Thursday, July 28, 2011

Miami Gallery Cernuda Arte Sells Work by Carlos Alfonzo

As many readers may remember, the richly talented, Cuban-born and Miami-based artist Carlos Alfonzo tragically died just as his career was moving forward into a much-deserved national, and surely international, realm. I think it is terrific that a very well-established and respected gallery here is selling his work because I trust this means he is continuing to find the audience and respect he deserves. I feel honored to have a "news peg" to blog about Carlos today.

Cernuda Arte, at 3155 Ponce de Leon Blvd. in Coral Gables, announces that in July 2011 it has sold work by Carlos Alfonzo, among other artists of course. See or call 305-461-1050. When you get to that site, click on tab that says Recent Arrivals / Departures, then scroll down, and you will see an image of the work. It's such an informative website that you can also click to see more images by Carlos.

As I type this blog today, I am looking at a postcard Carlos sent me in Feb. 1990. On the back it has a note explaining that he is sending me slides (does anyone remember those??!!) of his recent work. On the front is a black and white photograph of Carlos standing in front of an iconic Cuban landmark in Tampa. It is a 1989 photograph, copyrighted by Carlos and taken by his late partner Carlos Artigas. This is the title of the photograph: "Pilgrimage to Jose Marti Memorial, Ybor City, Tampa."

I recall going to see the exquisite exhibit of Carlos' work at the Freedom Tower, an exhibit coinciding with Art Basel Miami Beach in 2007. I was actually relieved that I would not be covering that show for The Miami Herald because the video of Carlos talking about his work was more than I could bear. When I walked into the room with his video I immediately burst into tears and had to leave. Just hearing his voice brought back so many sad memories. He was such a passionately vivid, memorable artist and person.

First things first: More visual arts news in Miami "Young Blood: So Fresh" opens Aug. 13, 7-10, and is up through Sept. 3 at Flagler Arts Space, 172 W. Flagler St., very near Miami Art Museum. How apt that this show, celebrating the 25th anniversary of New World School of the Arts, is presented at a new downtown exhibition space founded by a group of NWSA alumni in Miami. (I just adore that kind of self-starter initiative!!) For more info see or email In this exhibit, curated by artist and NWSA grad Danae Tarragona, you will find work by 21 artists, all NWSA grads. I am especially excited that Asser Saint-Val is included because I was extremely impressed with his work when I made a studio visit to his home and studio in Miami about a year ago. Plus he was a terrific member of a panel I organized this past spring for Arts & Letters Day at Miami Dade College, Kendall campus. For more info about Asser, see

Here's info about another show I hope to catch: At WDNA Jazz Gallery, 2921 Coral Way through Aug. 27, you can see paintings by Buyunga Kialeuka, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and moved to Miami when he was 6. Many thanks to my friend Maggie Pelleya, general manager of WDNA, the radio station known for serious jazz, for letting me know about this intriguing exhibit. See or call 305-662-8889.

Congrats to Claire Jeanine Satin, who took part in a terrific program on artists' books last spring at Books & Books (my totally fave bookstore in Miami!!). She tells me she has been invited to create an installation for the "Accidental Book" exhibition at the Center for the Book Arts in San Francisco in January.

This just in from artist Sheila Elias, who has posted comments on my blog in the past (thanks, Sheila!!): She tells me about her new series "Myths and Legends," about drawing and layering complex ideas by using current digital technology. See

Attention emerging and mid-career artists (actually, I have never been quite sure what "emerging" really means in this context. . .um, did Vincent van Gogh emerge from the grave??): Bakehouse Art Complex, 561 NW 32nd St in Wynwood, annouces that the deadline to apply for the BAC Juried Artist Studio Program is Sept. 1, 2011. There are indeed many benefits to working there--the BAC has improved A LOT since I was writing for the Herald. For more info call 305-576-2828 or email . Also see , then click on tab that says Opportunities.

Congrats to Joshua Levine, an alum of the Miami art scene now working in California, who always keeps me posted on the creative and innovative things he's doing. (Thanks a bunch, Josh!!) He tells me he's part of a group show, "Chain Letter," at Shoshona Wayne Gallery, located at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, CA. For more info about the always interesting Josh Levine (also you will get to see his adorable hairstyle!!) see

And kudos again to the indefatigable Charo Oquet, leader of Edge Zones Art Center in Wynwood (see my previous blog post about her). She tells me about "High Voltage," a student-created multi-media site-specific installation at the Working Working Classroom in Albuquerque, New Mexico!! See as well as ; for this site click on tab that says HIGH VOLTAGE. Charo, you are so totally high voltage!!

Here is my Carlos Alfonzo review from The Miami Herald in December 1997.


The last time I spoke to South Florida artist Carlos Alfonzo, bombs were exploding.

It was the evening of Jan. 16, 1991, the start of the Gulf War, and my television screen was consumed with scenes of horrific conflagration.

Alfonzo telephoned to tell me that his paintings would be included in the 1991 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which would open in April. It was a great coup, especially for an artist who has been working seriously in this country only since 1982. I remember trying to balance that moment of intensely conflicting emotions--joy for an artist whose talent I believed deserved such recognition, and shock at the destruction I'd been witnessing.

That explosive experience of death and joy seems like an epiphany now, prophetic of the arc Alfonzo's career was was already taking. Although I traveled to see his accomplished, brooding paintings in the biennial, Alfonzo did not. He died that Feb. 19 at South Miami Hospital. At age 40, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, brought on by AIDS.

With far greater impact than I ever imagined, the Miami Art Museum presents Alfonzo's work in a superbly installed exhibit. "Triumph of the Spirit: Carlos Alfonzo, A Survey 1975-1991" opened Thursday and runs through March 8. It is guest-curated by Olga Viso, assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., where the show will travel in June.

This show has been long awaited by many in South Florida who knew Alfonzo, watched his art flourish and grieved at his early death. As a tribute to Alfonzo's remarkable art and his swift rise to national notice, it's the culmination of more than two years of exhaustive research conducted by Viso and the MAM staff, including curatorial assistant Amy Rosenblum. "Triumph of the Spirit" brings together 71 works, chiefly paintings with a handful of drawings and sculpture.


