Saturday, March 26, 2011

Miami Artist Maria Martinez-Canas Honored at Arteamericas Fair

"This fair has really come a long way," I remarked to an exceptionally veteran Miami dealer as I strolled the aisles of Arteamericas art fair yesterday at Miami Beach Convention Center. He smiled knowingly at me and gave an enthusiastic thumb's up.

Yesterday was a rather quick visit at the end of the afternoon. I hope to return on Sunday. (During the afternoons of this Saturday and Sunday is an excellent series of Art Talks. Don't forget that the fair lasts through Monday, March 28. Doors open at noon.)

I visited the fair with my very dear artcentric friend and current publisher, Liana Perez. We were on our way to see Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People in "Last Meadow," part of the Cultura Del Lobo Performance Series of Miami Dade College.

Although I certainly do not have the time to think and write about all that I saw at the fair, I was particularly impressed by these curated exhibits: "New Work Miami" for Miami Art Museum; "Centroamerica: Civismo y violencia," curated by Janet Batet and Clara Asitasaran; "West Encounters East" at Booth 5o1; and "Tracing Their Roots: The Three Marias, Works by Maria Brito, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and Maria Martinez-Canas," curated by Jorge Hilker Santis, curator and head of collection research for Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.

His was an exquisitely succinct look at how these three exceptionally talented artists have portrayed their Cuban roots in their distinctively accomplished art.

It brought to mind The Miami Herald review I wrote about the solo show he curated for one of these Marias several years ago, so I thought I would post that on my blog today.

(For more insight into Maria Brito, see my 2/13/2011 blog post, "Miami Artist Maria Brito Honored by Frost Art Museum." Regrettably, I don't think I ever got to write a substantial review of art by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons although I do recall encountering her work on one of my trips to Venice.)

Here is what I wrote for The Miami Herald in May 2002. (I see from the copy in my own personal archive that my review ran at that time on a Wednesday--I am sure that I was disappointed that it did not make the Sunday paper. How ironic, now that this review will be on the Internet!)


An eerie specter of a woman dominated one corner of "Maria Martinez-Canas: A Retrospective," now at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. Glimpsed in the murk of a black-and-white video, she sloshes in a tub, wearing only what appear to be dozens of plastic masks, piled one atop the other.

In a dreamy sequence, the woman pulls off one mask after another. Yet what should be a process of revelation becomes more concealing. We see her body floundering in water and hear her voice in Spanish, but the camera never focuses on her face.

The video is a remarkably prescient self-portrait of Martinez-Canas in 1984, when the Miami-based artist was 24 and a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Titled "Un Problema de identidad" (A Problem of Identity), it exposes a tense process of watery flux, a peculiar conundrum in which naked flesh on view within a claustrophobic, womb-like space remains a damp mystery.

In this retrospective, the video provides a striking encapsulation of the exciting work Martinez-Canas would produce over the next two decades, during which she would win numerous national and international honors. The video foretells her tightly composed photomontages, with glimpses of vulnerable bodies set amid fluid designs evocative of islands, as well as geometric enclosures inspired by maps of colonial Cuba, maps she studied in Spain in 1986 on a Fubright-Hays grant.

She has gone on from those early days to establish herself as a nationally prominent photographic artist whose work resides in the permanent collections of such museums as New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the International Center of Photography, as well as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Martinez-Canas, the student, was not unique in exploring the nebulous fate of mercurial self-portraits, and one could argue that this video is a self-conscious effort from an MFA candidate. Formally, however, it's much more than an obligatory rehash of topical, identity-conscious art by the likes of Cindy Sherman and Ana Mendieta.

And Martinez-Canas was grappling with her own feelings of being uprooted. Born the youngest of three daughters in Cuba in 1960, she was barely three months old when her family fled Fidel Castro's regime for Miami before eventually settling in Puerto Rico. It was there that the artist was raised, learning of her homeland from an art-laced pastiche of family memories.


