The New York Times
September 16, 2001, Sunday
ART/ARCHITECTURE; In Miami, a Hot Spot of Art, the Temperature's Rising
By AMEI WALLACH
IF I were a young artist struggling to live, work and be noticed, I'd try Miami. At least this year.
That was my thought one day last spring as I was poking around the studio that Naomi Fisher shares with Frank Benson in the working class neighborhood of Edgewater. The studio is bare bones and funky. There's no plumbing, but it's good sized, looks out over a swimming pool to Biscayne Bay and costs $300 a month.
Ms. Fisher has been showing in Miami alternative spaces and galleries for nearly six years. The Miami collectors Debra and Dennis Scholl recommended her to the Chelsea gallery Lombard-Freid Fine Arts. Her second New York show there next February will coincide with the New York Armory Show, where she caused a stir last winter with her 40-by-50-inch photograph, ''White Lilies,'' of sun-stroked tropical foliage and calla lilies that may or may not be growing from between a woman's splayed legs.
Ms. Fisher turns 25 on Oct. 27, the day after the Miami Art Museum becomes the fourth of South Florida's museums to exhibit her work. With the new Cibachromes she will be showing at the museum, she continues with increasing delirium to conjugate the power struggles between nature and society, sexuality and brutality. In the new ''Wilted Lilies,'' a rococo torrent of rotting lilies deluges a woman's face and twisting body, with a creepy hybrid of fashion photography and film noir.
Mr. Benson, who is already 25, met Ms. Fisher when they were students at the Maryland Art Institute and moved home with her to Miami. Romance is one thing, but as a career move it wasn't bad either. Through his Miami supporters, Mr. Benson showed in the ''Really'' show at the Artists' Space in New York last winter and in the ''Mount Miami: American Artists in Tel Aviv'' exhibition in Tel Aviv last year. At the Miami Art Museum last winter, he showed an eccentric fusion of the beautifully wrought -- furniture he designed and made -- and comic-book poetics, like a bubble of water frozen in time.
Cheap rent aside, the allure of Miami just now is that curators, collectors, dealers and institutions, swelled with civic pride after more than two years of national press about the exploding art scene here, are avidly searching for hometown artists to champion. And the artists themselves have come out of isolation to invent alternative exhibition possibilities for one another and bask in the attention.
Last spring, it seemed to most people I spoke with that you could count serious Miami artists in the hundreds. So many have surfaced since then that both Robert Chambers, an ebullient artist sufficiently generous with connections to bridge age gaps and aesthetics, and Bonnie Clearwater, director of North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art, now estimate the number at well over 1,000. ''I mean solid artists you could choose for a museum show,'' Ms. Clearwater said.
And museums are choosing them. The Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, the Miami Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami have all been featuring area artists this year -- the Contemporary not for the first time, and more than once. The Bass Museum, which reopens in November in a new building designed by Arata Isozaki in Miami Beach, is already showing work by the Miami artists José Bedia and Carol Brown and has commissioned pieces by Florencio Gelabert, Barbara Neijna and Mr. Chambers for the grounds.
For my survey of the scene, I enlisted the help of three tour guides: Rosa de la Cruz, a collector; Lorie Mertes, associate curator of the Miami Art Museum; and Ms. Clearwater. Not that my elaborate preparations were necessary. Most of the artists whose studios I eventually visited showed up for the opening of an Ed Ruscha retrospective at the Miami Art Museum. Less predictably, they were also invited to the dinner afterward at the home of the collector Lang Baumgarten.
In Miami, artists increasingly tend to be insiders, and collectors are converts. Mr. Baumgarten, who grew up across the street from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, didn't start buying contemporary art -- including the work of Miami artists -- until he moved here in 1998. ''It's a new city,'' he said. ''Everybody's into what's new.''
The collections of the Donald and Mera Rubell family and Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz have become nurturing grounds for the artists. At the de la Cruz home and exhibition space in Key Biscayne, artists can see conceptually based work by an international roster of artists that includes Mr. Bedia, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Jim Hodges, Gabriel Orozco, Arturo Herrera and Ana Mendieta. Lately they've begun buying younger area artists.
