Art comes at a price — and not always just for the collector. In Fernando Mastrangelo’s case, he earned a visit from the DEA, as in Drug Enforcement Administration. To be fair, the Brooklyn-based artist did smuggle some 28 pounds of cocaine into this country in one of his sculptures.
But not to worry, it was mixed with resin and no longer of the variety that readily could be used for extracurricular activities. At the DEA’s insistence, the artist broke the sculpture’s mold and vowed to never again dabble in that material, even for the sake of art.
“I’m not interested in reopening or rehashing anything with law enforcement,” Mastrangelo says, honoring his commitment to the DEA to keep quiet about certain details concerning the sculpture and its production. “They are f------ scary,” he says of the DEA agents that spoke to him about his sculpture. “The guy looked at me straight in the eye and said, ‘This is worthy of 150 years in jail.’ I broke down crying. I get emotional even telling you.”
Mastrangelo spent four months in Brazil and $70,000 dollars creating his cocaine-infused sculpture, Felix, which means “happy” in Latin. The image is that of a peasant reaping the coca leaf somewhere in Colombia.
Dressed in a broad-brimmed straw hat and Wellingtons, the man stoops over an imaginary crop, his image reflected in mirrored tiles shaped to resemble the outline of Colombia. The cocaine-based sculpture was a bold political statement. The poor peasant toils in the coca fields to produce a luxury item. Both the sculpture and its message resonated with art aficionados when shown at the Volta NY art fair in 2009.
Today, Mastrangelo, 35, works in more mundane materials — such as cornmeal, sugar sprinkles, black beans and rock salt, all staples whose prices are subject to manipulation and whim. Some of them are found in the three- and six-foot medallions now on display at Wynwood’s Kowal+Odermatt Project Space.
The show is the inaugural exhibit for Kowal+Odermatt’s just-launched artist-in-residency project, which provides emerging artists with a place to stay for up to three months, studio space and a small stipend. A French couple who split time between Montreal and Miami — Isabelle Kowal, who has worked as an artist, and François Odermatt, a prominent aficionado whose collection is shown at a former shipbuilding site in Montreal called the Arsenal — are underwriting the project, says director Kai Heinze.
A key element that makes this residency unique is that Kowal and Odermatt bring small groups of people together for low-key dinners at the opening and closing of each exhibition. “We want to put the people in connection with the real collectors and decision makers,” Heinze says. “It is very important that those works being produced in Miami during the residency are being seen by the right people, and those must be museum people and collectors.”
Similar to a MacArthur grant for artists, there is no application process. Kowal and Odermatt select the artists based on a belief that the opportunity will provide an important push to advance their careers and increase their recognition. The project may expand to Paris and Montreal, Heinze says, adding that Miami will serve as a recurring residency. British artist Oliver Clegg is slated to be the next artist in residence at the Wynwood studio.