The exhibit is also an immensely moving witness to the power of the painted image. It shows how Alfonzo, who was born in Cuba in 1950 and arrived in Miami in 1980 as a Mariel refugee, shaped a unique vocabulary. His best paintings gleam and clash with emblems of desire, sacrifice, death and spiritual change.

The tumult of his imagery is fabulously hectic, in which symbols continually overlap and fuse.

There are tongues and telephones oppressively pierced with daggers, and flashing eyes that become transformed into swollen tears and phalluses. There are jittery coffee cups in which cartoonish signs for a delectable aroma blossom, with amused irony, into more fat, juicy teardrops.

Alfonzo once wrote that in his art, "tears are a symbol of exile," but his work surely leaps beyond personal experience into a universal arena of shocking passion and loss.

"I think he was incredibly brave in his devotion to painting," Viso says. "He could deal with emotional and passionate themes and the work never became over-sentimentalized."

And, like the artist whom she never met, she bristles against stamping his art too hard with the label "Latin American." "He matured as an artist in the U.S. looking at work by artists from all over the world," she says. "Jackson Pollock is equally important as any of the Cuban masters in his development."


Michael Auping, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, who met Alfonzo in Miami and included his work in a 1988 group show of emerging artists in New York, also recalls the painter's impressive gift for international style and synthesis.

"What sets Carlos apart is the incredible mental energy that he put into his paintings," he says.

"They were physically layered with images and they were layered in terms of content.

Now cultural diversity has become a cliched term, but in the 1980s Carlos was making a fusion of Cuban and American culture that was not cliched. It made his work sometimes beautiful, sometimes potent, sometimes very angry. It all melted together into a kind of erotic violence."

That dynamism seeped into his studio visits with the artist, Auping says. A visit with Alfonzo was like drinking "six cups of coffee. . .I've always thought of him as a shooting star. He started to shine really bright and he just burned up."

In the paintings at MAM, geometric cubes burst with radiant lines of light. They evoke both searing moments of intense pleasure and insight, as well as the artist's formal skills for weaving an intricate composition together with dashing lines.

Crosses are also a constant, sometimes flowing into knives, melding into imagery associated with Roman Catholicism and with the Afro-Cuban cult of Santeria. Both contain rituals, symbols and beliefs that fascinated Alfonzo during his years growing up in Cuba.

Especially as his talent matured in the United States, he proceeded to mine the dramatic, seductive potential of these loaded images by thrusting them into ever more flashing and whirling compositions.

In the mid to late 1980s, his taste for rich, alluring metaphor led him to study the Tarot cards of Rosicrucianism, a mystic philosophy dating to 17th Century Europe. It's a belief system, as Viso explains in her catalogue essay, that's designed to lead devotees to a transcendent state of consciousness, spurred by contemplating ancient Tarot symbols and imagining them animated in space.

In one of his last works, the 1990 "Told," a scythe-like shape, similar to the Tarot card of death, appears sucked into the spiraling, overlapped shapes of a skull and kneeling figure.


This exhibit is the first traveling museum show that MAM has organized under director Suzanne Delehanty, who joined MAM in January 1995, and is also the first career survey of Alfonzo. Certainly in recent years this is the most ambitious effort MAM has initiated.

Delehanty finds real significance in Alfonzo's art and the community he worked in. "I think [Carlos'] presence here parallels Miami's development as a creative community and acted as a catalyst in that development," Delehanty says. "Alfonzo really gives Miami a mirror of itself: energy, a respect for solid training and a sense of adventure."

Says Cesar Trasobares, a close friend of Alfonzo and a fellow artist, "I think the show is a testament to the strength of the work and is a major coup for MAM."

The show charts the development of his imagery, beginning with examples of his tightly compressed, calligraphic ink drawings from the 1970s, made in Cuba. It shows the aggressive, colorful pace of his evolving style in Miami, in which Viso and critic Dan Cameron, in his catalogue essay, find links to the flamboyant, free-wheeling approach of 1980s Neo-Expressionism. Yet this was a style that became so packed with "fireworks," as Alfonzo himself once called his bravura way with paint, that it risked falling into self-parody. Instead, his art evolved in a new direction in his last year of life.

The show concludes with Alfonzo's moving "black paintings" of the late 1990s.

They are marked by the presence of a figure that seems both supplicant and fetus, radiant and mournful, one transformed by the premonition of death and the promise of yet more changes.

Coursing through all the changes are Alfonzo's fluid, fluctuating brushstrokes. They switch back and forth from our fondest dreams to our most fearsome nightmares. This is art you can't forget.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Miami Artist Charo Oquet Leads Edge Zones Art Center in Wynwood

Artist Charo Oquet and I go way back, and I am delighted that I can blog about her today. I have always admired her artistic perseverance and entrepreneurial creativity in this town, particularly for the way she has led Edge Zones Art Center, enhancing opportunities for artists to network with curators and artists outside of Miami. I think it is truly terrific that she is, I believe, the first Miami-based artist in recent memory to become a member of ArtTable because she has accomplished so much as an arts activist. She has so many talents and so much energy to bring to Miami!

So I'd like to encourage readers today to see the promising "Food, Home, Love" exhibit at Edge Zones Art Center, 47 NE 25th St., Miami, before it closes at the end of July. I understand that now the show is open by appointment. For more info, call 305-303-8852 or e-mail or check There are a number of terrific artists who have contributed art to this show, including Charo herself, which is why I am posting my Miami Herald profile of her on my blog today.