"She likes to say that she is a Cuban-born, Puerto Rico-raised American citizen," says her father Jose Martinez-Canas, a Coral Gables art dealer. "I think she really loved hearing the old stories of Cuba. And she grew up, like all my kids, surrounded by Latin American culture. We had writers and musicians in our home. Our friends were artists."

When his daughter moved to Miami in 1986, those memories stayed vivid. In her Bakehouse studio, she kept a snapshot of herself as a chubby-cheeked 8-year-old at a San Juan restaurant
with her family and Cuban painter Cundo Bermudez.

It was also at the age of 8, her father remembers, that his youngest daughter began begging to use his Nikon or her mother's old Rolleiflex. Then her parents gave her a Polaroid Swinger, which she used to shoot things such as colonial archways and patterns in the barks of trees.

"She wanted us to go every weekend to photograph in Old San Juan or at El Dorado Beach," he says. "She had a sense of form from the very beginning."

A formalist spirit with sensuous imagery and echoes of an exile's fragmented past still mingles in her work. Nearly four years ago, while remodeling the studio in her Little Havana home, she temporarily set up shop in a former cigar factory on Calle Ocho amid boxes of dried tobacco leaves that had been left behind--the smell of which brought back memories of a cigar-smoking grandfather.


Along with sprays of bougainvillea and other plants, the tobacco leaves became subjects for a stunning new series of semi-abstract photograms, produced without a lens by shining light on plants scattered across photo-sensitive paper the color of lapis lazuli.

"There was something magical and incredible about the whole process," remembers Martinez-Canas, a petite woman with an intense gaze and tightly-curled black hair.

Such combinations in Martinez-Canas' work have long intrigued Andy Grundberg, a Washington-based independent critic and curator who chose the artist's 1991 work "Quince Sellos Cubanos" (Fifteen Cuban Stamps) for "Points of Entry," a nationally traveling 1995 show exploring art and identity.

This stamp series presents intricate collage-like photographs that arise from a singular technical process and riff on paintings by artists such as Amelia Pelaez and other scenes featured on Cuban stamps. As telling documents of travel and cultural icons, the stamps, Martinez-Canas said then, "became an essential element in coming closer to my Cubanness."

What's amazing in her art, Grundberg explains, "is that she combines this experimental attitude with the medium of photography, and at the same time the content is really personal, speaking to her cultural experience and to issues of dislocation. I'd put her in a league with Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems in the sense that she uses photography to evoke the complexities of personal experience."


Only five examples from the stamp series made it into the Fort Lauderdale retrospective, but curator Jorge Hilker Santis has included more than 100 works, chiefly photographs and a few videos. It's a dazzling overview, from 1980 to the present, that includes the photographs she used in building her largest image to date, "Anos Continuous" (Continuous Years), a 10-foot -square wall of sand-blasted glass for Concourse D at Miami International Airport.

In some ways, this 1995 public commission, with majestic layering of maps and landmarks for travelers on real and imaginary journeys, marked a glorious artistic cul-de-sac. Soon after, she realized she needed to move on.

"I felt very tired about the work," she says. "I felt it was time for me to drop anything that had to do with Cuba because, if not, I would start repeating myself. My work was about so much more than the issue of Cuba."

So she became more spontaneous, producing, for example, the unique plant-leaf photograms.

"In a way, I am allowing myself to fail and not thinking so much about what is going to happen," she says. "Chance is very much there."

That year Martinez-Canas also nursed a close friend until his death from a long illness. It was a profound experience that led her to make work memorializing life's transience, such as the eerie, exquisite "Flight (Hospital Bed)" on linen. In this photo, a ghostly, blurred figure--actually the artist--struggles to rise from a quilt-like pattern of botanical prints.


"The last few years have been some of the most exciting," she says. And the energy she felt early in her career, when she was making imagery patterned after maps of colonial Cuba, has returned.

One highlight came last September when she and other artists included in "Arte Latino: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" were invited to meet First Lady Laura Bush and Martha Sahagun, wife of Mexican President Vicente Fox, at a reception in Chicago, where the traveling show was on view.

