In the front courtyard of the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami is a fountain pool, where two ceramic coffins are floating. It’s an installation from Broward-based Anthony Anaya, who was inspired to make this work by Hurricane Katrina, when coffins were shown unearthed and drifting away after cemeteries were flooded. Too much of a stretch to see that happening here? Anaya thinks not.
The piece is an excellent introduction to the varied works on exhibit inside the museum. All were made by artists who have won South Florida Cultural Consortium grants in 2014 and 2016. Established in 1988, the Consortium is the largest regional, government-sponsored granting program in the nation and includes five South Florida counties. Artists receive $15,000 and $7,500 awards to do whatever they want with their art-making.
The exhibit serves as a snapshot into the kind of contemporary art being created in the region, with winners coming from diverse origins (and generations and genders) and reflecting the aesthetics and the topics relevant today in this teeming tip of the Florida peninsula. The genres cover the bases: installation, sculpture, photography, video and painting, made by 25 artists.
So what is relevant in South Florida today? Our fragile and strained environment, for one. As Anaya vividly depicted with his floating coffins, our relationship with sea levels and tropical storms puts us in a precarious position.
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Christy Gast needs little introduction to those familiar with the art scene here; her critically well-received installations and videos focused on environmental issues entwined with social ones include a lost man’s cave camp in Utah, the crumbling dikes of Lake Okeechobee, and for this show “War Drums.” She filmed this in one of the last pine forests in Miami-Dade, which is also near a decommissioned nuclear base. Periodically, figures appear playing a drum, a military beat imposed on the disappearing landscape. The beautifully shot video is almost a quiet nod to the inevitable clash.
A different ecology, that of rural, impoverished Florida, is explored in another moving testimony in a series of photographs shot far from the urban sprawl of South Florida’s coastlines, photographs taken in towns around Lake Okeechobee, by Richard Labarbera. The dikes are not the only thing in a state of deterioration — forgotten Florida are inland places like this, where people eke out a living, or simply a meal, by fishing and selling goods from a truck. But the Broward-based artist does not depict a poverty of spirit. Labarbera gently frames these scenes — shot over a four-year period — to reveal people with pride intact, surrounded by the quirky landscape of small-town South Florida.
How about the aesthetics of South Florida? It’s hard to conclude that there is such a thing in general, but an artist’s choice of materials, of presentation, of color schemes can reveal certain influences. The most obvious in this exhibit is the altar installation from Miami-based Pepe Mar — it’s a riot of color, made of old post cards, pictures and found objects, painted over and collaged together to make what locals will recognize as a form of a Latin religious altar, but this time the worship is of contemporary icons created by fashion and pop culture.
The painting from one of Miami’s most famous artists, Edouard Duval-Carrié, also reflects the region’s close connections to the cultures of the Caribbean. Although brushed in tropical colors, the Haitian-born Duval-Carrié inserts a darker tone. “Ogou and His Infernal Beast” depicts a mythical god who is supposed to control nature — holding a globe in his hand — while the trees flame and burn down around him.
Yet there are several pieces without much color at all that also fit, thematically, into the artistic landscape of South Florida.
One is a haunting, site-specific installation, hung from the ceiling, from South-African born Anja Marais. As an immigrant herself, as so many are here, she creates pieces that relate to disenfranchised, disconnected communities. In the suspended ripped and torn panels, in black and white, you can discern a poor small farmhouse and fields. Unlike the collage from Mar which hangs behind it, Marais has created this work not by layering and applying, but by a process called décollage, where she manipulates the initial images by tearing and cutting it, also forming a new, unique perspective by elimination.
Miami-based artists Bhakti Baxter and Odalis Valdivieso also have almost two-toned works that are rendered beautifully.
Baxter is well-known for his sculptures, sometimes created from found objects and addressing issues about the distressed eco-system and our troubled connection with the water around us. He has a couple of anthropomorphic sculptures displayed in the galleries, but the black-and-white, geometric Mylar painting seems to flow, hitting just the right calm and uneasy note. Valdivieso, a native of Venezuela, brings a bit of her country’s abstract geometric heritage with her, but in her grouping of gray-and-white abstract panels, over which she has placed several small paintings with a splash of color, she has made a hybrid work born in Miami.
In 2017, topics that relate to South Florida will also be universal, like the politics of this particular year. One of Miami’s up-and-coming stars, Jillian Mayer, has created a text mural just for this exhibit. In huge, hand-scribbled lettering, it reads: “Don’t Tell Lies in Front of This Wall.” Alma Leiva, in a video, takes on another wall — or line — the one that may or may not exist in the online racist comments on Facebook. In “Virtual Wall,” she picks out words that have become code words for bigotry.
But of course, art shouldn’t be pigeon-holed; artists have a broad range of expression, hopefully not limited to region, topicality, genre, gender, ethnicity. Some works should be observed as they are: The slightly surrealist take on interior spaces, from Natalya Laskis, now based in Palm Beach, simply shows what a talented painter can do. The video and stack of homemade Dead-Head tapes, from Kevin Arrow, is probably a take on obsolete fan-fetishism — both the Grateful Dead and cassette tapes are basically extinct — but it is a clever piece.
There are other pieces that acknowledge a past in a society charging ever forward — reminding us that our history is as need of preserving as our eco-system. Among them is a delicate small sculpture from Jon McIntosh, a long-time resident of Key West, takes us back to the pre-digital age, when communication involved words on paper. He crafted a Rolodex out of brown paper capped by those fine metal ink pen points once used for cursive writing, both only nostalgic tools today.
The work in the Consortium exhibit is uneven in quality, but it is a snapshot of where we are now, and where we need to continue to go. The Consortium grants, says the curator of exhibit Maria Elena Ortiz, who is also associate curator at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, allow artists to do what they want with the money they are given, which also allows for experimentation. The grants come with no strings attached. Like South Florida as a whole, that means the results will be a complex and creative evolving mish-mash; but if everything looked the same, we would be in trouble.
If you go
What: South Florida Cultural Consortium Exhibit
Where: MOCA North Miami, 770 N.E. 125th, North Miami
When: Through August 6