First Things First: More visual arts news in Miami Miami Dade College and The Cintas Foundation announce the start of the annual competition for the 2011-2012 Cintas Foundation Fellowship in the visual arts, administered by the Cintas Fellowship Program at MDC. (Also see my 6/26/2011 blog post, "Miami Dade College Entrusted with Cintas Cuban Art Collection. Let's hope that there will soon be positive action taken on behalf of artists concerned that their art in the collection is missing.) Thanks to this recently announced partnership, various events are planned to nurture creative endeavors in music composition and creative writing, in addition to the visual arts, for artists of Cuban descent living outside of Cuba. For info about applying for this competition, see There's a special exhibit for finalists in the visual arts competition planned to open Oct. 27 at the Freedom Tower; the winner will receive $10,000 and the opportunity to pursue a creative project outlined in their application to the competition. For more info about this MDC program, see 7/11/2011 College News story at

Miami Dade College and Miami Art Museum are also combining resources to promote a more lively arts scene here, and I think that's great. Note that a video installation by Rivane Neuenschwander, "Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue" (Ash Wednesday/Epilogue) is on view through Aug. 7 at MDC InterAmerican Campus, 627 SW 27th Ave.; 305-237-6000 or This video installation coincides with "Rivane Neuenschwander: A Day Like Any Other" now at Miami Art Museum through Oct. 16. It's a very cool, challenging show. When I went to the media preview, I was charmed by most of the work, and scribbled notes as if I were still writing for the newspaper. Can't put them all in my blog! But after seeing her colorful, irridescent installation cascading with seemingly endless fabric ribbons printed with "found" wishes, I made a note about this ribbon; it seems especially poignant for Miami. This purple ribbon was printed with the affecting desire, "I wish to speak English the very best." For more info about this exhibit, see

On my way to the Miami Art Museum, I stopped at the Main Library of Miami Dade Public Library System, just across the plaza from MAM. I wanted to see the exquisite Ed Ruscha mural in the rotunda, and then I discovered this fascinating show: "Enter Los Nineties," up through Sept. 13, celebrating this library system's 40th anniversary. Most of it is in the second-floor gallery, and it is really worth a look. This is a show that seems flush with DIY printed material created in Miami shortly before the Digital Revolution would consume our every waking and sleeping moment. There's so much cleverness to see and discover, and I was quite impressed that so many of my very dear artcentric friends for years have contributed to this. I'm going to name just a few--Marilyn Gottlieb-Roberts, Cesar Trasobares, Barbara Young, and Kevin Arrow.

I want to give a major shout-out to my very dear artcentric friend Rosie Gordon-Wallace of Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator. She tells me about Diaspora Vibe's new look: Diapora Vibe Virtual Gallery, and also that exceptionally talented artist Jean Chiang has won a Fulbright Scholarship. Congrats, Rosie and Jean!! See

Other shows I hope to see before they close: "Absenteeism-Magnus Sigurdson," up through Aug. 27, at Dimensions Variable, 171 NE 38th Street in Miami Design District. See and "Made in the U.S.A" at MANO Fine Art Project Space, 4225 SW 75 Avenue, which takes part in the Bird Road Art Walk on the third Saturday of each month. See I'm especially partial to this area because another artcentric friend, Ray Azcuy, has shown his intriguing art there.

This upcoming opening should be cool: "Marlene, Marlene, Same Name Two Different Artists," with video by Marlene Lopez and photography by Marlene de Lazaro, at 6th Street Container, located at 1155 (rear) SW 6th Street, Little Havana. Opens July 22, 7-10 pm, up through Aug. 12; gallery hours are Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Info: call 786-587-5279 or email

Whew! A lot of information today!! If I got any info wrong, pls post a comment on this blog entry with the correct info. That reminds me--especially I want to thank Maureen for taking the time to post such detailed, interesting comments on my previous blog entry re Vik Muniz and Miami Art Museum. And I recently learned that MAM has posted that blog entry on its Facebook page. How cool is that??

Here is my Miami Herald story about Charo Oquet from September of 1999


It took a long time to get to the party that night in early September. The sky was stained an angry indigo, lashed with the rain of hurricane season in Miami. On the way, artist Charo Oquet had to pass through water-logged crossroads, and she had quite a few bundles to carry.

But when she finally arrived, dressed in pink and draped in beads, Oquet was ready to celebrate.

There were cakes to eat, music to make. It had, after all, taken her more than 10 years to get there, perhaps most of her lifetime.

Hers was a far-reaching pilgrimage, spanning the Pacific and Atlantic, stretching all the way from lush New Zealand forests moist with geothermal steam to sun-bright sugar cane fields in the Dominican Republic. It took Oquet on a roundabout trek from little girls' fancy dress shops to Goodwill stores before the trip ended at the altars of Ambrosino Gallery in Miami.

It was a sojourn, she later reflected, that seemed destined to reach Miami. And the night it did, the night of Oquet's opening at Ambrosino, a cavernous space in an alley of auto-body shops, the altars glistened. The gallery's spotlights, which have shone on a variety of contemporary works from austere curls of intravenous tubing by Donald Lipski to sleek, oversize tools by Florencio Gelabert, now illuminated a dazzling crush of crepe-paper streamers and torrents of silk and satin heavy with fringe, sequins and dolls. Her syncretic art is stitched together the bright allure of birthday pinatas, Roman Catholic icons and Dominican vodou parades through sugar cane.

"I've been charged to know more about my own culture, so this has really been a journey," Oquet, 47, said a few days after the opening night of her show, "Kingdoms of Our World." Wearing a simple linen shirt and khaki skirt, her tousled auburn-tinged hair signifying a busy woman, she settled down on a sofa in a gallery corner to talk not only about her newest work, but about her evolution as an artist.

It's a career set within the typically fluid landscape of modern Caribbean life. When she was 10, she and her upper-class family fled the Dominican Republic in the wake of dictator Rafael Trujillo's assassination in 1961. Everyone including her father, a military officer who took part in the coup, confronted a more humble existence in Bayonne, N.J. "My mother didn't even know how to cook anything," Oquet remembers, "and she had to clean other people's houses."


Summer trips and a stint at art school back home kept Oquet close enough to her roots, but it was travel halfway around the world that pushed her face-to-face with her Afro-Caribbean heritage--usually glossed over in Oquet's Roman Catholic upbringing. During the 1980s, before settling briefly in a Dominican neighborhood of Manhattan's Upper West Side, she spent five years in New Zealand with her husband at the time, a filmmaker with whom she later had two children--Jack, now 8, and Gabrielle, 12. It was a productive period, good for painting, but something was missing.

