The cubists had Guillaume Apollinaire, the surrealists André Breton. Guild, an emerging group of eight Miami painters, all New World School of the Arts grads, have Ricardo Pau-Llosa to champion their cause.
Since discovering the octet during a Little Havana exhibit coinciding with Art Basel this past December, the local poet and art critic has written an essay for a catalogue of Guild's exhibitions and shepherded the artists to the Upper Eastside's Ladder Room, where he hopes their work will garner wider exposure.
In his essay about Guild, Pau-Llosa describes the group as part of a broader generational awareness he terms "renewal modernism," adding that the painters are conscious of the irony in their position as rebels against the reigning postmodernist ethos driving contemporary art. Each of the painters follows an individual style; it's their highly polished technical skills that join them.
"When I first encountered the group during Basel, I was struck by how cocky they were by rebelling against the status quo in a very traditional way, yet one that is not academic at all," Pau-Llosa says, explaining that much contemporary art is all about the argument and not the work. "We are all stuck in this huge pomo media soup now. These guys are doing great and highly original work and were already formed as a group. I just encouraged them to follow through and be more cohesive without debilitating their sensibilities."
A modest venue located next to Uva 69 Restaurant, Ladder Room doesn't pretend to be a gallery, although it has mounted exhibits of Miami Herald photographer Carl Juste's work and recently shown some of Rafael Soriano's paintings coinciding with his retrospective at the Lowe, says artist Sinuhe Vega, who runs the venue. "The space has gone through different incarnations through the years," Vega says, adding that it has become "a trampoline project space where local artists and curators can collaborate on shows" outside the city's traditional gallery scene.
After Basel, Pau-Llosa approached Vega with the idea of exhibiting eight solo shows during a four-month span for each of the member artists: Abdiel Acosta, Frank Garaitonandia, Lu Gold, Todd Eliott Mansa, Yamel Molerio, Vincent Serritella, José Luis Telot, and Jovan Karlo Villalba.
"I became excited," Vega says. "It's sort of like a relay race with each artist taking a turn in the spot every two weeks. We're even having literary readings during our new openings to create buzz for these artists."
Already making a big statement at the tiny gallery in the bustling nabe is Mansa, whose portraits of childhood friends and gritty urban scenes kicked off the second leg of the Guild show.
Mansa's Sojourn of the Day Twin (Tarell Alvin McCraney) depicts award-winning Miami playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney — who became a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in April 2010 — in front of a Liberty City butcher shop and corner store.
"The New York Times basically invented an award for playwrights and gave the inaugural one to him," Mansa says of his friend. "Tarell used to get beat up a lot in front of that store on the corner of NW 62nd Street and 17th Avenue. James Baldwin said that it is expensive to be poor. I use that as a metaphor for painting the inner-city experiences of people who are forged by strife rather than becoming victims of it."
Oshun Ibn Ikole (Loni Jae) also portrays a friend Mansa says has been an inspiration to the community. Loni Jae teaches at New World School of the Arts — McCraney and Mansa's alma mater — and works with Voices United teaching performance to at-risk kids. "She is another example of many of us that grew up during the crack epidemic that devastated this city during the '80s and have gone on to contribute something positive with our lives," Mansa says.
This Saturday at 7 p.m., Mansa has invited his buddy Summer Hill Seven to recite excerpts from his Poemedy Trilogy's final book, Squircular!: An Actor's Tale, during Mansa's exhibit at Ladder Room. The author and filmmaker was recently recognized as one of New Times' top 100 local creative thinkers leading up to the 2011 MasterMind Awards.
"Summer will be performing a piece on a series of works I created dealing with concepts of the kabbalah and sacred geometry," Mansa says.
All of the Guild artists reside in South Florida — save Serritella, who works for Pixar and lives in Oakland — and are in their 30s, except the group's founder, Molerio, who is 40. Molerio, Acosta, and Garaitonandia, a Miami New Times MasterMind Award finalist, teach art at Miami-Dade public schools.
They have all exhibited their work locally, and some have had shows in Los Angeles and New York.
The group came together last year, Molerio says, when he began organizing nomadic exhibits for what he calls "underrepresented" artists around town. The collective had staged several shows: "Malice in Wonderland," the drawing exhibit "Crossing the Lines," and "I'm From Miami Bitch!!!," the show during Basel that caught Pau-Llosa's eye. "Up to that point, we had come together loosely and had a name for the group, but it was Pau-Llosa who helped us get structured and disciplined," Molerio says.
Since December, Guild members have united around a ten-point manifesto based on originality, craftsmanship, and more traditional concepts of art, Molerio explains.
All technically accomplished, the artists tackle widely differing images and subjects in their work. Acosta creates scenes reminiscent of old cartographers' ocean maps, with the denizens of the deep rising to consume storm-tossed ships. Gold depicts solitary young women drowning in suburban swimming pools, while Serritella employs a pop art sensibility when painting fragmented female nudes.
In his pieces, Molerio stitches paper and fabric onto the surfaces, suturing the canvases as if working on an autopsy slab. Villalba creates panoramic dystopian landscapes, while Garaitonandia produces nebulous scenes pitting what appear to be World War I-era soldiers against mutant insects and flying machines.
Telot's compelling paintings experiment with light, conjuring ghostly apparitions in gray tones on surfaces that seem as pocked as the dark side of the moon.
"A lot of the stuff you see these days has no meaning," Pau-Llosa says. "It takes about half a second to absorb and is like the punch line of a joke you need to read some text panel to understand. For me, what the artists involved with the Guild are doing is what understanding art has always been."
Molerio agrees: "If you look at what we are doing, you will see a love of painting and respect for craftsmanship, but you will also see a level of talent that is underrepresented for some reason in this town. Don't get me wrong. We are not saying all the conceptual art you see in most local galleries is shit. But sometimes a lot of it is."