"For Latino artists to be there was an honor, it was a validation," she says. The prospect of chatting with Laura Bush, however, was unnerving.

"I was shaking," Martinez-Canas remembers. But their conversation in English and Spanish went smoothly.

"She understands Spanish. They made you feel very comfortable," Martinez-Canas says.

"Some of us have grown up in this country, we feel very American, but we have come from different parts. It was an experience I will never forget."

Friday, March 18, 2011

In Miami, Cuban Art Collector Howard Farber on Arteamericas Panel

This is quite the season for art fair panels on art collecting!

I am blogging on Friday night this weekend. That's earlier than I usually post my weekly blog entry because tomorrow morning my husband Eric and I are heading out for Naples from Miami. We are taking our canoe with us--it will be a long weekend for us with boating AND art!

I am taking part in a program for Art Naples Saturday afternoon, March 19. It's called "Passion of Collecting." I'll interview Naples art collector Robert Edwards on ways to begin collecting and what a seasoned collector looks for in possible additions to his collection.

There's quite a range of programs lined up for this fair this weekend, with talks on Latin American art and the upcoming Miami Biennale. I'm impressed by the variety and the quality of Miami people who are participating! For more info, check

In Miami next weekend at the Arteamericas art fair, there are more panels of interest to novice and seasoned art collectors. I'm especially hoping to catch "Private Collectors and Public Collections" on Sunday, March 27 at 3 pm in Hall D at Miami Beach Convention Center.

It will be moderated by my talented friend, Julia P. Herzberg, Ph. D., adjunct curator for the Frost Museum of Florida International University. Here are the panelists:

Dr. Marvin Sackner, of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, who'll address the Latin American presence in concrete and visual poetry.

Howard Farber, of the Fundacion Cuba Avant-Garde, speaking on Cuban contemporary art.

Ricardo Viera, who'll speak about selections from the Lehigh University Teaching Collection.

Jose Luis Falcon, who will discuss "Selections from the Latin American Collection, Art Forum, Harvard University."

Knowing that Howard Farber will participate in this panel brings to mind the time I interviewed Howard in his Miami Beach apartment for The Miami Herald. We had such a wonderful conversation! As I was ready to leave, he gave me an autographed copy of "Cuba Avant-Garde: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Farber Collection."

So I thought that tonight I would revisit that afternoon by posting my Herald profile of him, from June 2007.

Actually, what I'm posting here is the story I filed for the Herald, not the one that was actually published. A few interesting details were cut in the published version, as happens so often in newspapers. Now I no longer have to roll my eyes when I see what finally makes it to the printed page of the Herald!


The first and last time Cuban contemporary art collector Howard Farber set foot in Cuba was 2001. It was an odd introduction to the island.

While stepping off the plane in Havana, he and his wife Patricia lugged shopping bags full of foot powder from a Walgreens in Manhattan. Patricia, a New York City patron of the ballet, had picked out much-needed supplies for the foot-sore ballet dancers of Cuba.

Although since the 1960s Farber has first collected American modernist art and then contemporary art from China, he insisted to Patricia: "No art. I am not buying any art. I am totally involved in Chinese art."

For good measure, he added, "My brain can't handle another collection."

His brain changed. [Um, do I know about how changes in the brain can change your life!!]

Farber is a hard-core art collector and a natural-born raconteur. As he tells this story, he's sitting at the dining table in his Miami Beach apartment, where he and Patricia live part-time.

He's looking through the bilingual catalogue for "Cuba Avante-Garde: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Farber Collection," which is now at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It's there until September, and then it travels to more museums.

The adventurous art he found on the island has sparked the curiosity of many a hard-core collector. Farber wondered how this contemporary art came not only to exist but thrive. It was attracting droves of art collectors from the Americas and Europe.

The Farbers went to Havana for a tour of Cuban art and architecture organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They toured the art school Instituto Superior de Arte, known as ISA. A mantra at the time was that ISA students have no materials; ISA students are turning out amazing art.

