Visual Arts

At Vizcaya, contemporary exhibit echoes familiar themes

Vizcaya Lost Spaces: Staff Live Portraits by David Rohn.
Vizcaya Lost Spaces: Staff Live Portraits by David Rohn.

In the early 20th century, industrialist and art connoisseur James Deering converted nearly 200 acres of waterfront property in Coconut Grove into Vizcaya, a sprawling private residence that has become one of Miami’s most renown architectural gems. This year, Vizcaya Museum & Gardens is celebrating its centennial with a contemporary art exhibition that explores the overlooked spaces and histories.

For Deering, one of two sons of agricultural farming equipment tycoon William Deering, Vizcaya was a winter residence. Despite his accomplishments as an executive for the Deering Harvester Company, South Floridians today know him for his part-time residence-turned-museum, a popular spot for weddings and other festivities.

Those who have traveled to Italy’s Veneto region will find the home and elaborate gardens familiar. Though Vizcaya built in the 20th century — construction began in 1914 and completed in its entirety in 1922 — it is largely based on 18th century villas. It was adapted to South Florida’s subtropical climate in all the latest materials of the time, with the labor of more than 1,000 workers.

Few would argue that the home is among the grandest private residences ever conceived for Miami, a product of the heady Gilded Age. Its Mediterranean Revival structure is filled with antiquities whose provenances stretches over several millennia, from ancient Rome through the Renaissance and right up to the years leading up to Deering’s death.

Its ornate gardens are just as revered as the home itself. Designed by landscape architect Diego Suarez, the elaborate fountains and hedges recall grounds of European palaces.

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Deering’s first year in the completed residence, Vizcaya is exhibiting Lost Spaces and Stories of Vizcaya, a year-long show of works designed to highlight the spaces and histories of the property that have fallen through the cracks.

Organized by curator Gina Wouters, the exhibit showcases works that have often been overlooked and puts a spotlight on spaces that no longer exist, whose original function has ceased or have been significantly altered.

When visitors first walk toward Vizcaya’s entrance, they find two long trenches designed as a moat. (It never functioned due to the porous coral rock bed.) As part of the show, a sound installation by Juraj Kojs plays recorded sounds of water that tinkles throughout the estate, reinforcing its absence like a mirage in the desert.

Running through the moat is a reflective strip placed by artist Duane Brant that divides the lush trench like lines on a highway. The intent: to hint at the man-made trough’s previous life as a construction road as the estate was being built.

All 11 artists exhibiting in the two-phase show are South Florida natives or currently live in the region, and their personal memories and connections with Vizcaya results in diverse themes.

Amanda Keeley, who utilizes neon to present mottos that James Deering himself adorned throughout Vizcaya, went on yearly field trips to the estate as a child.

“At the time, I remember thinking that it was the most magical place, there was nothing like it in Miami. Looking at it today and reading about the history of the home, I can see that Deering had built a pleasure palace for himself and others to enjoy, and it was an amazing opportunity to create a work for the estate that celebrates the decadent side to Vizcaya.”

Others in the show decided to explore more uncomfortable parts of Vizcaya’s history. Artists David Rohn and Frances Trombly delved into the lives of staff members, whose stories are in the background of the estate’s history. Trombly placed thin floor-to-ceiling multi-dyed fabric strips in the corners of rooms, a nod to the bell pulls that Deering and his guests tugged to call the staff for assistance. Small photographic portraits of Rohn dressed as servants who once resided here are nestled throughout the service areas of the house, placing a face to the practically anonymous staff that maintained the home.

While many of the works focus on the estate’s earlier years, several explore more contemporary histories. Using now-unutilized map racks, artist Lucinda Linderman created felt maps that trace changing sea levels and show how sea level rise will affect the estate and the South Florida community in years to come.

For a more humorous look at the estate’s recent past, Magnus Sigurdarson shot a short film on the grounds that satirizes the melodrama of modern-day telenovelas. The film uses a cast of locals from the art community to show how visitors originally utilized the enclosed Loggia and East Loggia — as living room spaces related to the outdoors — while also referencing the estate’s current popularity as a set for film and photo shoots.

Later this year, the show’s second phase will bring four more installations to the current assortment on view. Among the works will be a sculpture by Leyden-Rodriguez Casanova that references the Casba, a dome-shaped pavilion that sits on land now owned by the Archdiocese of Miami. For this work, the artist imagines a return of the structure to the property with an installation that shows the Casba under construction or in demolition, depending on the viewer’s perspective.

Also among the works to be added later this year is a geometric, mirrored installation by Brookhart Jonquil in the two rooms in the Casino on the Garden Mound — a pavilion at the south end of the gardens — that will offer new visual and spatial perspectives of the rooms.

The exhibition is by far the most ambitious in the decade-long history of the museum’s Contemporary Arts Program. To create it, the curatorial team sorted through more than 180 proposals.

Over the years, the program has shifted from solo projects to group exhibitions, always focused on new works inspired by the estate.

While some might find it sacrilegious to juxtapose contemporary art with the existing antiquities throughout Vizcaya, it’s not without precedent; historic estates around the world like the Palace of Versailles in France have implemented contemporary art programs to attract new audiences.

“We don’t only have to be looking towards one static moment in history. We can touch history, we can play with history, we can add to history [through contemporary art],” said Wouters, the curator.

The Contemporary Arts Program has a promising future. With the departure of the Frost Science Museum from what was originally part of the estate’s village across Miami Avenue, the museum now has room to expand the program. Under consideration are the ideas of incorporating artist residencies and housing a permanent contemporary art collection here. The museum also is hoping to expand its reach into more ambitious installations by internationally renowned artists.

While the core of the museum is to preserve the grand estate Deering built, the Contemporary Arts Program allows for the estate to preserve the philanthropist’s legacy as an arts patron. Deering himself hired some of the leading contemporary artists of his time to execute works. Among them were Robert Winthrop Chanler, who created an intricate mural on the ceiling of the home’s grotto, and John Singer Sargent, who made Impressionist portraits of Deering and some of the estate staff.

“We don’t know much about James Deering, but we do know that he very much wanted artists of his period to be a part of the vernacular of Vizcaya,” Wouters said. “In that sense, I think he would appreciate how we are keeping his spirit alive and highlighting the dynamism of the estate, that it’s not just this facsimile of European tradition.”

If you go

What: “Lost Spaces and Stories of Vizcaya,” through May 2017.

Where: Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, 3251 S. Miami Ave., Coconut Grove.

Art tours: Beginning July 9, tours of the “Lost Spaces” exhibit will be offered each Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

Admission: Included with regular museum admission of $18 adults, $6 children 6-12, $12 seniors.