"When I was in New Zealand, I was the only Dominican there that I knew of. . . .It's very Anglo, kidney pie," she says. "There was a total absence of black culture. Somehow, that part of me came out really needy. I would go to Santo Domingo, and I would bring back images, like the Mami Watta, a water spirit worshipped throughout central and west Africa.

It was an auspicious and telling choice. The Mami Watta turns out to have a passport even more heavily stamped than Oquet's. Some images show a mermaid that recalls the figurehead on early European ships sailing to Africa. In others, she's a powerful tamer of water snakes--an image traced to a 19th Century German circus poster, which also made its way to Africa via sailors, according to Henry Drewal, an African art history professor at the University of Wisconsin. And as traders traveled between Bombay and the west African country of Togo, the Mami Watta picked up multiple arms and a resemblance to Hindu spirits.

In the New World, her way with snakes became saintly. Dominicans call her Santa Marta la Dominadora (the dominating one) or Santa Marta Africana.

She brings wealth to her worshippers, but the price for such success is childlessness.

Though Oquet knew little about the Mami Watta then, she was enthralled by her strength. "She had this wild hair, and is just dominating that snake."


She painted the snake-tamer many times, and her career blossomed. Later a friend pointed out that Oquet's paintings recalled African carvings of the mermaid spirit, and to this day Oquet marvels at how during those years doctors repeatedly told her she was sterile. Her children arrived and put her art on hold, Oquet says, only after she put away those paintings and the little Mami Watta chromolithograph from a Dominican market.

Mami Watta resurfaces in "Kingdoms of the World," in an altar that displays not only her chromolithograph, framed in sequins like a vodou flag, but in a chubby doll with a tiny mermaid stuck to her chest. The doll is swathed in plastic and silken green snakes, radiating multiple mismatched plastic arms.

Such free-wheeling adaptations of this globe-trotting water spirit have caught Drewal's admiration. He notes that Mami Watta has inspired countless altars in Africa--beautiful and orderly profusions of flowers, perfume and color, which are also, he says, "artistic creations." Oquet's work will be part of a show he's curating on the arts of Mami Watta.


In town when "Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe," which he co-curated, opened this summer at the Miami Art Museum, Drewal visited Oquet's studio, filled with the nearly completed altars. He was struck by their extravagant presence.

"I felt like I was moving into a spiritual land, a kind of sacred forest of cloth, with streamers, dolls and photographs. The richness of the materials created a very intense, spiritual feeling. She is drawing on many kinds of sources, as she connects with Haitian Vodou and African beliefs and practices in the Dominican Republic and with her own background," he says. "I think that's the richness. . . . She's kind of a diviner in her own way."

In Oquet's show, there are dolls everywhere--Barbie and Ken, black and white Cabbage Patch dolls, even Spiderman. One doll is attached to the black hose of scuba gear, in quirky homage to water spirits. While the artist brings a distinctive take to her materials, Drewal points out that dolls are ubiquitous sacred icons in the African diaspora, where they became veiled versions of African carvings, thus seen as nonthreatening by colonial masters.

Several altars rise upward in swirling layers of bright fabrics and ornaments--reminiscent of the Haitian Vodou "poto mitan," a sacred pole said to link the worlds of spirits and mortals. Drewal compares another altar with long flaps of brilliantly beaded cloth to a Yoruba Egungun costume, with its lengths of cloth in rich patterns that whirl when worn in a ceremonial dance, evoking a powerful spiritual presence.

There are many lavish streams of fabric here, beginning with the dusky blue drapes that surround the clustered altars, requiring visitors to find a way inside. Once in, one finds a scene part carnival parade and part sacred space, with a pinata's explosion of toys thrown in for good measure.

You'll see divinely dressed altars sparkling with riotous detail, one circled with offerings of food and drink. There are jingle bells, frou-frou pink tutus, a fiery red Santeria robe, a recycled blue ball gown the color of medieval stained glass from House of Lanvin in Paris.


Many of the altars are dressed in clothing and toys scoured from Miami flea markets and Goodwill stores. These are the "places where everybody else finds stuff they send to Haiti and the Dominican Republic," Oquet says.

They are often old gifts and rite-of-passage party dresses bound for new uses and places, giving her work a sense of gaudy celebration and magical transformation.

The whole place is spangled with a constellation of star-shaped paper bows, like the bows adorning musicians and marchers in Gaga processions, the Easter-time celebrations in the Dominican Republic that sprang from Haitian Vodou and African Kongo religious rites.

Oquet first learned about the Gaga groups when she met Robert Farris Thompson, Yale scholar and influential historian of African and African-American art, who has written a short essay about her new work. They met 10 years ago in a museum in the Dominican Republic, where he was with students watching a documentary about their vivid rituals and music performed deep within sugar cane fields.

She was fascinated and wanted to see them for herself.

"I had to find my way there," she says. "Since I'm a Dominican bourgeoisie, going to the sugar cane fields by myself was not something I could do. I was frozen by the fear of how to get there. Maybe if I was a foreigner, I would have just taken a taxi."

Almost seven years later, she found her way. Since then, she's taken many photographs of the groups performing their whirling dances, wearing glittering hats and costumes streaming with bright scarves. She's shown her photographs at Espanola Way Art Center in Miami Beach, sometimes accompanied by Dominican Vodou-styled flags she has helped students make at Allapattah Middle and Elementary Schools during the Dominican Youth Arts Festival.

Not everyone liked the photographs. She explains: "I got a phone message that said, 'You'd better not be saying this about Dominicans. We don't do Vodou. I'm going to break your windows.'"

It was a sentiment that did not surprise Oquet, but it is one she finds sadly out-of-synch with what has made Miami such a special destination for her.

"When I lived in the Dominican Republic, I never knew about Haitian culture, Cuban culture," she reflects. "I never went to either country. But living in Miami makes you want to discover all those Caribbean and South American countries and get the bigger picture of your own culture. It's all right here."

Friday, July 8, 2011

Miami Art Museum Collects Brazilian-born Artist Vik Muniz

It is indeed swimmingly delicious to have access to my own content, and to be able to drive my blog in the direction I choose. I very much appreciate this unusual opportunity!

