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Uncovering Unique Histories: Miami’s Corner of Contemporary Art

Courtney Malick

Chayo Frank, AmerTec Building, Hialeah, Florida, 1969. Photo: Bullet, Miami
Courtney Malick is the Miami Rail’s Fall 2015 Visiting Writer. The Visiting Writer Program is generously supported by the John S. and the James L. Knight Foundation.

My relationship with Miami’s contemporary art scene began not with Art Basel Miami Beach, but with a site-specific art project in which I participated, spending a week filming with my longtime friends Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. This was in 2009, and their house where most of the shoots took place was in Little Haiti. When I look back on that first trip to Miami now, it is shocking to me how little I knew about what was going on in contemporary art in the city. What’s more, when I look back at the video work that Trecartin and Fitch produced during the year that they spent in Little Haiti, it is surprising how little of the actual place itself seeps into the stories, characters, or even the sets and backdrops of the movies that they made there. Even more surprising today is that, with the exception of Art Basel and the satellite art fairs in early December, it seems that even still the depth and historical lineages of Miami’s relationship to contemporary art is lost on many.

I too am guilty of this offense, usually coming to Miami during that one week in December when much of the artwork that one takes in has nothing to do with Miami itself and is only temporarily implanted there from more international “art cities” like New York, Berlin, London, Paris, and more recently, Los Angeles. However, having been given the opportunity to spend more time there this summer—in the off-season, no less—and meet with a handful of artists, gallerists, curators, and writers, it is amazing to me that Miami remains somewhat of a contemporary art secret, or even haven. Perhaps it’s best this way, but nonetheless, the more I learned, the more impressive the area’s connections to an art historical past shone through.

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GucciVuitton, Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, 2015. Courtesy GucciVuitton, Miami

One of the best examples of this that I saw is the exhibition GucciVuitton, curated by the artist-run gallery of the same name, which is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Miami (ICA) through September. The exhibition itself is unique for many reasons, presenting content in ways I have never seen or heard of elsewhere. For one thing, it is ultimately a retrospective of a gallery’s history, a rather strange endeavor in and of itself. Secondly, the exhibition design cleverly utilizes the lack of proper exhibition space the museum currently has available in its temporary building as its permanent home is being constructed. The directors of GucciVuitton, each of whom maintains his own independent artistic and design practice, decided to activate the interior of the lobby space, not only on the ground floor, but by installing a transparent, cage-like scaffolding all the way up to the top, fourth floor. In this way, viewers do not enter a gallery to see works installed on its walls or in its white cube space, but instead can only access the works from behind the glass through which one would normally peer downward from the second, third, and fourth floors to see the atrium-like lobby below. Each of these windows now acts as a secondary frame, detaching viewer from artwork, creating the sensation of window-shopping. Moreover, visitors are afforded the rare viewpoint of seeing nearly the
entire show all at once, including the backs of works installed on the opposite side of the building.

While the exhibition design is also unusual in its ability to drastically alter the perspective of the viewer in ways I have never before experienced, GucciVuitton, which has taken works from each of the gallery’s past twelve shows, also serves as an important history lesson. Here attention is called to a wide range of artistic traditions, cultures, and figures throughout the entire southeastern region and its neighboring countries. This includes little-known and longstanding trajectories throughout Floridian history, such as Florida landscape painting, seminal figures and constructs in organic architecture, and sculptures and paintings directly related to the felt prevalence and mythologies of Haitian Vodou. This thus expands and reinforces these lesser-known artists and the cultural lineages from which they draw. Certain artists featured in the exhibition were especially revelatory. For example, organic architect and sculptor, Chayo Frank, whose career began in the mid-1960s in Miami when he designed the unusual AmerTec Building, which is today considered a cultlike architectural

Though trained as an architect, during the construction of the AmerTec Building, which favors bulbous, curved forms that emulate those naturally found in plant and sea life, Frank also became interested in creating similarly organic sculptural forms with clay. Some of these small-scale sculptures, which made up his solo show at GucciVuitton in the summer of 2014, are on view at ICA and clearly recall the colorful, sci-fi, and otherworldly aesthetic popular in the 1970s. While relationships can easily be made between Frank’s work and that of other ceramic sculptors like Ken Price, most notably, his is clearly rooted in the natural imagery, colors, and forms found in the tropical Floridian landscape.

