During the 2019 edition of Scope Miami Beach, totems etched with cartoonish faces greeted attendees inside the Oasis lounge, a new addition to the annual contemporary art show at 801 Ocean Dr. Equipped with subwoofers, the whimsical monoliths transmitted bass-heavy rap music throughout the white tent. The installations were part of the exhibit "Sound Garden" by Cuban-American artist Alex Yanes in collaboration with Mortal Machine, a nascent gallery based in New Orleans making a big splash at Scope.
In addition to showcasing the Miami pop artist's work, Mortal Machine exhibited special installations by Butch Anthony, a folksy Americana artist from Alabama; and Anthony Lister, Australia's premier street artist. The booth also displayed works by a formidable lineup of more than a dozen leading contemporary artists, including pop-art icon Ron English, portrait painter Colin Chilag, and photographer Larry Endicott.
Mortal Machine's top billing at Scope — an Art Basel-adjacent show dedicated to international contemporary art — was a crowning achievement for the gallery's two cofounders. For nearly five years, Gabriel Shaffer and Rachael Cronin had toiled as curators of another French Quarter hipster art establishment, Red Truck Gallery. The duo established Mortal Machine last September, and three months later, they arrived in Miami Beach. Many of the artists who had shown with Red Truck exhibited their works under the new banner.
Back in the Big Easy, however, Shaffer and Cronin are the star antagonists in a sordid art-gallery feud involving Red Truck owner Randy Corlew, their former employer. In a pending New Orleans civil lawsuit, Corlew claims Shaffer and Cronin misappropriated Red Truck's corporate accounts, blocked his access to the gallery's social media accounts and website, and absconded with $600,000 worth of art consigned to Red Truck. In a phone interview with New Times, Corlew also accuses his ex-employees of hijacking the marquee space at Scope, which Shaffer was negotiating on behalf of Red Truck until he and Cronin defected in September.
"This was a grift," Corlew says. "Gabriel and Rachael were working together to screw me over. They showed at Scope under false pretenses, and the fair should not have allowed them to have a booth."
Shaffer and Cronin, citing the pending litigation, declined to comment for this story. But in a court filing responding to Corlew's complaint, the two denied the accusations and blamed their ex-boss of mismanaging Red Truck's finances and investor funds meant to infuse the gallery with much-needed capital.
"Perhaps most egregiously, he is accusing and blaming two innocent former employees for his improper conduct and business failings," the court filing states. "Red Truck has pleaded to this court some very imaginative conspiracy theories, which is made possible only by its failing to present all the facts."
But at least one artist whose work was displayed at Red Truck now considers his art to be stolen by Mortal Machine. Through a spokesperson, New Mexico artist Michael Meads says he did not give permission for his work to be removed from Red Truck's New Orleans showroom.
"He was not given written notification that the consigned work would be removed from Red Truck," says Charles Canada, a representative of Meads'. "On September 15, Rachel Cronin returned seven of the 15 that were removed... The other eight Michael Meads works remain unrecovered and have been considered stolen."
It doesn't appear that any of Meads' work was exhibited at Scope. But the ongoing legal battle has put the art fair's founder and president, Alexis Hubshman, in an uncomfortable position. Hubshman says he became aware of Corlew's lawsuit and allegations before the show began. Ultimately, though, Scope had signed a contract with Mortal Machine, not Red Truck, which influenced his decision not to get in the middle of the dispute.
Hubshman also contends that the artists whose works were displayed in the Mortal Machine booth provided statements that they had given Shaffer and Cronin permission to sell their art.
"We do our best to do the right thing," Hubshman says. "In this case, I think we did."
A 62-year-old civil engineer from Morristown, Tennessee, Corlew got into the art business to help a family friend, Corey Charles, who was living in New Orleans. As an art history major, Charles had always wanted to run a gallery, and in 2017, he approached Corlew about helping him buy Oleander on Royal, a contemporary art gallery in a section of the French Quarter populated by art storefronts.
"Corey showed me a business plan on how we could make money selling art," Corlew says. "I saw an opportunity to invest and make a profit." He believed buying Oleander would diversify his investment portfolio and provide financial stability for his daughter, Natalie, who has Down syndrome.
The two friends closed the deal in September 2017; each now owned 50 percent of the gallery. Corlew, who stayed behind in Tennessee, relied on Charles to run Oleander's day-to-day operations.
