Wide Portrait of Painting

My art chronicle begins on a rainy Friday night, on my way to Ambrosino Gallery in North Miami. Upon arrival I don't find too many people, but those there are staunch art lovers. In spite of the rain, they gather by the door. "The less people there are at exhibits," a young guy dressed in black tells me, his right arm covered in tattoos, "the more interesting the conversation." Gavin Perry is outside with one "gang" member, Luke Batten. Showing is "Gang of Four," an exhibition actually consisting of six, but don't question the seeming discrepancy. In the world of art, the edges of traditional logic are always pushed.

Is there a rationale for a show? That's like asking how many different ways there are to slice a cake. The attitude in contemporary circles is to pretend to know. Tonight I confess I feel either inept or ignorant, but I cannot make this one out. And I don't want to ask anyone. Shouldn't the work speak for itself? If art is visual, public, and (somewhat) objective, I will tie things together in whatever way they appear to me -- think of Nelson Goodman, the great American pragmatist: "Give me two different things, and I'll link them no matter how oddly." A little Buddha with red and blue ribbons, gyrating on a pedestal; a train going on forever in circles; an upside-down photograph of red berries against the bluest sky, next to a video of smoke signals in a yellowish forest against the Rockies. My guess at this time of the night: nature versus manmade -- and I haven't had a drop of alcohol.

I move over to Gavin Perry's installation in the project room. The sculpture resembles a guitar in flames sans fingerboard, standing on a kitschy rug. One side of the piece is bright red; the other is faux-leather, which matches the leopard-spot-motif rug. It's weird but cool. I can only think of it in an other-than-artsy way, suggestive of an aloof trekker going west, hanging out at cheap motels, entering stuffy, neon-lit lounges. Pick your favorite music to go along with it: Morphine, Yo La Tengo, Friends of Dean Martinez.

Two days later: driving up I-95 again. No rain this time. It's Miami Avenue strip night. I arrive at Dorsch Gallery and wow! Painting is back. "4 Painters" exposes a bunch of Miami's best. Along with the works, I see the painting process. Stop by Jordan Massengale's pieces. If you haven't seen this, you're missing something. Massengale is one of Miami's most promising young painters. His anti-pose, direct, aggressive neo-Expressionist, fuck-you-attitude is both visceral and fresh. Come close to these canvases and savor these open, audacious gestures.

Why was there never a neo-Impressionism? Don't think of the usual crew -- Seurat, Gaugin, van Gogh, Cézanne. Children of modernity, those artists were trying to move away from Impressionism, not rework it. Later the avant-garde went so radically anti-bourgeois that it made beauty taboo. George Bethea makes me think of Impressionism again, but not quite. He reworks the usual stereotype and mixes it with enough ambiguity to render it akin to late Monet, minus the fin-de-siècle angst. Quick and profuse, with a controlled palette, Bethea turns his ordinary back yard into an aesthetic gem.

Miami is known for blue seas and pink flamingos, so it's good that Kerry Ware's neo-Romantic paintings change that perception -- even if anachronistically. Tonight his Weather Sky series also takes me away from Miami's flat horizon of concrete-and-highway monotony to a realm of hazy grays, aqua, and pale greens. Ware's circular sanding gestures in the plaster's surface dislocate the integrity of individual colors to create flashes of abstract sensuality.

With the exception of a self-portrait, all Franklin Einspruch's pieces depict moods of private female introspection. He is good at it. Subjects are rendered realistically, but their contours are altered -- smeared and sliced with a precise and convincing pulse. Einspruch's characters seem alienated, but this is deceiving. The artist's nervous work also suggests an inner commotion, not strange to our modern lives. I sense a subtle social undercurrent. Think of some of Lucien Freud's existential predicaments with a spatula.

Later I pass by Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. I've never seen so much earth inside a gallery in Miami. The big mound, in the middle of the big room, is literally packed with dozens of large and small shell-like sculptures, and the result is imposing. This is Rimer Caramillo's installation, "Vanishing Habits," the evidence of what's gone but what still carries a poetic history.

Then there is Deborah Willis's "The Bodybuilder Series," a photo collection contrasting gender roles and domestic stereotypes. Willis's job is soulful yet hermetic. I compare the crisp photos of the black female bodybuilder with the black-and-white photos of older black women having their hair styled in a salon and feel baffled. The writer bell hooks comes to mind. For a moment I suspend my judgment as a critic. "Think as if you are in the hood," counsels hooks. Then one gets several messages. Of the spirit and soul, yes, but also the political. I'm also happy Willis makes a statement about the body as a prize, as a work of art, ourselves as art.

The night leaves me with a strange but good feeling. Is this what the aesthetic experience is all about? Sometimes one needs to ponder. So I avoid the banal and populous Beach. Where can one find the bits and pieces to balance the impact of all these images? I take the SW Seventh Street exit and get lost along the deserted, dark, and run-down stretches.