Six months after his visit to Cuba, a museum professional in Cuba e-mailed him to ask about his contemporary Chinese art collection.

"I was fascinated because it was the first time I've ever received an e-mail from Havana," he recalls. Through that person, whose name he says he can't divulge, Farber's quest to collect Cuban art began.

"In another life I must have been either an art critic or an art historian because to me, the history of art is as important as the artwork itself," Farber confesses. A trim man of medium height, he says he hates public speaking, but in the quiet of his Miami Beach apartment, furnished with a stylish simplicity that looks almost Asian, he enthusiastically talks on and on about art.

With each of his collections of American, Chinese, and Cuban art, he notes, "I feel like I have an eye for art but I have had a lot of help. Someone has to train you."

In each case, he found advisors. To learn more about Cuban art, he trolled the Internet, consulted people in Havana, and lunched with Holly Block, who wrote the book Art Cuba: The New Generation. It came out the year that Farber took his only trip to Havana.

Another critical book in his quest to collect Cuban art is New Art of Cuba that Luis Camnitzer wrote in 1994. Farber calls it his bible. He keeps copies of the Camnitzer book at home in Miami Beach and New York.

"I go on vacation and I take it with me," he insists. "I could read it fifty times."

Farber used a strategy that served him well in his American and Chinese collections: identify the group show that captured a pivotal moment in the art he pursued. For Cuban contemporary art, it was "Volumen I," which opened January 14, 1981 in the Centro de Arte Internacional in Havana.

Camnitzer writes in his book that this show "has come to symbolize the emergence of the new art in Cuba for artists and critics alike," and he asserts that the show had a historical impact on Cuban art in the 20th Century.

Its impact seems to continue in the 21st Century. Five of the artists in that historical show are now in the Farber show at University of Florida. They include three who frequently exhibit in South Florida: Jose Bedia, Tomas Sanchez, and Ruben Torres Llorca.

A second strategy Farber used was to seek out the artists themselves. Some were in Cuba. Others were in Miami, Canada, Spain, France, and Australia. He contacted them to ask where he could find the artwork that they thought was the best example of their art.

He was inspired by what Ry Cooder did to bring attention to Cuban musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club.

"What he did was amazing," Farber says. "What I did was try to find the artists, find their great works, try to collect them, and put them in a show to have these works seen for the first time in many cases." Through what he calls "nefarious" methods, one painting after another reached him in New York.

"It was usually rolled up and dirty because it had been sitting for years either in a basement or attic," he recalls. After he had it cleaned and stretched, he recalls, "there before me was a miraculous work."

Carlos Estevez, now in Miami, was in Paris when Farber e-mailed him. He gained from one of Farber's artistic search-and-rescue missions. In the catalogue (but not in the show) is "Across the Universe" by Estevez. It's a large sculpture that weighs over 200 pounds and shows a Christ-like man with a candle and huge wings.

"He saved that work," says Estevez. When he saw it again, he became emotional. Estevez had not seen the sculpture since leaving Cuba in 2003. In Havana, he put it in his studio window so that people walking on the street could see it. It made such a strong impression that sometimes they screamed at it.

Farber is impressed by the deep friendships among Cuban artists.

"I never met a group of artists so dedicated to other artists," he says. In Miami, as he saw in February at the opening reception for Carlos Gonzalez at Chelsea Galleria in Wynwood, "they are all out for support," he marvels.

"Some are more successful than others. But they all have a history together. The original dirt on their feet is from Cuba."

Tina Spiro of Chelsea Galleria remembers Farber from that night. He was observant, charming, and curious. Farber doesn't strike her as a collector who likes art as a status symbol. Says Spiro, "He has a personality that is in synch with art. He's in touch with what he's looking at."

She's also witnessed the support network among Cuban artists. Jose Bedia, Gory, and Gustavo Acosta showed up to get Gonzalez's sculpture ready for the show.