Another great example of an artist whose work may be lesser known, but undoubtedly holds deep significance in Miami, the greater South Florida area, and especially throughout its Haitian subcultures, is Port-au-Prince-based sculptor Guyodo. Guyodo’s artist group, Atis Rezistans, uses items found in junkyards and other household detritus to create “idols,” as they are known—miniature figurines that represent various Haitian Vodou deities. Though the intricacies of the specific traditions to which each figure relates may be lost on some viewers, it is apparent in their installation that they all have a relationship to one another as well as to the viewer gazing in on them through the glass.

Again the sincerity of the idea of place—along with the stories that make up a place—comes to the fore and shapes the work of the individual artist and the overall exhibition as one that is less about the kinds of questions we often see exhibitions attempting to answer, such as, “What does contemporary art look like, or how does it function, today?” or “How are artists’ methodologies shifting in an ever increasingly technologized digital world?” Instead, the exhibition looks inward, which is not to say backward. GucciVuitton seems to be asking viewers to consider where they are in space and time, perhaps how they got there, and how what they see around them in the city of Miami is informed by such histories as those being revisited and recontextualized by the participating artists. This is certainly not to say that Miami has no stake in the larger and broader conversations that perpetuate the überglobalism of contemporary art, nor is it to say that such an expansive and all-encompassing conversation is of no relevance. But rather that perhaps a city like Miami,which continues to dip its toe deeper and deeper into contemporary art’s murky waters—so much so that it is now apparent it will be swimming laps in the years to come—can render itself apart from other major art cities through its less global attributes and selling points.

It is an intriguing contradiction central to the draw of today’s most prominent brand of contemporary art that it tends to champion the universalism of work that speaks to many people in many places all at once and yet applauds those able to reveal the underbelly of the stone unturned, usually found in the geographical and cultural peripheries. The latter point may account, at least in part, for the wafting return of the popularity of abstract painting over approximately the last five years, particularly within the United States. However, to interrogate the peripheral often does not yield to the uncovering of universality. Whether or not this is to be celebrated or critically dissected ought to be taken on a case-bycase basis. However, it should by now be apparent that at least one of the reasons that too much contemporary art looks like a carbon copy of an object or image made in the image of a pre-existing image, is precisely due to this kind of “global” mandate.

Though artists need not consistently approach their work from a site-based perspective, it is not difficult to see that Miami and South Florida represent an unusual part of the United States that
remains somewhat detached in ways that are far divergent from most other “major” art cities. While every year in December Miami invites the global art world onto its beautiful beaches and into its lavish hotels to celebrate another year in nonstop city-hopping for most art professionals and patrons, I hope as its contemporary art institutions and communities continue to grow, it will nonetheless look further inward at what separates it from other places rather than blend more and more seamlessly in with what characterizes the general milieu of contemporary art overall.

Courtney Malick is a contemporary art curator and writer whose practice focuses on intersections among video, sculpture, performance, and installation. She has curated a group exhibition that deals with inorganic ingestible matter and its potential long-term effects on the human body, which opens at Martos Gallery, Los Angeles, in October.

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Chayo Frank, AmerTec Building, Hialeah, Florida, 1969. Photo: Bullet, Miami

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Chayo Frank, #12B, 2012. Installation view: Chayo Frank: Sculptures 1969-2012, GucciVuitton, Miami, 2014. Courtesy GucciVuitton, Miami

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Guyodo, Untitled Idol (Blender), 2012–15.
Courtesy GucciVuitton, Miami