Photography is an adept art form, capable of capturing everything from the brute reality of existence to fantastical dreamscapes. At the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum FIU, the seemingly-straightforward documentary work in “Becoming Mexico: The Photographs of Manuel Carrillo” provides a sometimes-stark counterpoint to the often-surreal illusions of an accompanying show, “Possible Worlds: Photography and Fiction in Mexican Contemporary Art.” At HistoryMiami, “Tropical Wildlife: Portraits of Miamians, 1991-1996” demonstrates the potent alchemy of photography and journalism.
At the Frost Art Museum, the gelatin silver prints of Manuel Carrillo — part of the permanent collection — are an outgrowth of the Mexicanidad movement that began in the 1920s, when artists such as Diego Rivera brushed aside European influences in favor of distinctive Mexican sensibilities. The untouched rural Mexico that Rivera celebrated was disappearing throughout the years between the 1950s and 1970s, when Carrillo took his photos of cobblers at work in street stalls and peasant women in shawls in places like Toluca. Carrillo’s images smack of the early 20th century, but in fact, the photos are calculated nostalgia, an attempt to hold back time.
A separate exhibition, “Possible Worlds,” is presented in collaboration with the Mexican Cultural Institute and entails completely staged contemporary photos, in step with the dreams and nightmares of the modern world. Daniela Edburg contributes a series of spooky end-game scenarios, including “Atomic Picnic.” In the image, a wholesome-looking family has a picnic overlooking a nuclear explosion, serving cake with an Atomic symbol on top.
This being Mexico, outsized myth and provocation — à la Frida Kahlo — are always part of the package. In a Kenia Narez series of photos, Narez is depicted wearing a proper blue dress, holding a dead suckling pig. By “Whim No. 8,” the last photo in the series, Narez’s blouse is open and the pig appears to be suckling at her nipple. Not something you see every day.
In “The Rapture of Culture” series by Damian Siqueiros, yearning artist models reach heavenward in phantasmagorical settings. For “Nirvana” by Fernando Montiel, an artist model is cast as Kurt Cobain, wearing a T-shirt bearing an image of Jesus.
The “Possible Worlds” artists remain — as an edict on the wall from poet/essayist Zbigniew Herbert would have it— “a partisan of chaos.” To Jordana Pomeroy, director of the Frost Art Museum, “Becoming Mexico” and “Possible Worlds” are linked by the imaginative possibilities of photography. “Carrillo’s photos appear to be photojournalism, but they’re blatantly fictive. The photographers in ‘Possible Worlds’ embrace the fictive possibilities of modern photography and Mexico itself, a capital of contemporary art.”
Here at home, Miami has virtually disemboweled itself with development. A more Bohemian era of the city is on view at HistoryMiami’s Center for Photography galleries, funded in part by the Knight Foundation and now featuring “Tropical Wildlife: Portraits of Miamians, 1991-1996.” The exhibition draws from the archive of the Miami Herald’s Tropic magazine, a Sunday mainstay from 1967 to 1998.
In Tropic, the Herald published work that endures as a record of joy, loss and beauty. In a display case, one bound volume of the weekly newsprint magazine is open to a crystalline piece by Mirta Ojito, who went on to share a Pulitzer while reporting on race in America for The New York Times. In the Tropic article, Ojito visits the AIDS ward at Jackson Memorial Hospital and interviews Alfredo Otero, who had once worked as a drag queen at one of the more notorious Miami Beach gay bars. Ojito winds up documenting Otero’s last night on earth, interviewing Otero’s mother, as well. “His mother said he laughed all the way through his vices, his lovers, his disease,” she writes.
From 1991 to 1996, the Tropic column “Tropical Wildlife: Distinctive Markings of South Florida Species” employed the talents of local writers and photographers, including the wonderfully generous photos — all color, grace and kindness — of Brenda Ann Kenneally.
Journalist Michelle Genz often wrote the accompanying text for Kenneally’s portraits, and their collaboration was on target with the late Irene Williams, a public stenographer and amateur clothes designer/seamstress who used Lincoln Road as a catwalk in the 1990s.
Kenneally’s photo captures the demented pizzazz and Old Beach bravery of Williams, a tiny wizened creature in pink tights with a matching handmade top and cap. Within Genz’s text, Williams delivers the ultimate edict on her own massive collection of IreneWear hats: “It’s like a fungus in my apartment.” (Williams is also featured in the current “If These Hats Could Tawk” exhibition at The Jewish Museum of Florida FIU, featuring her handmade hats, theater-of-the-irate correspondence and a wonderful Eric Smith documentary, “Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road.”)
The “Tropical Wildlife” portraits keep a choice group of locals frozen in time: the artist Don Shearer and a young Marilyn Manson (who studied journalism at Broward Community College) with his band; clothes designer D’Eon Gosney and photographer Marcia Gelbart Walkenstein — the sister of television writer/producer Larry Gelbart — in front of her photo montage mural on Washington Avenue. Mayra Gonzalez of the iconic 1990s South Beach boutique Findings is flanked by the luminous Gillian Sacco of the vintage clothing store Blue Moon. The self-described “Afrozotic” Jamiyla, the Trinidadian hostess at the old Shabeen restaurant, is splendidly, totally there in front of a Martin Luther King Jr. mural.
Art is a dance between the personal and the universal, and to have known 1990s South Beach — I was the Swelter nightlife columnist for Miami New Times back then — is to bring a profound longing to the experience of “Tropical Wildlife.” Brett Love, the noted club kid of the era, is photographed in his purple jumpsuit and statement eyebrows. The famous-for-being-famous personality Monti Rock III is surrounded by feather boas and wearing an open robe, letting his frank gut hang out and working the portrait dialectic like a star.
On October 25th, HistoryMiami is continuing its examination of South Beach with “South Beach, 1974-1990: Photographs of a Jewish Community,” featuring images by Gay Block, Gary Monroe, Richard Nagler, David Scheinbaum and the late Andy Sweet. For Michael Knoll, vice president of Curatorial Affairs for HistoryMiami, “History is always complicated: it’s hard to know what’s real, what’s ultimately good and what’s bad. But South Beach in the 1990s does seem to have had some interesting characters.”
Kenneally, the chronicler of those characters, now divides her time between Maspeth, Queens, and upstate New York, conscious of the importance of a younger generation documenting their own world. In conjunction with Tina Menendez, vice president of education at HistoryMiami, Kenneally partnered with the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project and local high schools for video documentary projects, on view at the “Tropical Wildlife” exhibition. It’s sobering and powerful material: at Miami Northwestern, students interviewed mothers who had lost children to gun violence.
“Since the era when we took land from Native Americans,” Kenneally says, “America has always been the same old story: Rich people move in on free, open and cool land, then parcel it up and package it for capitalism. To me, the people of early South Beach were monuments, living history on the street that should be remembered.”
Tom Austin is author of “South Beach Century,” a Knight Arts Challenge winning project that includes many of Brenda Ann Kenneally’s subjects.
If you go
What: “Becoming Mexico: The Photographs of Manuel Carrillo” and “Possible Worlds: Photography and Fiction in Mexican Contemporary Art”
When: “Becoming Mexico” is on view through September 17; “Possible Worlds” is on view through October 8
Where: The Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum FIU, 10975 SW 17th St, Miami
Info: Closed Monday. Free; 305-348-2890; www.frost.fiu.edu
What: “Tropical Wildlife: Portraits of Miamians, 1991-1996”
When: Through September 17
Where: HistoryMiami, 101 West Flagler Street, Miami
Info: Closed Monday. $10; 305-375-1492; www.historymiami.org