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Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
April 2017

Artists delve into Miami archives for contemporary commentary

MArtFeature_1iami has always been known as a city with a finger on the fast-forward button, with no looking back. A city of brash dreams and gleaming new structures; of immigrants whose desire is to forge a future and leave painful memories behind; of residents and tourists bent on living in the now, with scant interest in the city’s past.

And until recently, it was considered a superficial place, with little in the way of intellectual pursuits and cultural arts.

But today Miami seems to be taking itself more seriously, building an arts infrastructure and starting to document its unique development and history.

A riveting exhibit combines elements of all of this, covering the huge second floor of HistoryMiami (the museum took over this space when the Miami Art Museum moved to its new home on Biscayne Bay as the Pérez Art Museum Miami).

“MemoryLab” is curated by the founders of Obsolete Media Miami (OMM), Barron Sherer and Kevin Arrow, who collect artifacts from our not so “obsolete” media past. They asked artists to plumb the collection of HistoryMiami and the holdings of the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archive to create contemporary works that explore our past, present, and future. The results are amazing.

ArtFeature_2First off, we do have a past, sometimes nostalgic, at times dark, and other times whimsical. Like Miami itself, many of these pieces refuse to be static, and will continue to change over the course of the exhibit, through mid-April. What stands out is how much dedication and thought went into creating these site-specific works, suggesting that Miami’s art scene has indeed planted deep roots.

The museum has never before shown contemporary art as its featured program; that highlights how important visual arts have become to the new brand of Miami, and how history has become part of our conversation in the 21st century.

The appropriate introduction to “MemoryLab” comes from painter John William Bailly, who also teaches at FIU. It’s titled I Am Miami, and its center core on the wall includes portraits from Miami’s “10,000 year-old history.” They include Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and modern titans. Sprouting from the core are tacked-on pictures -- some taken by Polaroids on opening night, how super retro! -- and others brought in by visitors. This gallery grows by the day.

In the darkened room behind, Domingo Castillo’s large installation glows and blinks with maquettes (preliminary sketches) placed into the standalone walls, many of iconic Arquitectonica buildings. There are also projected renderings of sparkling new high-rises, and an image of an Overtown in the future, with happy people strolling the streets. Castillo has provided a lengthy text to accompany this piece; but the visitor might recall that Overtown was devastated when freeways were laced through the neighborhood decades ago. Miami’s contradictions are so vividly on display here.

ArtFeature_3Other works are quieter. For instance, Kathleen Hudspeth’s prints might get lost. But don’t miss them. Her relatives moved to Miami in 1927, and her reproductions, based on old archive photos, of the Miami River, the Everglades, and a Seminole village, remind us of the lush environment that used to dominate the landscape. In one, she found a black-and-white photo in the HistoryMiami research center of Gilbert’s wharf on the north bank of the Miami River, circa 1884, dotted with palms, and re-created it in a lovely, green-splashed screenprint and oil monotype.

Some pieces are fascinatingly quirky and, oh, so Miami. Take Weston Charles’s meticulously researched and crafted Inside Jeff’s Club. A pamphlet explains the background, but in a nutshell, here’s the story: Charles has printed a huge image of a block on Flagler Street, from the 1920s, with a room behind it containing a dice table. Charles had stumbled upon an old poker chip stamped Jeff’s Club, and decided to dig into its past. What he found was the history of a labyrinth of illegal gambling establishments from Prohibition days -- and an actual dice table from one of the gambling outlets on Flagler Street, housed at HistoryMiami. There’s more to the tale, so make sure you delve into it.

Clifton Childree also references Flagler, but this time it’s the man who laid the railroad that spurred the development of South Florida. However, Childree focuses on a “new” development terrain, that of Little Haiti, which is rapidly gentrifying. His work is often infused with a sense of whimsy, but the statements are serious. He uses found items from his Little Haiti neighborhood to create an amusement park-like sculptural scene, but look for the film projection that recalls the 1935 hurricane that killed hundreds in the Keys and effectively shut down the railroad forever.

ArtFeature_4Julie Kahn, now based in California, has expanded her ongoing trading card series here. She gets her own room for DEPOSIT, which riffs on Miami’s beginnings as a trading post and on the trade embargo that has defined the U.S.-Cuba relationship for more than 50 years. More than a decade ago Kahn created trading cards featuring artists and arts professionals that could be traded during Art Basel, and later expanded it to Havana. In “MemoryLab,” she has provided trading card packets, but also a table filled with bits and pieces of memorabilia, from Miami and Havana and beyond. The visitor is encouraged to trade some of these items -- take one, and maybe replace something of your own. It’s a flowing installation, and the end result is anyone’s guess.

These are just some of the explorations. One three-channel video corner is a dizzying dive into climate change, using archival and found footage projected on the walls and floor, from the collaborative called the Alliance of the Southern Triangle (A.S.T.). As they describe their piece: “We are the first-person perspective. In the cockpit. Hands on the controls, navigating through the eye of the storm. And we are the storm.”

Another installation uses the sport of jai alai as its base point. And sound artist Gustavo Matamoros has created hanging panels -- aesthetically beautiful to begin with -- that reverberate with sound bites culled from the Wolfson archive.

This is the kind of collaboration that makes Miami special, perched on the exciting edge of the arts. This isn’t a white-cube gallery exhibit or a drab retelling of history. Sherer and Arrow allowed artists, and the museum, to push some boundaries that make the cultural arts alive and relevant.

 

“MemoryLab” runs through April 16, HistoryMiami Museum, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami; www.historymiami.org.

 

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