"That's a pretty heavy duty installation crew," Spiro notes. "They've been friends for many years. It wasn't an easy road for any of them."

Those intense ties to each other and to making art strike a resonnant chord with Farber.

His collecting, he insists, is "only about the art. I know that in Florida people really get bent out of shape with the history of Cuban art." His voice rises.

"People have to realize that not everybody that has the ability to collect Cuban art is involved in politics! It has to be said, and I'm not afraid to say it."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Miami Artist Blossoms at Venice Biennale

As our art community ponders the wealth of growing artistic talent distinguishing Miami, I want to remind my readers of contributions that Eugenia Vargas Pereira made to our burgeoning art scene when we were so lucky to have her living and working here in Miami.

I was especially touched that Eugenia made a comment on my post last week of 3/6, "Miami Art Space Feeds the Soul." I'm assuming that she commented from her native Chile, where she moved after she left Miami.

Not only did Eugenia represent Chile, while she was living in Miami, at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, but beginning in 1999 she staged a series of remarkable "Home Shows," by allowing artists intermittently to take over her one-story home near Miami Shores. She gave them free rein to convert nearly every room into an impromptu gallery for showing all kinds of work, including sculpture, photography, installation art, video, and painting.

You can read more about that inspiring initiative on page 14 of my foreword to the book Miami Contemporary Artists by Paul Clemence and Julie Davidow. Also in that book, look on pages 232-233 to see more about Eugenia herself.

She eloquently reminds us,"Miami is unique because the city is constantly redefining itself, reinventing itself, and growing. Being an artist in Miami has allowed me to be part of that growth and those changes."

I count myself fortunate to have covered Eugenia's exhibit in Venice for The Miami Herald, at a time when print journalism as we used to know it still mattered.

When I read the lively discussion that Dennis Scholl began last week on 3/4 on the Knight Arts Blog (you'll find a link to that blog on my blog) about our many exceptional artistic talents, I know of course that not every artist's name could be mentioned, but I do think it is important to pay homage to the contributions that Eugenia made when she was here, and to recognize her significant accomplishments.

So here's the story I wrote in June 2003 for the Herald when Eugenia brought her art to the Biennale.


For one sultry week this month, a little bit of old Santiago, Chile, met up with a bit of old Venice. This unlikely date transpired within a new performance piece by Miami-based Eugenia Vargas. Nostalgia mingled with a poignant take on the cutting-edge, and an almost childish glee cut through jaded looks from crowds inspecting Vargas' work and others by Latin American artists during the crush of opening events at the 50th Venice Biennale.

Vargas' performance piece--and her compelling suite of related photographs about toy dolls and horses--are part of "An Archipelago of Images," a series of solo shows by artists from nine Latin American countries, organized by the Italian-Latin American Institute in Rome and overseen by curator Irma Arestizabal.

The exhibits are presented in the renovated Convent of Santi Cosma and Damiano on the Venetian island of Giudecce, about a twenty-minute boat trip from the heart of Venice in San Marco Piazza.

The artist's performance unfolded in the convent's courtyard, on a lawn that's slightly gone to seed. She'd arranged for Chilean street photographer Luis Maldonado to come to Venice with his prized 19th Century European pinhole camera and his photographer's prop of a quaintly crafted wooden horse on which his subjects--traditionally children with their families--playfully mount.

As he has done for years in Santiago's main plaza, Maldonado snapped pictures of smiling subjects sitting on the toy horse. This time, however, their backdrop was not a real cityscape. It was a large banner reproducing a turn-of-the-century painting of strollers along a picturesque Venetian waterfront; the painting was by Chilean artist Juan Molina, who was trained by a conservative Italian painter transplanted to Chile.

The setting drew "100 percent" more curiosity and excitement than Maldonado receives in Santiago, he says, where he's usually ignored by city residents and only tourists ask for portraits.


"Brilliant!" laughed one young British woman in Venice as she posed provocatively on horseback. For the photo she was surrounded by a bevy of fashionista girlfriends, a group clad in flirty lace dresses and red chiffon scarves who called themselves the "Prada-Meinhoff Gang."