Despite their best efforts, however, Oleander was not producing the returns they had expected. So when the opportunity arose in 2019 to buy Red Truck, the gallery next door, Corlew jumped. He says he figured he could save his investment by operating both galleries under the Red Truck name.
That June, his company, Welroc Enterprises, purchased Red Truck for $250,000 from Noah Antieau. According to the contract, Welroc also assumed Red Truck's outstanding debts, including approximately $55,000 owed to various artists for sold work. Oleander was rebranded under the Red Truck name, and the new space became a main showroom to exhibit the gallery's better-known artists.
"I thought up the idea of merging the galleries," Corlew says, "and I had a legitimate business plan to make both successful."
Charles says he bowed out of the day-to-day operations because he felt burnt out. At the time, Gabriel Shaffer — the son of Southern contemporary artist Cher Shaffer — was Red Truck's executive director, and Cronin worked as the gallery manager. Corlew says he retained the two employees because they had developed relationships with the artists who consigned their works to Red Truck and art shows nationwide. He also invited Shaffer and Cronin to become minority owners.
"I never saw any money from Gabe," Corlew says of Shaffer. "Rachael [Cronin] put in $10,000. At $7,000 a share, she owned 1.2 percent."
Corlew says part of the appeal of buying Red Truck was that the gallery already had an established presence at national contemporary art fairs, which provided another steady stream of income. After Corlew bought the gallery, Shaffer continued to line up shows, including an appearance at Scope.
"It was part of the business that we could earn $70,000 to $80,000 from," Corlew says. "But I started to notice early on that Mr. Shaffer had a my-way-or-the-highway attitude."
At one point over the summer, Corlew claims, Shaffer asked to buy him out and began approaching investors in hopes of taking over Red Truck. And Corlew says Cronin grew difficult, refusing to show him the gallery's accounting books and other financial documents. Nevertheless, Corlew relied on Shaffer and Cronin to run Red Truck because he was busy with his civil engineering work and the process of searching for investors and bank financing to inject more capital into the art business.
Despite the tension, Red Truck was paying down its debts and appeared to be heading in the right direction, Corlew says. According to a September 2 email, Shaffer informed Corlew he had secured the gallery's booth at Scope for $14,000. Shaffer noted the Miami Beach fair was Red Truck's biggest show of the year.
"I have also secured curatorial rights to the entranceway and am still negotiating the remainder of the atrium," Shaffer wrote. "This will not only be a huge honor for Red Truck, but will also draw the attention of every person who enters the fair. All 70-90k of them. I will have negotiations wrapped up with them by mid-late September."
A week after Shaffer sent the email, the relationship between Corlew and his two employees began to unravel.
The morning of September 9, Charles and Corlew decided they would change the locks to the galleries and cut ties with Shaffer and Cronin. Charles claims they suspected the duo was planning to fleece them.
"I had no contact with them for days," Charles says. "I had been asking for the Instagram account login information, and I never received it."
But before Charles was able to change the locks that day, he says, he received a call from a friend who told him Shaffer and Cronin were removing artwork from Red Truck. He called the New Orleans Police Department and rushed over to the gallery. When Charles arrived, plainclothes and uniformed officers were already inside speaking with Shaffer and Cronin. Charles says the cops instructed him to wait outside. He pulled out his phone and began recording the scene.
In the footage, Cronin — a thin woman with strawberry-blond hair, eyeglasses, and tattooed legs — informs one of the officers that she and others are minority owners of the gallery. She pulls out sheets of paper she claims are promissory notes verifying her stake in Red Truck. She also shows the cop — a bald detective in a blue polo and khakis — the keys to the gallery's locks. She tells him Charles doesn't have keys to Red Truck and is not a shareholder in the gallery. (Charles disputes that claim and says he owns a stake in Welroc, the company that bought Red Truck.) Cronin then covers her face with the documents so Charles can't record what she's telling the officer.
Another detective, who can't be seen on camera, speaks with Charles. "It is a civil matter, which is not a criminal matter," the officer says. "If they have a key right now; they have access. It's not a burglary. If they didn't have a key and kicked the door in, that would be criminal."
That day, Cronin and Shaffer told the officers they had explicit permission from every artist to remove the artwork. They explained that every contract was with them individually, not the gallery. Charles told the detective that the contracts are verbal agreements through Shaffer.
