This time of year, everywhere I turn, news about Art Basel in Miami flashes before my eyes. But what about a family visit to Miami during a time of year when Art Basel is NOT in full swing? Well, the art in Miami is omnipresent year round, even during Thanksgiving week. Between the numerous galleries, the multiple museums, the public sculpture, various estates and gardens, and murals radiating throughout the city from the mural epicenter of Wynwood, Miami is a visual feast. Art and design and color are everywhere, communicating the mood and personality of Miami and informing our perception of the place.
Driving up from laid back Duck’s Key, we first stopped at the Lowe Art Museum on the University of Miami campus, to see a portrait exhibit I’d read about when planning the trip. The museum was easy to find with parking galore due to the Thanksgiving holiday. En route to the special exhibit, I was delighted to find pieces in the permanent collection by some of my favorite artists such as the masterful Hung Liu, transformative Cindy Sherman, and provocative Sally Mann.
The temporary exhibit, “Portrait Transformed: Drawings & Oil Sketches from Jacques-Louis David to Lucian Freud” has big names in the title though lesser known artists are included as well. The visual breadth provides viewers with a more complete understanding of the evolution of portraiture during the last two and a half centuries. As a figurative artist, I found the written introduction to the exhibit to be particularly informative and a bit surprising. While the description helps viewers understand the purpose of the collection, the writer does not talk above us with lofty art language. Instead, Curator Robert Flynn Johnson writes as though he sharing insights with a personal friend. His refreshing honesty creates enthusiasm and curiosity for the work on display. For example, he states with aplomb, “Portraiture can be numbingly boring…the endless limpid depictions of prior generations of relatives that no family member wants to inherit.”
Such candor makes me want to hug this unpretentious curator. He continues, “However, portraits are also capable of being the most transformative, emotionally sublime, and deeply moving images in all art….Apparently even the art market concurs with this assessment – eight of the ten most expensive works ever sold are some form of portraiture.” In a world of abstraction, avant-garde images, conceptual installations and alternative material use, it is music to my ears to hear an appreciation for the drawn human figure.
After a quick walk around the UM campus and a Cuban sandwich at Versailles in Little Havana, we headed to the beautiful waterfront estate: Vizcaya. Built by Chicago agricultural tycoon, James Deering in the early 1900s, Vizcaya is a paradise of art, architecture, European furniture and sculpture, and gardens. Even during renovations, there is plenty to see. After a home tour and leisurely strolls in the gardens, we drove a few minutes up the road to the Perez Art Museum.
Like Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the facility and grounds of the Perez are an architectural wonder. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron, the space uses multiple platforms and containers to bring natural elements into the environment. The scale of the greenery, the expansive windows and the layered views infuse in our minds elements of plants, water, and light while walls and floors recede from our awareness. Walking around the grounds and inside the building is like a dream as the lines between interior and exterior disappear. Yet amongst this dreamscape the art assertively demands our attention.
While the conceptual sculptural pieces were incredible (one was made out of a tanning bed!), it was the work of Firelei Báez that took my breath away. Using vibrant color and multiple layers, the artist alludes to human form by combining human shapes with other natural elements to startle, delight, and dismay the viewer. I’ve been working with stencils made from my figure drawings to combine the figure with pattern, shapes and layers exposed within the figurative form. My goal is to emphasize what came before, or a certain emptiness, or the idea of disappearing. Báez uses a similar technique in – I must admit – a superior manner.
Walking through the “Firelei Báez: Bloodlines” exhibit, my mind was swirling with body ornamentation, pattern, decoration, and how these elaborate embellishments of the human form conversely connect us with each other as well as distinguish (or even separate) groups of people within a larger community. The layers she builds to define the human form and the details within the layers creates a disconcerting feeling. Perhaps the discomfort is caused by the high volume of pattern and decoration which defines, fills, and takes over the human form.
My thoughts were interrupted when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a familiar sight. Like an old friend calling me over, a large work by Robert Rauschenberg awaited. Though this piece was new to me, I recognized the skillful layering of commercial imagery. He has a way with repurposing and combining images – a method that seems simple but leaves other artists lagging behind. Rauschenberg produced multiple distinct bodies of work using an enormous variety of materials throughout his career and somehow, his work remains unmatched even with similar approaches and materials. Leaving the museum, we found easy access to the A1A bridge over to Miami Beach, checked into the Palms Resort and Spa and relaxed after a full day of sight-seeing.
Though most galleries and museums were closed on Thanksgiving Day, we found plenty to see on Day 2 in Miami. Starting with brunch at the illustrious Biltmore Hotel (and some entertaining gawking at homes in Coral Gables), we fueled up for the winding fairytale walks though Fairfield Botanical Gardens.
The gardens were much larger and more elaborate than we expected but we managed to reserve enough energy for one final stop of the day: Wynwood Walls. Describing the area as a bunch of murals on the sides of old buildings is a gross understatement. The ceaseless onslaught of images, the fantastical designs, the skilled representation, the pattern, the text, the variety, the overt and subtle messages, the social component, and the color was overwhelming. I suppose what struck me as most impressive was the quality of the work – such high quality and creative effort in a provisional setting.
As a grand finale, we found a mural perfectly tailored to fit our Thanksgiving Day visit: GRATITUDE. Though the trip was abbreviated allowing a visit to only a fraction of Miami’s artful sights, we departed the vibrant city feeling grateful, indeed.
Thank you for coming along on a short art tour of Miami. Next up, taking all this artistic inspiration into the classroom at the Arkansas Arts Center.
A peaceful and happy holiday to you all,