There were so many years when the tyrannical pressure exerted by constant newspaper deadlines, not to mention the fact that I never quite got used to the sometimes quite wack-o things that not exactly artcentrically-sensitive editors would do to my copy drove my already anxiety-driven days...I must say it is a blessed relief to know that part of my life in Miami is over forever, and I NEVER forget how lucky I am to be typing this blog right this minute.

Of course, how and why I have access to my own content leads to a rather painful backstory, but I don't want to go there today or ever again. That part of my life is OVER!!

Today I want to say how thrilled I am to have received an email comment about my previous blog entry on Gordon Parks, pointing out insightful connections between the impassioned activism of Parks and Vik Muniz. So even though I had always thought this blog post today would be about other artists, I have decided to blog about Vik Muniz.

The Miami Art Museum owns a number of exciting works by Vik Muniz. Additionally, very soon the museum will display one of those: "Cloud Cloud, Miami (Pictures of Clouds)," from 2006. When you read the first Miami Herald I have typed on my blog today, you can learn about how that work was created. I think it is very synergistic of MAM that it will soon present a solo show by another Brazilian artist, Rivane Neuenschwander; her show runs from July 17 to Oct. 16. For more info, see

I also want to say CONGRATS to Mark Handforth, who has lived and worked here for a number of years. This just in...The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago is presenting the "MCA Chicago Plaza Project," from July 9 to Oct. 10. It will feature four of Mark Handforth's dynamic sculptures inspired by the urban language of the city. For more info, see

In my 6/26/2011 blog post, "Miami Dade College Entrusted with Cintas Cuban Art Collection," I mentioned the returning veteran from the war in Iraq, with whom I had worked at the College Prep Writing Lab of Miami Dade College, Kendall campus. I remain quite impressed by his perseverance and bravery, and think I was remiss by not mentioning how much I admired him when he told me he had taken part in events to help other veterans deal with the frightening consequences of PTSD.

Additionally, I want to give a major shout-out to all my artcentric friends who have taken action to show their support of this amazing project, The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation. For more info about this project, see

Also, here are two shows in Wynwood I hope to see before they close because they include such terrific artists and suggest such clever ideas:

"Food, Home, Love" at Edge Zones Art Center, 47 NE 25th St., Miami In particular, I hope to see work by Harumi Abe, Carlos Alves, Duane Brant, Pip Brant, Charo Oquet, David Rohn, Kristen Thiele, Pedro Vizcaino, Michelle Weinberg, and Barbara Young.

"Home: Dream Home" at Praxis International Art, 2219 NW 2nd Ave., Miami Here are just some of the artists whose work I hope to see: Loriel Beltran, Teresa Diehl, Natasha aka Nat Duwin (you can also see more of her work as part of my Summer Critic's Choice at ), Guerra de la Paz, Michael Loveland, Ernesto Oroza, Gavin Perry, Bert Rodriguez, David Rohn, Kristen Thiele, Mette Tommerup, and Kyle Trowbridge.

Here's my Miami Herald story re Vik Muniz from February of 2006.


This weekend, no matter what the weather forecast says, there will be an extraordinary cloud in the sky over Miami (not like the ones on Saturday, don't worry).

Traced in the air by a professional skywriter in a former military plane, this "cloud"--a perfect, childlike drawing--will appear several times in the skies over Miami between today and Monday. Each time--between 10 a.m. and noon, even possibly in the early afternoon--the mock cloud will last about 10 minutes before it floats away. Best places to catch a glimpse: Near downtown and from Miami Beach.

This drifting drawing--"Cloud Cloud" by Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz--is artwork both public and ephemeral, produced by the Miami Art Museum, on the occasion of the museum's show about Muniz that opens Friday and runs through May 28.

Wispy trails of skywriting are just one of the more unusual materials that this well-known contemporary artist has used in his eccentric, amusing, and thoughtful art that has been admired since the late 1980s in shows in Brazil, Spain, and Ireland, as well as in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Muniz, 43, has also made drawings, which he then photographs, with chocolate syrup, sugar, ketchup, and even Cheese Doodles. His show at MAM will include more than 100 works. Many are his photographs of his easy-to-recognize but fleeting drawings with materials rarely recognized as art materials.

"I like working with things that change over time," explains Muniz in a phone interview from Rio de Janeiro, where he keeps a studio, in addition to one in Brooklyn. "It becomes something you can wonder about. It recovers the magic of drawing."

Not all his experiments with eccentric materials have worked. He says that attempts to draw with M&M candies and snow failed miserably.

But drawing via skywriting has been a grand success. "Clouds are like vessels for meaning. Who has not looked at a cloud and seen a shape in it?" Muniz asks.

"Cloud Cloud" was first produced in New York in 2001 by Creative Time, a nonprofit organization that presents public art in New York. "It was one of our greatest crowd pleasers. The response was nothing less than astounding," says Anne Pasternak, president of Creative Time.

"We got children's drawings, poetry, paintings, and just tons of fan mail because people loved it so much. It was one of those moments that makes living in a city so special. People had never thought about the sky as a place for art. Some people saw a heart, people saw whatever they wanted," says Pasternak.

"In a city where you don't tend to look up, people who chanced to look up were rewarded with this magical sight," says Lorie Mertes, the MAM curator who's overseeing the Miami edition of this skywriting project.

"When you think about the absurdity of can see someone in the act of drawing," Mertes adds. "It's an amazingly public way of seeing something that's normally private. There's a great sense of humor about it. You think, 'That's not so unusual to see the shape of a cloud in the sky,' and then you go, 'Wait a minute!' and then you smile."

Mertes hopes weather will allow professional skywriter Wayne Mansfield to make flights for drawing "Cloud Cloud" over Miami twice a day on each of the four days. "He draws a very specific shape Vik has envisioned. With each flight he draws approximately four times," she says.

To folks scanning Miami skies this week, "Cloud Cloud" will show Muniz making art of the double-take. "He works with very familiar images and somehow makes them strange," says Peter Boswell, who curated "Vik Muniz: Reflex" for MAM. This strangeness is part of what makes the artist's work amusing, but sliced with a thoughtful and critical edge.

