Despite its punning title, there’s nothing titillating about the 20 Shades of Grey exhibition at the Zadok Galley. Unlike the bestselling soft-core novels, grey here refers to the fact that the artists are over 70 years of age.
All of the artists in the show are Floridians who have plied and perfected their craft since before Art Basel made Miami an international cultural destination, since before crowds began thronging to Wynwood gallery walks. In an art scene seemingly obsessed with youth and the latest fad, that’s an almost revolutionary concept.
“I was so tired of bad graffiti art by kids who have spray cans,” says Bernice Steinbaum, who curated the exhibition. By contrast, the artists in the show, she adds, are “serious artists who have been creating for a long time and their work needs to be out there.” Her comments are not without a touch of irony, coming from a gallerist who helped pioneer the Wynwood art scene.
Her effort to showcase these artists was complemented by two other stalwarts of the Miami art scene: Helen Koren, art critic for the Miami Herald from 1978-1995, and Denise Gerson, former associate director at the Lowe Art Museum, who respectively contributed the catalog’s essay and artists profiles. Kohen wrote, “this exhibition is neither an occasion for nostalgia nor an effort to forestall the mortality gods” but “a celebration of talent and, of course, staying power.”
To underscore that last point, two of the artists in the show, Robert Thiele and Salvatore La Rosa, were included in the Whitney Biennial —an often controversial and trendy look at contemporary American art — in 1975 and, to judge by this exhibition, are still creating work of consequence.
No subject, style or medium unites the works on display other than that they are all by artists consistently working at the height of their talent, ranging from Clyde Butcher’s omnipresent photographs to La Rosa’s infrequently exhibited mosaics. Paintings, sculptures, photographs, and mixed-media works, abstraction, representation and figurative work, most done in the last decade, make for a very diverse exhibition.
Nonetheless, there are several notable threads woven through the exhibition.
The most obvious is an almost-Eden-like view of the state’s landscape, literally and metaphorically. Butcher’s panoramic black-and-white images document the endangered natural legacy of the Everglades, while Jim Couper applies the traditions of landscape painting to the state’s imperiled wetlands. By contrast, Margarita Cano’s and Jill Canaday’s paintings depict versions of the Garden of Eden quite consistent with that environmental advocacy.
Another thread is the role several of the artists have played as teachers and mentors to subsequent generations: Darby Bannard, long-time chair of the University of Miami’s Department of Art and Art History; Couper, recently retired from the faculty at Florida International University; and Arnold Mesches, at 90 still teaching at the University of Florida after a long career in Hollywood and New York.
Conceptually strong and visually challenging works by women artists — among them Sheila Elias, Mira Lehr, Leatrice Linden, Karen Rifas and Maggie Evans Silverstein — attest to their perseverance in what was a male-dominated environment. The title of a collage by Carol Fryd, one of the founders of the Continuum Gallery, South Florida’s first women’s co-op art center, could easily serve as a summation of the exhibition: I Remember When.
Any survey of the Miami art scene must necessarily include work by Cuban-American artists. Cano’s magic realism, Rafael Soriano’s luminous abstractions and Ramon Carulla’s satirical commentary on the human species highlight the vitality and diversity that Latin Americans have added to the local art scene.
Their inclusion, however, inadvertently underscores one of the exhibition’s shortcomings. Even though the organizers admit that this is not a comprehensive survey, the absence of any African-American artists is an omission that diminishes the exhibition’s historical scope and impact.
Just as 20 Shades of Grey reclaims artists from an historical amnesia, a concurrent show at Zadok features artists working with reclaimed materials. In a deft curatorial touch that further links the two exhibitions, Margarita Cano’s paintings are included in 20 Shades of Grey; her son Pablo, the renowned marioneteer, is part of Reclaimed Miami.
The latter show also includes work by nine other Miami-based artists who are re-purposing materials not usually associated with fine art and employing non-traditional techniques. Once again, no style or medium unites the artwork in Reclaimed Miami, but its thematic emphasis on recycled materials shows the artists’ efforts to reconcile material excess and environmental concern.