The spectacle intrigued observers like Mirta Demare, a Rotterdam art dealer who grew up in Argentina. Photographers like Maldonado, she said, are part of Latin America's cultural iconography.

"When I was a girl there were photographers like him in our parks, but now they are gone," she says. She liked the way his work intersected with Vargas' photographs inside, with their tension between the real and the fake, between the sense of sweetness and loss that informs their carefully staged versions of childhood memories.

The work is "a very funny kind of fake," she says. "It's a fairy tale in a modern box."

Other pieces in the show ranged in quality, with bland paintings by Rosella Matamoros from Costa Rica, but among the strong works was a starkly landscaped video by Charly Nijensohn of Argentina and a room of floating webs of starfish by Maria Fernanda Cardoso of Colombia, another beautiful example of her work's focus on mortality.


Despite the strength of some of the works in "Archipelago of Images," they remain part of a troubling aspect for the representation of Latin American art in the Biennale. At the Biennale in 2001, artists chosen for exhibits organized by the Italian-Latin American Institute staged a protest at the opening, vociferously complaining that their shows were too far away--at least an hour away in Treviso--for anyone to see.

This time around, Venezuelan artist Pedro Morales was shut out of his country's pavilion in the Biennale's main venue of the Giardini, a hilly park on the eastern tip of Venice--when the Venezuelan government censored his work at the last minute because they felt it criticized the current regime. Morales came to Venice anyway and staged a protest as well.

Although she says it's a "sin" for Venezuela to squander such resources, Arestizabal says the protests don't cast a shadow on the representation of Latin American art and points to the diversity of work by artists from the region showcased throughout the Biennale.

Still, the protests are "emblematic of the enmeshment of art and politics in Latin America," says Victor Zamudio-Taylor, a curator who focuses on Latin American art and is involved with the newly established exhibition space Miami Art Central. "As long as art institutions are linked to political regimes they are not going to have an autonomous status."

The protests are part of larger problems for some who would like to see changes in the way this region is represented. They argue that grouping such diverse artists as the institute does is counter-productive. "Asia isn't treated as a lump sum of countries, so why should Latin America be treated this way?" says curator Silvia Karman Cubina, who moved to Miami last year from Puerto Rico and directs the Moore Space in the Design District.

"If you look at the artists [the institute] has featured over a period of time, 90 percent would not have been considered established or up-and-coming," says Zamudio-Taylor, who thinks an emphasis on national representation may be obsolete. "I think if you have a show on contemporary Latin American art, put together with maybe three curators and with a theme, it would have more impact."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Miami Art Space Feeds the Soul

Such a fun and heartfelt evening we had in Miami this past Friday night! It was really a night to satisfy my artcentric soul!

First my husband and I went to the opening for "Everything" by Hugo Michel Hernandez at Farside Gallery, 1305 Galloway Road (87 Ave.), and then it was back to Coral Gables for supper and music al fresco in the courtyard at Books & Books.

There we met some of my very dear artcentric buddies: Elizabeth Cerejido, Howard Farber, Glexis Novoa, and Liana Perez. They had gathered at Books & Books to hear about a new book by Rachel Weiss, professor of School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was terrific to meet Rachel at long last, because her contact info has been in my address book for ages! I told Rachel how Fernando G at the Herald had first mentioned her name to me.

The highlight of this artfully soul-satisfying evening, however, was experiencing the richness of the art community gathered at Farside Gallery and at the Art @ Work space next door in the always remarkable orthodontist office of Dr. Arturo Mosquera.

You may recall that I blogged about him last week. What is happening there is so special that I'm blogging about it again this morning.

Friday night's opening reception was an eye-opening chance chance for me to see many artworks by artists I have known for years and by artists I met for the first time. They included Hugo Michel Hernandez--we discovered that we are colleagues at Miami Dade College!--and Robert McKnight, whose studio is at the Bakehouse Art Complex, where I have been volunteering in efforts to broaden the reach of programs and exhibitions. Then I saw striking artworks by George Sanchez Calderon, Gean Moreno, Vickie Pierre, Jen Stark, and Sara Stites, to name just a few.

