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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.

SLICE OF LATIN AMERICAN SPIRIT SPICES UP JADED VENICE CROWD

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.

PRADA POSING

"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.

PROTESTS

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."

One response to “Miami Artist Blossoms at Venice Biennale”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Barbara Neijna, Robert Thiele, Genaro Ambrosino, Kristin Thiele, good people all around minus the usual external Miami character vilification that's marred the "scene" since the monopolization of the gallery system in South Florida. Indeed, it was really refreshing to see Salvator La Rosa's work at Bridge Red Project Space last month and hope to see many more of Miami's best home grown like Janet Paperelli, Onajídé Shabaka, Tom Downs, Bob Huff, Elmer Craig, Sandy Winters, Gary Moore and many more..

    -william C.

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