also very important.

There are things that we could do better – it is a terrible shame that so many public schools in the city are not able to offer art classes to their students. Sometimes there’s still a Wild West attitude that isn’t always positive, but the flip side of that is this directness and authenticity, and many opportunities if you are flexible and imaginative.

These are all young artists. Do you see their age reflected in their work? If so, how?

Sometimes the artists’ relative youth is reflected in their subject matter – perhaps through the exploration of familial relationships (which, if you still have to live with your family, is probably more on your mind than they might be after you’ve moved out) or the types of feelings that many of us have had growing up (and perhaps still have), like frustration, pain, and alienation. However, these themes can also be located in more mature artists’ work.

None of the artists are working with very expensive materials – they’re not usually having their work fabricated for them, for instance. So to that extent, their age is reflected in their work. However, I rarely see their age reflected in their work in terms of a lack of professionalism, thoughtfulness, or skill. Some of the portfolios were on a footing with those of artists with well-established practices. It’s very heartening for the future of Miami’s art scene that this is the case!

Victoria Escobar's The Human Condition (2016), collage with photography and mixed mediaEXPAND
Victoria Escobar's The Human Condition (2016), collage with photography and mixed media
Courtesy of YoungArts

Miami Design, Photography, and Visual Arts Show
February 24 through March 31 at YoungArts, 2100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-377-1140; youngarts.org. Admission is free.

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