In later interviews with New Times, Corlew and Charles claimed they were at a disadvantage because Shaffer and Cronin dealt exclusively with the artists and had all of their contact information.
"They stripped both galleries," Corlew says. "They scared the artists by claiming we were not going to pay them."
Unlike Corlew, Charles says he had an amicable relationship with Shaffer and Cronin until he discovered they had been hiding financial information and missing payments to artists. "It was genuinely the last thing I expected from who I thought were two good people," Charles says. "I never had an issue with Gabe and Rachael. I was taken aback by their actions."
Corlew says Shaffer and Cronin soon locked him out of Red Truck's website and social media accounts by changing the login and password information. Within a month, the accounts had been changed to the Mortal Machine name, Corlew says. For instance, Shaffer and Cronin deleted all of Red Truck's images from its Instagram account, changed the name to Mortal Machine, and began posting new photos with the hashtag #mortalmachine October 4.
Cronin's personal Instagram account shows photos indicating she and Shaffer had begun setting up Mortal Machine days before the artwork was removed from Red Truck. September 5, she posted an image of herself standing in front of a large painting.
"Come check out 'CREAM,'" the caption read. "1000 Royal street location any day from 10-8. #mortalmachinegallery #cream."
To date, the Mortal Machine website still has Red Truck footprints. At the bottom of the page are links for redtruckgallery.com. On Shaffer's personal website, his contact page lists firstname.lastname@example.org as an email address to contact him. On his "About" page, he lists another email address, email@example.com. (On December 23, Shaffer responded to an email New Times sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. "We cannot comment on pending litigation," he wrote.)
Red Truck Gallery LLC sued Shaffer and Cronin on October 11 for fraud, conversion, and tortious interference of a contract. The lawsuit alleged Shaffer and Cronin attempted to withdraw $14,000 from a gallery bank account, made numerous unauthorized purchases using Red Truck funds, and misrepresented Corlew's role with Red Truck to artists. Red Truck also sought a permanent injunction to force Shaffer and Cronin to return $600,000 worth of art consigned to Red Truck.
Corlew also hoped to enforce a noncompete agreement Shaffer had signed. But Shaffer and Cronin filed an affirmative defense claiming Corlew fired them September 9, rendering the noncompete null and void. (Corlew says he planned to terminate them but never had the opportunity.)
In court, Shaffer and Cronin have denied all of the allegations made against them. Instead, the two accused Corlew of various misdeeds, such as promising them equity interest without ever transferring it to them after he improperly used their investment monies. They claimed Corlew's "negligent business practices" depleted Red Truck's resources, assets, and liquidity to the point the gallery had "no viable financial outlook."
Shaffer and Cronin also alleged Corlew threatened to shut down Red Truck, change the locks, and seize the consigned artwork.
"Upon failing to be paid or learning of Corlew's threats, all artists requested the immediate removal of their work from the premises, which is their right under the consignments," the document states.
In December, New Orleans District Court Judge Ethel Julien ruled Shaffer's noncompete agreement was null and void because it did not conform to Louisiana state law. A January hearing to decide whether the artwork must be returned was postponed to an unspecified date. Corlew says his attorney is trying to schedule the hearing for early or mid-March.
Shortly after suing Shaffer and Cronin, Corlew found a common ally in Miami-based artist Jason D'Aquino.
"I didn't want to see this scandal go away quietly under the radar," D'Aquino tells New Times. "Just like me, Randy is guilty of trusting the wrong people."
From 2011 to 2016, D'Aquino displayed his works with Red Truck in New Orleans. And his wife, Katy Martinez-Arizala Keller — a photographer and graphic designer — helped build Red Truck's internet presence by designing the website, managing its social media, and setting up an online point-of-sales system.
"We moved to New Orleans and we invested full-time dedication to make Red Truck Gallery's brick-and-mortar successful and profitable," D'Aquino says.
In June 2014, Martinez-Arizala and Bryan Cunningham — the then-business partner of Red Truck's previous owner, Noah Antieau — signed a handwritten agreement on a napkin. In exchange for allowing D'Aquino to sell his art in the gallery and the online store, Martinez-Arizala would provide her design services and be the gallery's in-house event photographer. Red Truck was to receive a $10 licensing fee from each D'Aquino work sold.