The Rubells buy wide, deep and early and display their art downtown in a 40,000-square-foot former drug-confiscation warehouse that's open to the public. There, Ms. Fisher is hung in a room with Cindy Sherman. You can watch six videos by the South African artist William Kentridge. It's as big a local magnet for artists as a Dumbo bar (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) in Brooklyn.
The British-born, Miami-based artist Mark Handforth, who shows at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in New York, matured as the caretaker of the Rubell collection, followed in the job by Ms. Fisher and the 26-year-old Noberto (Bert) Rodriquez, whose adroit Duchampian antics have included producing ''a precareer retrospective'' catalog and buying frames at Target, which he returned, their banal photographs replaced with ones of himself. Amy Cappellazzo, widely respected around town, was director of the collection in 1998 and now spreads the word about Miami artists in the international places where she organizes shows.
The sculptor Carol Brown recalls that when she was invited to exhibit on the grounds of the Miami Art Museum some years ago, she was informed that the indoor galleries were off limits to ''local'' artists. Now they're in the collection. And this year, for the first time, the museum has focused ''New Work,'' its seven-year-old commissioning series, on area artists, including Ms. Fisher and Mr. Benson.
The ''New Work Miami'' series has been scrambling the generations with four consecutive exhibitions in which a younger artist is paired with a more established one. Mr. Benson showed with Mr. Chambers, 43, who goes to drolly elaborate technological lengths to create hyperactive sculptures that do something, then do something else with billowing fabric, light, sound, bumper cars, marble balls, aroma therapy or consciousness-altering rhythm. Dara Friedman, a 33-year-old German-born installation artist and filmmaker, who was included in the last Whitney Biennial, was matched with the 60-year-old sculptor Robert Thiele, who showed in the 1975 Whitney Biennial. At the Miami Art Museum he installed a kind of chapel stationed with his layered, meditative painterly sculptures.
In Part 3 of ''New Work Miami,'' which is on view through Oct. 7, the 26-year-old Haitian-born music-video artist and photographer Adler Guerrier is paired with the Cuban-born 43-year-old painter, photographer and Web artist Consuelo Castañeda. For the series' final show next month, Ms. Fisher will exhibit the 37-year-old Cuban-born painter and performance artist Glexis Novoa.
''There are so many shows of Miami artists going on that we wanted to do something different,'' said Ms. Mertes, the curator, as we traverse Lincoln Road, rehabilitated in recent years from squalor into a hip South Beach pedestrian mall. Our destination is the complex of galleries and studio spaces maintained by the nonprofit Art Center/South Florida.
Annie Wharton's space there is the size of a Manhattan kitchen. In it she manipulates cookie cutters to make allover paintings in pastel acrylic on Mylar. As with many of the artists who come from elsewhere, a relationship brought her here, ''a following a boy issue,'' as she put it. But she plans to stay. Why?
''Have you seen outside?'' she responded. The 34-year-old artist was wearing magenta, from hair to high tops. ''I mean, why leave? You can sit in your studio, do your work and curators call you up! It's cool.''
Ms. Wharton, like so many Miami artists, had her first experience exhibiting in a museum at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where, in 1996, Ms. Clearwater inaugurated the museum's Charles Gwathmey-designed building with ''Defining the 90's: Consensus-Making in New York, Miami and Los Angeles,'' which posited Miami as an art-making center.
In December she followed up with ''Making Art in Miami: Travels in Hyperreality,'' showing work by 22 area artists. That exhibition made the point many artists do: that in South Florida when they were growing up, the prevalence of fashion shoots, ''Miami Vice'' television tapings and the tradition of simulation and fantasy embodied by Disney World, taught them to seduce their viewers with deceptively user-friendly works and plenty of ''let's pretend.''
''The gregarious works these artists produce rarely fail . . . to dazzle visually long before they do so conceptually,'' the 29-year-old artist and critic Gean Moreno wrote for the catalog. His artistic contribution to ''Making Art in Miami'' was a brashly colored playroom, which viewers entered through a mouse hole.
