Miami galleries are jammed with noteworthy exhibitions

06/20/2014 12:00 AM

06/19/2014 6:28 PM

In previous years, the art scene slowed to a crawl by June, with galleries closing for the summer and the block-buster shows at the museums over.

Not this year. In fact, the exhibits that are up through June (and some longer) are some of the best of the year — in certain cases, in several years. It’s almost too bad they were not on display during international Art Basel month; the world would have been impressed.

These exhibits highlighted here, a mix of local and national artists, male and female, are just a sampling.

PETTERSSON AT PRIMARY PROJECTS: Starting downtown, in the new, spacious Primary Projects, is a quirky special solo show from Christina Pettersson. Originally from Stockholm, Sweden, Pettersson has made Miami home for most of her art career. Her black-and-white drawings that are often self-portraits, and often deal with aspects of death, have made a splash since she first revealed them a decade ago. For “The Castle Dismal,” Pettersson has created an entire world revolving around the theme of Southern Gothic. Aside from her own artworks inspired by that theme, she has invited guests to take tours with her to the Miami City Cemetery; join “ghost walks" to abandoned houses; and held a Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird reading night. She asked University of Miami associate professor of English Joel Nichols, using William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying as a guide, to explain just what Southern Gothic is.

Loosely, we discover while visiting her show or participating in events, Southern Gothic is the state-of-mind and aesthetic reflection of the world of the Deep South after the Civil War — a world steeped in nostalgia for a time long gone, for a time that was considered both gentile and extraordinarily violent.

So the centerpiece of the exhibit is a huge drawing — her largest one ever — of pillars of a plantation. That Mississippi mansion burned down long ago, and these stumps are all that remain. Another excellent drawing is similar, an arch door of a crumbled building, the last relic still standing. She has created a black sculpture of an old-fashion hearse, one that would have been carried or drawn by horse, as a symbol of perpetual mourning. In the project room hangs a small model of a Mississippi River boat, an exquisite piece.

Pettersson’s work is sensual and morbid but never gruesome, expressing so much in fairly simple delivery.

WRIGHT AT SPINELLO: West of Wynwood, in Anthony Spinello’s relatively new project space, another local female artist has an equally compelling solo, “You Make Me Sick; I Love You,” from Antonia Wright.

Wright’s video and performance may be familiar to art lovers, as it has been shown prominently for several years now. But for the first time, the video and filmed versions of her performances are displayed all together, with each screen getting ample room (and even their own rooms). As a result, her disturbing moving portraits have even more power here than in previous showings. Wright is not shy about anything; she takes on physical feats that would scare off most people. Some of her works can be reminiscent of pioneering video artists who have come before her, but her view is unique.

Wright has literally jumped and crashed through a glass “ceiling” as a performance during Art Basel at Vizcaya. She’s rolled around a trash-strewn, filthy back alley in South Beach. And she’s let herself be covered with bees in a stunning video that will not let you look away.

But these are not shock artworks, they are more subtle than that. According to curatorial advisor to the show Tami Katz-Freiman, Wright’s “recurring interest in using her own body as her principal tool enables her to undermine the boundaries of gender politics, to challenge social conventions via an extreme physical or emotional action, and to test the endurance of her viewers.”

In that vein, you can imagine the impact of the video “Lick of the Eye.” But don’t imagine, it’s up and it’s an example of some of the strongest work being made in Miami.

BIGGERS AT CASTILLO: At David Castillo, the gallery is closing out its time in Wynwood (it is moving to South Beach in the fall) with one of its best exhibits in years, the solo from New York-based Sanford Biggers. He is a hot name in the art world these days, and deservedly so. That he has an exhibit with new works specifically for this Miami show is a statement in itself.

Biggers mines African-American culture and history for his colorful, complex pieces, expressed for instance in the title of the exhibit itself, “3 Dollars and 6 Dimes.” It’s an obscure reference to the splinter Nation of Islam group the Five Percenters and lyrics of the singer Erykah Badu; and to the circular nature of life (360 degrees). But you don’t need to know that to enjoy his rich, collaged quilts.

Quilting has been part of African-American tradition since slave times, a form of artistic expression that could be both decorative and tell tales. Biggers transforms that traditional form into his own by adding and mixing materials, while remaining true to the original intent of the craft. And 360 degrees plays a part too, as the patterning in quilting is geometric; there is a sense of a mathematical grid underlying the pieces. The Mandela-shaped dance floor that Biggers designed as the introduction to the gallery reflects that geometry as well. One can read much into this exhibit, or just get lost in the fantastic, intricate contemporary tapestries.

BEDIA AT SNITZER: And there is unbridled pleasure in seeing the new works from one of Miami’s most prominent artists, José Bedia, at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery. The large pieces here are presented like pages from a book — two rows of “pages” covering all the walls. There is a history of story-telling to all of Bedia’s work; his references to mythologies and histories of native populations across the globe have been a favorite narrative. In “Solitary Sailor,” the tales feel far more current than ancient. There is text on many of the art pages to let you know that. There are story lines, visual and written, of divorce, of angst at the frivolous tone of our pop-cultures times, of the musical legacies of Billie Holiday and Buddy Guy. Some of the quips are witty and should not be over-looked. If you can’t read Spanish, get someone to translate.

Also worth visiting: the Miami debut of Michael Jones McKean “we float above to spit and sing” at the Emerson Dorsch Gallery; the group show “New Dialogues” with several local artists at Alejandra von Hartz; and the melancholy and lovely video of captive elephants from Chicago photographer Colleen Plumb at The Screening Room.

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