But in 2016, D'Aquino says, Antieau, Shaffer, and Cronin muscled him, his wife, and Cunningham out of Red Truck because they had a falling-out after an argument during the Scope art show that year.
"My art and prints sold out weekly, and we were dependent upon the gallery for our income," D'Aquino says. "They threatened to call the cops on us if we came to the gallery. They blocked us from communicating with them and ghosted us."
D'Aquino also alleges that Antieau, Shaffer, and Cronin never paid him and his wife for some of his art pieces sold through Red Truck. So when he learned that Corlew was suing Shaffer and Cronin, D'Aquino decided to give their former boss a helping hand in exposing what had happened.
Cunningham, a New Orleans sculptor who creates voodoo-inspired work, did not respond to requests for an interview. But on November 22, he emailed D'Aquino an account of his dealings with Shaffer and Cronin. Cunningham wrote he had been a founding member of Red Truck but had pulled away in recent years because of money disputes over his artwork sold by the gallery.
"Each month my check would be short a couple of hundred dollars," Cunningham wrote. "And when I would bring this to the attention of Gabriel Shaffer rarely would I get a response. I thought it was something personal."
Cunningham also noted he wanted to help Corlew after finding out Shaffer and Cronin had taken off with most of Red Truck's art.
"I found a pile of broken art left in a storage area of the gallery and began contacting artists to discover many artists had the same experience as myself with checks coming up short," Cunningham wrote. "Also the same silent treatment when trying to contact Gabe about the situation."
After dodging police in New Orleans, Shaffer and Cronin got busy preparing for their big splash at Scope. An October 20 announcement on their website listed the names of the artists set to exhibit at Mortal Machine's booth. Most of the 20 artists in the lineup had displayed their work at Red Truck's booth at Scope in prior years, according to past flyers and media releases.
"We are thrilled to be participating in the 19th annual SCOPE Miami Beach!!" the release stated. "In addition to our stellar lineup of artists, we will have special installations presented by Butch Anthony, Anthony Lister and Alex Yanes in the Oasis section."
D'Aquino, believing the two were unfairly capitalizing on Red Truck's brand and reputation, as well as selling purloined art, was incensed. So on November 20, he emailed Scope's Alexis Hubshman.
"You have allowed the booth to be commandeered without consulting the owners of Red Truck Gallery," D'Aquino wrote. "Red Truck Gallery purchased the booth at Scope and never gave permission for the booth to be transferred."
D'Aquino fired off another email November 26 after speaking with Hubshman on the phone.
"I am writing to offer you a chance to remove yourself from the public relations/legal mess that is about to unfold due to their crimes," D'Aquino wrote. "It's undeniable that [Gabriel] stole the booth and took it for his own."
Hubshman doesn't seem to have taken D'Aquino seriously. He tells New Times he didn't know who D'Aquino was, while he has known Shaffer "for quite some time, even before he worked with Red Truck."
"Without naming names, I reached out to colleagues and exhibitors I know and work with," Hubshman says. "I got differing opinions about what was going on. It was a big muddle. I consider ourselves to be very fair and professional."
Hubshman says Scope has no record of anyone applying for a booth on behalf of Red Truck.
"When I became aware of what was going on, we already had a contract with Mortal Machine," he says. "I appreciated that there was a dispute, but it came down to the contracts we have in place."
Hubshman says he also tried contacting Corlew and his attorney directly via email and phone message but received no response. Corlew disputes that claim and says he never received any messages.
"I was very disappointed with Alexis at Scope," Corlew says. "I am trying to keep Red Truck open. I am fortunate my engineering business is allowing me to fight on."
Corlew has since hired D'Aquino and his wife to help rebuild Red Truck's business. Earlier this month, the couple drove to New Orleans to clean and renovate the two gallery spaces on Royal Street.
"I'm putting together an inventory of all the artwork that was damaged and abandoned by Rachael and Gabriel," D'Aquino says. "It's an effort to get it returned to the artists or have them compensated for the damages."
The animosity will likely ratchet up again. In late January, Shaffer and Cronin moved Mortal Machine to 811 Royal St., just a couple of storefronts away from their old Red Truck stomping grounds.
"They are rubbing it in our faces," D'Aquino grouses, "opening on the same street as us."
Corlew, meanwhile, says he's digging in his heels.
"They think I will tuck my tail and run," he says. "They don't understand that I am a Tennessee hillbilly, and I am going to stand my ground."