I also picked up a touching edition of Arturo's Star Smiles News, from the fall of 2009. The cover story was about his wife Liza and son Arturo, written by Anne Tschida--another artcentric buddy who covers the visual arts for the Knight Arts Blog--with photographs by Elizabeth Cerejido.

In Anne's profile of Liza, which described how Liza came to Miami and how her life has changed dramatically since she has been doing so much to help her son Arturo heal from his brain injury, I was moved by the opening sentences: "Life's path, as most of us know, is never straight, and never predictable. As much as we try to diligently and optimistically plot the future, it always seems to throw a wrench in all the best laid plans."

Yet Friday night was a vibrant and memorable evening. I could see how happy Arturo was to tell visitors about the art in his office and at Farside Gallery, my husband and I both commented on how well we thought his son Arturo was healing, and Liza spoke to me about her plans to become more involved in the work of the office again.

And, in a way, suffusing this entire evening, was the soulfully generous spirit of Miami artist Miralda, whose photographs of diverse tongues are the focus of the current Art @ Work exhibit. It was a truly nourishing evening. In honor of that experience, I thought I would share with readers a story I wrote about Miralda and his ongoing fascination with tongues for The Miami Herald in July 2006.


This dinner party spans 13 cities. So far, with their current stops in Miami and Coral Gables, Antoni Miralda and his collaborators are almost halfway through the cosmopolitan progressive dinner that is "Tastes & Tongues/Sabores y Lenguas." Miami is the sixth stop on a tour that began in Caracas and will probably wind up in Barcelona, Miralda's hometown.

"I am behind the project as artistic director and artist, but it is a project made with all the different people. It is a collective project," says Miralda. The show was preceded by his 1998 exhibit at the Miami Art Museum, "New Work Miralda: Grandma's Recipes," a warm-up for the more ambitious "Tastes/Sabores."

He sighs, when asked to explain the art of the exhibit. "It's always difficult, because there is not a product that people can take home as a piece of art. So they take home more a memory, and an image, or an experience." For him, art happens at the nexus of food, history, and anthropology. He prefers poking around supermarkets in Paris to galleries in the Louvre.


In some ways, at 64, this longime Miami resident, who wears his thinning salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a short ponytail, remains a child of the irreverent 1960s. He's not really interested in art with a capital A, secured behind velvet ropes.

"I always feel an artist needs to be crossing barriers," he says. Artists "need to go through the refrigerators. They need to walk with people."

He spins artistic metaphors about cultural identity from humble contents of refrigerators and busy street markets. In Miami's Collins Building in the Design District, he laughs as he looks at the photographic portrait that "Tastes/Sabores" produced of Mexico City. Images of corn and huevos rancheros make bold splashes of red, green, and gold.

Growing up in the lean years of Franco's Spain, Miralda came of age as an artist in 1960s Paris, soaking up the revolutionary tides of the times, the populist spirit of Pop art, and the street culture of happenings from that freewheeling era. He made an international name for himself by staging baroque festivals that combined the three P's: public art, Pop art, and performance. They had almost nothing to do with the art market.

In 1977, he took part in the international art festival of Documenta in Kassel, Germany, planning a parade and feast inspired by that city's statue of the mythic figure of Leda. In 1992, there was the notable "Honeymoon" project he staged around the metaphoric marriage of New York's Statue of Liberty and Barcelona's statue of Columbus.

Such art projects are seasoned with stories layering food, culture, and myth. They sparkle with puckish fun. His works have provided grand reasons to turn a traditional festival on its head, or to make an old one new again.