"You do a double-take and realize it is not what you thought it was," he says. "It makes people think about what they are looking at. It deals with the manipulation of images."

Here's my review re Vik Muniz, from The Miami Herald from March in 2006. (In this version, I wrote my own sub-heads, because there apparently were none when it was first published. Not sure why--guess it is just one of those many, many things I will never understand, so I may as well just give up trying to figure them out, and continue to count my blessings EVERY DAY.)


When the tide washed away his favorite book, the one that Vik Muniz found at a garage sale in the early 1980s in Chicago and then left behind at the beach, he found his true calling as an artist.

It was not a calling to create new images, as Claude Monet had done with his famous Impressionist painting of light-dappled and delectably blurry water lilies. It was to copy them--as Muniz did years later when he cut up scores of magazines to evoke a green-blue semblance of Monet's abundantly familiar art historical icon. Then he photographed it, making the photograph his own creative version of his uniquely hand-crafted copy.

That creative version is "Water Lillies, After Monet (Pictures of Magazines)." It's one of more than 100 works now at the Miami Art Museum in "Vik Muniz: Reflex," a truly memorable show of Muniz's unusually familiar art.

These "copies"--call them creative versions--come in series based on the materials that Muniz uses. This quixotic artist delights in experimenting with oddball materials like chocolate syrup, diamonds, dust, and dirt--substances that can exist beyond their shelf life as photographs of themselves.

His self-portrait is part of the same series to which "Water Lillies, After Monet" belongs. It's composed of hundreds of circles punched out from magazine pages and then photographed, making the scale of the materials difficult to judge. The punched-out circles photographed in Muniz's "Self Portrait (Pictures of Magazines)" do look abnormally large, but it's impossible to tell for sure from the image itself.


Muniz is fascinated with the way our minds make sense of images, both their shape and scale, and he has hit upon a way to make distinctive, deceptive art from that universal and magical process called perception.

In "Elizabeth Taylor (Pictures of Diamonds)," his photograph of his drawing in diamonds of the movie legend only seems to sparkle with diamonds as big as the Ritz. They owe their big sparkle to the big distortions of scale that photography makes possible. Muniz actually executed this drawing with diamonds the size of pinheads.

That special find from the garage sale, that book of photographs that he left behind on the beach in 1987, cracked open the door to his career as an artist. It was only when he had lost the book that the door opened wide.

That book was The Best of 'Life,' a compendium of well-known photographs by Life magazine photographers. If you belong to certain generations, you can probably picture in your mind many of them--like Alfred Eisenstaedt's famous image of the sailor passionately kissing a nurse when news came that World War II was over, or the one of little John-John saluting the funeral procession for his assassinated father, President John F. Kennedy.


As an immigrant far from his native Brazil, Muniz says the photographs in that book became like "family" to him, and he grew inordinately fond of them. When they were gone, he tried to recreate them in drawings. But his drawings were sketchy and incomplete. Like all memories, his memory of The Best of 'Life' was not picture-perfect, and neither were his drawings.

But, in a burst of mischief, he decided to photograph his drawings in soft-focus. To his amusement, when his photographs of these "memory drawings" were exhibited in a gallery, people thought they were poorly reproduced historical photographs. Exhibited as part of the Muniz show at MAM, these blurry black and white photographed drawings do seem to be historical relics. After a fashion, they are.

Muniz recounts this career-altering encounter with The Best of 'Life' in Reflex: A Vik Muniz Primer (Aperture, $39.95). This book stands as the catalogue for "Vik Muniz: Reflex," a traveling exhibit organized by MAM and curated by Peter Boswell.

Muniz's Life magazine "memory drawing" photographs come early in his show. They resemble one-line jokes--once you understand the trick the artist has played, part of their appeal is diminished.

Far more resonant images come later in the exhibit, particularly as the artist finds a way to make his appetite for oddball materials amplify the meaning of the image he is portraying. His art becomes more than a clever game of mischief-making double-takes--although for this artist, certainly mischief and medium are part of the message. At his best, Muniz loves to deflate pretensions cloaking art history.

He does just that in his amusing photograph of his rendering in gooey, dripping chocolate syrup of Hans Namuth's famous photograph of Jackson Pollock executing his legendary "drip" paintings.


More resonant work begins with the artist's 1996 "Sugar Children" series, such as Valicia Bathes in "Sunday Clothes (Sugar Children)" at MAM. These are photographs of drawings in sugar that Muniz made on black paper, working from snapshots he took of children he met during a 1995 vacation on St. Kitts. He also met the children's parents. He was haunted by the way the parents, who labored long hours for low pay at grueling jobs on the island's sugar plantations, seemed perennially tired. bereft of the youthful, vivacious charm he found so beguiling in the children of St. Kitts.

"I owe my career to those children," Muniz writes in Reflex. His photographs of his drawings in sugar capture images in typically fleeting materials, but this time the unusual material speaks more directly to the image--to the complex history and story to which these sweet young faces belong.

With his "Sugar Children" series, Muniz begins working more often with children, creating images that don't merely startle the viewer with his puckish penchant for the elaborately devised double-take.

Sometimes he has worked with the photographic memory of a famous child, one who is forever associated with a girl in a story legendary for her own magical, distorting changes in size. The child is Alice Liddell, for whom Lewis Carroll wrote his classic Alice in Wonderland. Muniz has photographed his drawing of Alice in a daunting clutter of colorful plastic toys in "Portrait of Alice Liddell, after Lewis Carroll (Rebus)." In his "Toy Soldier (Monads)," the plastic clutter of toys for playing war, including little soldiers, makes the double-take that his work launches both funny and uncomfortable.

His trickster portraits of iconic works in art history, like paintings by Monet and Gaugin, are fabulously clever, but they don't pack the punch that "Angelica (Aftermath)" does. The "Aftermath" series is one he did of homeless children in Sao Paulo. It's a series that makes you think about the deplorable state of these urban orphans, but it is not all preachy and political.

After much coaxing, Muniz photographed the children in poses they chose from an art history book. They are shown in grayish-white negative images, surrounded by the trash and confetti swept up from the streets after the city's Carnival celebration.