By last spring, however, Ms. Clearwater was on the scent of something new. We stopped briefly at Locust Projects, an alternative space run by Westen Charles, Elizabeth Withstandley and Cooper, artists from the December show. Cooper, a video and installation artist, is currently showing in Exit Art's ''Spunky'' show in SoHo, through Oct. 27, as is the Danish-born artist Mette Tommerup. Ms. Tommerup began making digitized painting narratives in which figures seem to morph and mutate, as a way to keep working, via laptop, while she commuted from New York to visit Mr. Chambers, to whom she is now married.
Ms. Clearwater next stopped in at William Cordova's latest temporary studio. The 32-year-old artist, who was born in Peru and travels light, keeps a diary in postcard-size paintings, which riff on chronicles of street life, memory and fantasy.
Then Ms. Clearwater announced, ''I'm going to show you people nobody knows.''
We stopped at a two-story, white 1930's house, on whose roof were tangled red-metal letters that spelled ''House'' backward. At that point, the House had been an alternative space for about four months, run by artists who had met at the New World School of the Arts here.
Bhakti Baxter, 21, Tao Rey, 23, and Martin Oppel, 25, were renting a working and living space for $1,000 a month. They had invited the 21-year-old artist Nick Delaveleye to exhibit, and he had reconfigured the red letters salvaged from the nearby landmark Sears building, which is being radically reconstructed as a performing-arts center. Inside, he had fenced the perimeters of a white room with barbed wire, to induce a psychological equivalent of Miami's wasteland of fenced-in vacant lots.
Upstairs, in Mr. Baxter's small bedroom, were the shells, bones, seed pods, fossils, vines and cones out of which he composes his metaphysical, ephemeral wall pieces. Two of these are on view at the Contemporary in the exhibition ''The House at MOCA,'' through Friday.
Having watched the doings at the House into the summer, Ms. Clearwater invited Mr. Baxter, Mr. Oppel and Mr. Rey to organize the exhibition with her, as a way for them to gain practical museum experience. In sensibility, the House artists are far from the playland high jinks of the group the Contemporary showed last December. Their concerns are a Zen version of the spiritual and ecological quest of an artist like Mr. Bedia.
Meanwhile, at the House itself, the artists invited Mr. Chambers to put together an exhibition ''The Sears Building,'' which opened last month. He assembled 23 ''under-known'' artists, then added 25 more, who inserted pieces on stairs, walls, ceilings, in the kitchen, bathroom and on the roof, performing in the backyard and on the street. Next Sunday, another 20 more established artists will squeeze into the mix, and there will be another opening that Mr. Chambers is constructing to match in zany intensity the original event on Aug. 19.
On that night, Maritza Molina performed on a bed of spiked heels; Maria Arjona moved with a dancer's discipline across the roof line, carrying her suitcases; Alex Wyroba tied herself to a sheet of plywood and propelled herself backward into a jumble of milk crates. D. J. Spam played Mahler's Fifth Symphony in reverse over huge amplifiers, attracting neighbors and the police. And Martin Oppel's brother, Nicholas, and Raphael Manzano, performing as the Paella Kings, fed the arriving multitudes.
''The whole thing was activated by the process,'' Mr. Chambers said. ''More and more people kept coming. There's never been anything like this in Miami.''
There's more to come. The Rubell family has purchased substantial real estate near the Museum of Contemporary Art and next year will build a space double the size of the current one, with room for an art neighborhood to grow naturally. Out-of-towners are already planning galleries there.
On Dec. 13 the Basel Art Fair opens its new Miami space. Miami artists are preparing attention-grabbing actions and performances to draw the eye of the international art world that is expected to congregate. The de la Cruzes, who are doubling their space to 14,000 square feet, have hired the Chicago curator Dominic Molon to organize an exhibition that will showcase Miami artists in the construction site during Art Basel Miami Beach.
Still lacking, Ms. Chambers says, is an art school to match the ones that put Los Angeles artists on the map. Up-and-coming artists leave town for graduate school. Since I last saw him, Frank Benson has left to take his master's degree in fine arts at the University of California in Los Angeles under Charles Ray.
But more often now, the artists return. The husband-and-wife team Mark Handforth and Dara Friedman spent a year in Italy, where she was the recipient of an American Academy in Rome prize. They're coming home to Miami. For this 15 minutes, at least, Miami is where the art is.