Street art mixes the familiar with the forbidden. By nature, it is ephemeral. The work — so often viewed as vandalism and surreptitiously created at night by artists on the run — once was viewed as a hybrid of hijinks and the desire to leave a legacy, similar to the American G.I. with his ubiquitous message of Kilroy Was Here.
Still, the genre comes with a venerable lineage that includes the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux in southwestern France, religious frescoes of the Renaissance and the social commentary of the Mexican muralists. The major difference is those works were approved. Until recently, modern graffiti was considered guerrilla art, with the artist choosing when and where and on what terms to make his or her statement.
The latest exhibition at History Miami — Some Like It Hot — is turning the concept of outlaw graffiti on its head. Nearly two dozen street artists have come in out of the heat to present their works in the air-conditioned halls of the history museum. Brandon Opalka, a 35-year-old who, as a teenager, ended up in an arts school rather than jail after he “got caught doing graffiti at Boca High,” curated the show, which runs through April 27.
“It had to be inspired by Miami and the culture down here,” Opalka said of the various artworks on display. “We wanted to have a dialogue that would bring the city into the museum.”
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The exhibit of work by locally based artists ended up at HistoryMiami first because the art form is intrinsic to Miami’s history, and secondly, because the format doesn’t lend itself to a typical art museum setting.
“What is going on in Wynwood is less about the art world and more about enriching the world in culture,” Opalka said. “It should be in other museums, but [HistoryMiami] were the first ones to see the value of it. This is an art form that talks to the masses. People don’t need a doctorate or a master’s degree to understand it.”
The first image visitors encounter is Tatiana Suarez’s larger-than-life image of a young girl with oranges and orange blossoms in her flowing pink hair. In a nod to Miami’s Art Deco lineage, two greyhounds frolic at her feet. Clad in yellow polka-dot bikini bottoms, the girl brings to mind Lisa Yuskavage’s nubile sexpots, but with heavily made-up eyes that convey world weariness or too many late nights on the club scene.
Art aficionados may also be familiar with Suarez’s murals from Few and Far, a loose-knit collective of women graffiti and street artists who paint murals worldwide. Or they may have slipped into a pair of Reeboks that features another of her young girls and a Miami cityscape with palm trees glowing red in the sunset. The shoe company used that image after tapping Suarez for its City Classic Collection featuring 12 graffiti artists from 12 different cities.
Suarez’s mural wraps around three walls, bringing visitors to Francesco LoCastro’s pulsating image of a blazing sun set atop a lavender backdrop, with numerous slashes of black, green and orange lines. The image is huge, 12 feet high and spread across 34 feet of wall space.
The LoCastro mural gives way to a gallery that is entirely devoted to street art on every wall, from floor to ceiling. Usually, such a profusion of color and design can be headache-inducing. But this exhibit is masterful in that rather than a jumble of imagery, it presents a unified artistic history of Miami, especially if viewed in a clockwise fashion.
If you turn to your left upon entering the gallery, the nearest wall at first may appear as an eclectic arrangement of white and black lines interspersed with strips of Oriental woodblock prints rendered in red and gold. But, as you stand back, the image of Miami founder Henry Flagler emerges. Andrew Antonaccio and Filio Galvez, better known as the artistic team 2Alas, created the oversize portrait.
That image makes a perfect segue into an extraordinary work — both for its size and complexity — that covers the adjoining wall. It’s a 60-foot-long riff on the iconic Greetings from Miami, Florida postcard incorporating such Miami-centric images as ’Canes mascot Sebastian the Ibis, a speedboat racing past the old marine stadium, a flaming Miami Heat basketball and the Freedom Tower.
The postcard is torn into numerous pieces. Between each torn image is modern street art created by MSG Crew. (Otherwise known as Miami Style Gods, MSG Crew is a collaboration of nine artists, including Abstrk, Arive, Astre, Atomik, Crook, Pucho, Quake, Style1 and Xeno.)
Xeno created a fallen angel beneath a searing sun. Abstrk created a sweet dreamlike collage of green-and-blue eyes amid amoeba-shaped objects in light yellow and blue, red, orange and pink. Quake’s cityscape, complete with billboards and building cranes, exudes a post-apocalypse sensibility with its dark green, brown and tan tones. Style1’s rooster is fierce, and Astre’s bold overstuffed lettering seems to spill out from the wall. Pucho’s red, blue and yellow painting resembles stained glass and complements Arive’s Madonna with a chalice.
Crook’s signature work — which is literally his signature — can be seen across the gallery on the wall opposite the postcard mural. Crook was once part of the outlaw duo Crook and Crome, and the pair riled local authorities because they signed their tags all over the city — on overpasses, traffic signs, city buses, trains, cars, trucks and even palm trees. Perhaps as a humorous nod to his history, Crook wrote his name here in hard-to-miss block letters, using the Miami Dolphins’ signature colors of orange against an aqua background.
While the Miami postcard wall is painted directly on the wall, Crook’s mural was created on wheat paste wallpaper, Opalka said.
Other artists share the wall with Crook, including Cdog, whose red, white and blue alligator — featuring white dots and red scales — is extraordinarily beautiful. Bhakti Baxter added two pre-Columbian sculptural works that resemble totems. One of those is superimposed over a corrugated aluminum storefront gate covered with graffiti, including that of Douglas Hoekzema, who goes by Hoxxoh. His mandala-like work in luminous shades of white and gray draw the eye to the center of the mural.
Another attention grabber is Erin O’Dea’s portrait of Miami rapper Trick Daddy, with his snarling upper lip that reveals a row of gold teeth. It has a wall all to itself. O’Dea also painted an image of his car, a metallic green Chevy Impala, just above the portrait. Using a cut-away in the wall, O’Dea framed her portrait like a shadow box. She further focused attention on the image by setting it against a lime green background with lighter green lines radiating from its center.
Aside from the individual walls, the exhibit uses three 12-foot-tall rectangular cubes to create separate viewing spaces in the middle of the gallery. Two of those cubes have a doorway that affords entry into the block. Victor Muniz adorned the outside of one block with a riotous collage of raspberry, orange and lemon and then painted gold images of hands, lips and teeth, fingers, skipping figures, skulls and amoeba-like forms. Inside he re-created what he calls the inner beast of Miami — another collage of images chosen to depict Miami’s history: a flesh-eating zombie, a gator with mouth agape, the federal raid to reunite Elián González with his father, bales of cocaine and scarves with dollar signs and hearts.
Gustavo Oviedo, also known as 131, decorated another rectangular block with abstract images that resemble work by Joan Miró. In the interior he exhibited an installation comprised of numerous strings of Styrofoam buoy balls. Their seemingly random nature have a beauty all their own.
Johnny Robles lent his black-and-white self-portrait to the side of the third block. Two of the block’s other walls, by Magnus Sodamin, look like a 21st century rendition of Jackson Pollock splotches. According to Opalka, the artist randomly created his designs by squirting paint on paper, then transferred the paint by pressing the paper against each of the walls. In this instance, the design was a mirror image that resembled a Rorschach test on a red background.
On the front of that rectangle, the image that visitors first see upon entering the gallery, Quake wrote the title of the show in light blue letters against a red background: Some Like It Hot … The title references not only the Marilyn Monroe movie, but also the sense and sensibility of Miami. Not to mention the literal temperature.
“It’s a hot place,” Opalka said, “and it’s a hot scene.”