How telling that the children seem like eerie mirages, faint memories of masterpieces, and far less substantial than street garbage.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Miami Area Museum Salutes Freedom-Fighter Artist Gordon Parks

And that museum would be the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, currently showing "From A to Z: Great Photographs from the Norton Collection," now through Oct. 16. One of those exceptional photographs is by the late, legendary Gordon Parks (1912-2006). I consider myself especially lucky to get to meet and interview him for The Miami Herald in 1999. (For more info about the very terrific Norton Museum of Art and this particular show, see )

An eloquent warrior and photojournalist in this country's 20th Century battles for freedom of speech and civil rights, Gordon Parks is the perfect topic for this post during our July 4th holiday.

But first things first...I do want to say that when I finished last week's post, "Miami Dade College Entrusted with Cintas Cuban Art Collection" for 6/26/2011, it was rather late at night. I went to bed tired and a bit sad, feeling like a pale ghost of my former Miami Herald self, also convinced actually that I am totally nuts for still looking back at the past this way. I was so energized to wake up the next morning to find that there was already an appreciative comment on my blog! (Not that I am one of those insecure folks always desperate for approval, but now that this Ishmaelita is cast into the wilderness of free-lance journalism on the Internet, a comment like this is nice now and then.)

And meanwhile, after I made that post, I have been continuing to hear from artists who are concerned about their artworks that have been lost by the Cintas Foundation. I have been encouraging them to post comments on that 6/26/2011 blog post so maybe these troubling issues can at least start to be resolved.

So, for my readers, here are some artcentric events I am looking forward to in the coming days:

I hope to catch "Ernesto Oroza: Videos and Photographs" from 7 to 9 pm July 16 at Art @ Work Gallery, 1245 SW 87th Ave, Miami. (For more information about Ernesto Oroza, check my 4/2/2011 post, "Miami's Historical Vizcaya Museums & Gardens Now Hosts Contemporary Art.") Kudos to that very fab art collector and orthodontist Dr. Arturo Mosquera (as well as his wonderful wife Liza Mosquera) for providing Art @ Work Gallery events for artists and Miami's art community! (For more info about the Magnificent Dr. M, see my 2/26/2011 blog post, "Miami Art Bites in Orthodontist Office.")

Though I am not much for watching television, this does sound cool: On WBPT Channel 2 at 7:30 pm on July 7, there's a 27-minute special show re the Knights Art Challenge and its winners, including Kathleen Hudspeth of Turn-Based Press. For more info, see the 6/23 blog post by Valerie Nahamad Schimel on the Knight Arts Blog. (You'll find a link to that blog on the right-hand side of my blog, underneath my blog archive.) Kathleen's name especially caught my eye since last week I was so delighted to run into her husband and terrific artist Adler Guerrier in the Publix parking lot! I really do missing seeing my artcentric buddies, so it was fab to see him again!

And let's give a shout-out to Dina Mitrani Gallery for extending her fab show of photographs by Colleen Plumb through August 20. Her photographs were part of my June 2011 Critic's Choice for How terrific that this talented Chicago-based photographer received a rave on 6/21/2011 at for her new monograph Animals Are Outside Today from Radius Books, available at Dina Mitrani's gallery, 2620 NW 2nd Ave in Miami's Wynwood Art District. See and

Mark your calendar for Second Saturday Gallery Walk at the de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space, 23 NE 41 Street, Miami. On July 9 from 7 to 10 pm there will be a free performance and radio broadcast by Nicolas Lobo & Terence Hannum, also closing reception for "Kevin Arrow: Amor Infinitus." (For more info about my terrific artcentric friend Kevin, see my 4/22/11 post, "Miami Artist Kevin Arrow Featured at de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space.) See also

I must say I was quite pleased to learn that Terence Hannum has exhibited at the Richard Peeler Center at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Fancy that!! DePauw is my alma mater, also where my sister, my son, and my beloved late nephew attended. Plus my husband and numerous members of his family graduated from from there...I always say that Eric, even though he was born and bred in Miami, is actually one-half Midwestern and one-half Cuban. And guess what--when I went there, the Richard Peeler Center did not exist, but Richard Peeler himself did--he was a ceramacist and a revered art prof. When I was a student there I even bought a charming tea pot that he made and inscribed with his signature at the bottom. I still have it now in my Miami kitchen! What a coincidence!!

Well, as they say, enough about me.

Here's my story about Gordon Parks from The Miami Herald, November 1999. What a remarkable, remarkable man.


His manner is more affable than angry now. Call it a generous charm, though one spiked with steely determination.

And he's a natty dresser to boot, telling stories while decked out in a navy blazer. An ivory handkerchief that nearly matches his white mustache is tucked with saucy style into his breastpocket.

But outrage lingers in Gordon Parks' low, raspy voice--a voice that wavers at time in deference to the tolls and triumphs of his 87 years.

It was outrage that inspired and informed a remarkable career as a photographer, writer, composer and filmmaker--a career so important and prolific, thousands of his photos and manuscripts now rest in the Library of Congress. A career so remarkable that it was launched with a second-hand camera purchased in a pawn shop 61 years ago but is now being honored in "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," a traveling retrospective of his photographs, films, and music that opened last week at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.

But back then, back where it all started, Gordon Parks simply remembers being angry; so angry, he stomped out of a department store when clerks couldn't--or wouldn't--come up with a single coat his size. The time was 1942 and the place was Washington, D.C., recalls Parks. It was his first trip to the capital and he'd just arrived from Chicago, where he'd been photographing South Side slums and high-fashion women, the kinds of desperate and beautiful subjects that would capture his lyrical imagination and laser-sharp social conscience for decades to come.

As a shopper on the mean streets of Washington, he was on a "very strange assignment," he tells his audience, a group of reporters on hand to preview the retrospective. Parks' assignment came from Roy Stryker, director of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), an agency President Roosevelt had set up to help poor farmers. To muster support for these efforts, Stryker hired photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to call attention to the farmers' plight--and the photographers responded with landmark images of Depression-era inequities.

Parks first saw the photos in a magazine left on the North Coast Limited, where he was working as a railroad waiter. It was a job he'd gotten after a gig playing a piano in a brothel.