Miralda's current project brings a latter-day Pop and performance-art twist to his ongoing culinary diary of cities. He says the project offers an "urban culinary topography" deeply rooted in daily life. In each city, "Tastes/Sabores" becomes part festival, part imaginary dinner party, with giant tongue-shaped photo collages, a video, and dozens of unique objects created by inhabitants of that city. They document daily examples, mostly humble but disarming, of how food and creativity mesh.

In the project's video about Miami, on view at the Collins Building, you see a saucy sign, painted on a fish restaurant in Little Haiti, in which a leaping sailfish sports a chef's cap. In the photo collage about Miami, you see a dish of frothy Key lime pie, Publix sushi, take-out packages from Joe's Stone Crab, fried frog legs, a lavish dessert from Cacao in Coral Gables, smoked sausage from Jackson's in Overtown, ropa vieja from Versailles.

Before coming to Miami, "Tastes/Sabores" made stops in Caracas, Lima, Bogota, Mexico City, and Havana. Next it will go to Managua, Santo Domingo, San Juan, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and Barcelona.

In each city, Miralda and his assistants photograph the remarkable range of places where food is consumed or sold: markets, grocery stores, restaurants and bars, street corners, banquet halls, and tables in private homes. Miralda and his team have asked about 200 people in each city, many of them artists, to decorate a simple white plate in a way that somehow reflects the cultural taste of their city.

At the Collins Building, white plates are laid out on a floor to create a dazzling mosaic in a giant, tongue-shaped design. Not all plates are playful; some are left empty. They might be emblems of want in this city of haves and have nots. In that vein, artist Duane Brant has sculpted on his plate a misshapen baby out of Wonder Bread toast. It's his riff on the scathing satire about cooking infants for poor families in Jonathan Swift's classic essay, "A Modest Proposal."

On his plate, artist Pablo Cano has created a rippling tower of merengue, looking like an armless Michelin Man, in homage to the merenguita his Cuban grandmother used to make. Father and daughter team Tom and Claire Austin painted a pinkish-orange wedge of pie crawling with large black ants.

Each previous venue has included a wall, like the one in the Collins Building here, painted with chalkboard paint. Sticks of chalk abound for folks to scribble their thoughts about food and art or whatever. An example here: "Say yes to life, yum!" There's a video that flickers with photographs shot of Miami scenes, like signs for Mary's Soul Food or one for Chef Creole, the chef-capped sailfish.


At Centro Cultural Espanol in Coral Gables, you'll see videos playing photos from the cities "Tastes/Sabores" has already visited. In Lima, butchers hack into fleshy, raw sides of meat; in Havana, a bartender mixes mojitos leafy with mint; in Mexico City street vendors hawk juicy oranges and pink cotton candy.

The videos flicker with always-changing images; just as you have absorbed most of the detail in a particular image, it fades away and is replaced by yet another image packed with nearly as much color as a child's exploded pinata.

As the videos play, you hear a soundtrack of Latin songs about food, some dating back to the 1940s. They're songs that Miralda collects as part of the several thousand items in the archive that he and Montse Guillin, the talented chef who is his partner, are obsessively assembling in their Little Haiti warehouse, TransEAT/FoodCulture Archive. Some food-related items, gathered from local collectors, are on display there now: wooden mortars and pestles from Haiti, children's lunch boxes, vintage shirts printed with coconut palms.

At the Centro Cultural Espanol, one regrets the lack of contextual information about the food. Without an insider's knowledge of the food common in each city, the video for each city reads as a juicy travelogue of an unknown destination, raising more questions than it answers. Maybe that's the point--to open a dialogue, even a dinner conversation, about what really makes each city unique.

Not all the links between food and culture have been savory. Blackboard comments in Havana railed against Cubans' meager diet. The comments were not censored, Miralda thinks, because officials were too busy running the biennial. In Caracas, he said he was censored. Officials asked him to remove items from his museum exhibit, products like pasta and milk bearing pro-Chavez slogans.

"I showed some of the official products of Chavez. And they thought we were making a joke of that," Miralda says. He agreed to remove the products, but they'll be in the catalog for the complete "Tastes/Sabores."