The stark, tragic images excited him so much that he soon found himself in a Seattle pawn shop looking for a camera. Then he found Richard Wright's Twelve Million Black Voices, an attack on bigotry illustrated with FSA photos. Wright's book became his Bible and the camera unleashed his powerful voice.

It was, he allows, "not much of a camera, but for $7.50, I had purchased a weapon I hoped to use against a warped past and an uncertain future."

His weapon had gotten him work in Chicago, and a fellowship with the FSA he so admired. And now, before Stryker sent Parks out and about in the United States--to destinations that included Daytona Beach--he was sent out to experience Washington.

"Put your camera on the shelf," Parks says Stryker told him that day. "Go to Julius Garfinkel's department store and buy yourself a topcoat, and there across the street is a restaurant. Go in there and get some lunch, and catty-corner across the street is a theater...come back and give me a report on what you thought of that picture."

But the picture to see and report on, he would soon learn, wasn't the movie playing at the theater. It was the one playing in the hearts and minds of men.

At Julius Garfinkel's, for example, nobody even tried to find a coat that would fit a black man, Parks remembers.

"So, in disgust, I stretched my little black body out on this white chaise lounge and said, 'Go get the manager.'" When the manager dithered about how busy the store was during war time, Parks snapped, "Well, there's nobody on this floor but me. I wouldn't take that coat if you gave it to me."

At the restaurant, he says a waiter approached him with this reproach, "Don't you know Negroes can't eat in this place? If you want to eat, you have to go around back..."

Still, that was even better than Parks did at the movie house.

"I didn't even get into the theater," he remembers.

It was the pivotal moment of his career--and a pivotal moment in the long, unsteady history of race relations in the United States--for it inspired the high-powered images of poverty that became Parks' trademark.

"He was always looking at things that needed to be looked at," says University of Miami communications professor Michael Carlebach. "Things that were right there in front of us, but that nobody had paid attention to."

"American Gothic," among his most famous photographs, depicts Washington, D.C. charwoman Ella Watson standing with mop and broom in front of a huge American flag. [This iconic image was part of my Critic's Choice for June 2011 for ] She gives us an uncompromising gaze, the tools of her dead-end trade lining up with Old Glory's stripes.

"For its time, it was an image that talked about racism in this country in a way no other picture did," says Philip Brookman, curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which organized the Parks exhibit. "Here's a woman working for the U.S. government, posed exactly like the American farmer in [Grant] Wood's "American Gothic." The farmer is considered to be an icon of everything good in American culture, and yet the black woman is an ambiguous image, with the feeling of people being exploited."

Coming from Chicago, where Wood's famous 1930 painting of the pitchfork-wielding couple hangs in the city's Art Institute, Park acknowledges that Wood's painting was a "mild influence" on his image.

"But actually," he adds by phone from his Manhattan apartment, "it was an indictment of America. I tried to do something that would show my anger...I had no idea it would turn out to be so popular."

The popularity, however, would come later. At first the photo was considered too provocative to be shown.

"Well, you got the idea all right," Parks remembers an approving Stryker saying when he saw the picture. "But you're going to get us all fired."

So the photo was hidden away. "Years later," recalls Parks, "I was on a plane from New York to Hollywood and there it was, "American Gothic," in The Washington Post. When I got back to New York I jumped straight on the shuttle to Washington and went down to the Library of Congress and got my picture."

In Hollywood, he blazed more new ground. The man whose silky shots of Parisian haute couture for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue made him the first black photographer at Conde Nast, whose 1952 move to Life made him that magazine's first black staff photographer, became the first black director to produce and direct a major feature film with his 1969 movie The Learning Tree--a film that takes its title from Parks' 1963 novel based on his boyhood in Fort Scott, Kansas.

The main character "is like other boys, no matter what the color or place or time...Bruised by [the world], he learns from it nonetheless. The film remains a lyrical and eloquent statement on the black experience in America," writes film historian Donald Bogle.

Two years later, Parks released the critically acclaimed detective movie Shaft, a film that helped launch a decade-long run of successful films by black directors.

As he talks, he looks back on a life so dramatic it, too, could have been scripted in Hollywood. (In fact, HBO will air a documentary on Parks' life next year.)

There was the time in 1961, for example, when he traveled to the mountainside slums of Rio de Janeiro. This was, he wrote later, "dead center in the worst poverty I have ever encountered." There he photographed Flavio da Silva, an asthmatic 12-year-old caring for seven younger siblings who became the subject of one of his most famous Life stories. Readers were so moved they sent in more than $30,000 to bring Flavio to the United States for medical treatment and to buy the da Silva family a new home.

As the civil rights movement gathered steam, Parks spent time with the black Muslims in New York and the Black Panthers in Berkeley. He photographed their leaders for Life, striving to balance journalistic integrity with his sympathy for what he called "the heart of black fury sweeping the country."

Parks himself was moved when an initially skeptical Malcolm X asked him to be his daughter's godfather.

In Park's storied life of peaks and valleys, he fell in love with the art and beauty of Paris, buried his parents in a still-segregated cemetery in Kansas, and met and photographed princes and paupers, as well as Alexander Calder, Ingrid Bergman, Richard Wright and Muhammad Ali.

Now divorced--he was married three times--Parks has raised four children, losing his eldest, the filmmaker Gordon Parks Jr., in a plane crash in 1979. He is a grandfather and great-grandfather several times over.

"My family is mixed up with all kinds of races," he says. "I'm part Cherokee, part black. Jewish people have married into my family. One of my wives was Chinese, two great-grandchildren are part Swedish. It's a grand mixture."

Known to friends as an enthusiastic cook and tennis player, Parks continues his literary life. He's at work on his 17th book, a novel based on the rags-to-riches life of English 19th Century landscape painter J.M.W. Turner--whose "absolutely smashingly beautiful" watercolors have influenced Parks' latest dreamy abstractions.

"I deserve a little time to myself to look at the beauty in the world, after those years of looking at poverty and discrimination," says this Renaissance Man, whose days still include time for playing the piano.

"The most important thing is that I find poetry in everything I do."