Miami Artist Robert Chambers Featured in Books & Books Talk

It has been a glorious April weekend in Miami, when the glowing balmy weather is so pleasant that you hardly notice how late afternoon sunshine starts to betray the slightest trace of summer's relentless sizzle and sting. My artcentric weekend began early. On Thursday night I witnessed an affecting performance by Teresa Pereda at Alejandra Von Hartz Gallery, in conjunction with her exhibit "Earth, The Rite of Restitution." Too bad I don't have the time or energy right now to write about how this memorable exhibit has resulted from various journeys through the Americas.

Friday brought a charming lunch at Lemoni cafe in the Design District, where I had a chance to chat with artcentric friends I have known for ages. Tonight during Saturday's gallery walk Eric and I savored lively exhibits at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, Dotfiftyone Gallery, and Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts, where we saw once again the accomplished Argentine artist Graciela Sacco. Friday night we had been invited to an absolutely splendid dinner party and spent much more time with Graciela. It was such a treat for me to meet this artist in person at last. We spoke about her work in Venice, which involved installing numerous photographic images of eyes throughout this fabled city during a Biennale I had covered for the Herald.

Tonight I want to tell my readers about the upcoming April ArtTable meeting for Members and Guests, on "Designing Artists in Miami: How They Make a Difference." It's Tuesday, April 12 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Avenue, Coral Gables. Networking starts at 5:45 p.m. Panel discussion starts at 6:30 p.m. Those attending receive a 10% discount on food and drink. RSVP to Of course, it is free and open to the public. As moderator, artist and designer Michelle Weinberg has assembled a dynamite panel. Miami-Dade public art maven Brandi Reddick will tell us about Robert Chambers' new installation of lighting and sculpture for South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. Other panelists are globe-trotting design expert Thais Fontenelle, product designer Laz Ojalde, and artist and designer Ernesto Oroza. (For more info about Ernesto Oroza, see my previous blog post, or see my April Critic's Choice at

Knowing that I am going to hear in detail about a new public art work by the absolutely remarkable Robert Chambers, I recall the time I profiled him for The Miami Herald in September 2002. So here is that story again. SCULPTING A MOVEMENT The bone-white flamingo with the red eyes isn't barking, and a man standing outside John Martin's pub wants Robert Chambers to get its bark back. And Chambers, a Miami-based artist known for richly peculiar sculpture that melds science, art, and sound, is only too happy to oblige. So as rush hour clogs Coral Gables' Miracle Mile, Chambers pulls a raft of tools from his black backpack and within minutes, the flamingo has not only gotten his bark back, but also the flash of its beady eyeballs. "I put a microwave sensor in it, so when you get close a tiny laser disc plays back the sound of two attack dogs barking, and the eyes glow an angry red," Chambers explains. "It gets a big jump from everybody." Even the bird's color--or rather, its lack of color--draws attention. "The flamingo came to me white, and I gave it back white," he continues. "It's like the anti-flamingo. They said, 'you forgot to do anything with it.'" While Chambers' anti-flamingo is an eccentric breed apart from the more colorfully predictable plastic birds around town, bringing things to life with unpredictable flair is the artist's maverick M.O. He has not only constructed art from unlikely materials such as hair gel, he has also been an unusually generous catalyst on the local art scene. Last year he curated two attention-getting shows, emphasizing the distinctive work of young and youngish Miami-based artists at The House and Bass Museum of Art. This month he has orchestrated several shows to raise awareness--and money--for SAVE Dade, an organization urging a "no" vote on the Sept. 10 referendum to remove the phrase "sexual orientation" from Miami-Dade County's Human Rights Ordinance. The shows will take place at Fredric Snitzer and Bernice Steinbaum galleries, at the home of Eugenia Vargas, and will include a performance in the newly minted El Solar Arts House in Coral Gables. "I like to create a happening that creates awareness either of artists or a cause," Chambers says. And this cause, he says, "reminds us that everyone's human rights can be threatened. People in the arts have always been at the forefront of alerting people about human rights." Adds Daniel Arsham, who grew up in South Florida and is now an art student in New York: "It's kind of our job. The arts community is a place where there's more openness." Arsham is among the 200 artists, including Paul Stoppi, Vickie Pierre, and Naomi Fisher contributing works to the "NO-Show," which opens Tuesday at Fredric Snitzer Gallery. On that night, all sales of the moderately priced--nothing over $500--artwork will benefit SAVE Dade. "Obviously, this issue is critical," Snitzer says. "It's good that we are having a stake in this campaign and saying, 'no, this can't fly.'

" Vargas came to mind because, in the past few years, she has organized a lively series of "Home Shows," in which artists have installed works in her home. Besides, Chambers says, "if you don't have your human rights it's like not having a home"--which inspired the name of the "NO-Home Show," a one-night event on Sept. 9 at Vargas' home that will include art by Pablo Cano, Maria Brito, and David Rohn. OUTSIDE THE BOX Momentum among artists to support SAVE Dade started nearly two years ago, but really raced forward this summer as election day neared.

Chambers exchanged so many e-mails and calls with artists that, by late August, the memory card in his cell phone reached its limit. Such rallying en masse is "something artists should do," insists Vargas. "I really think the Miami arts community is impassive; artists are kind of removed if anything is political." With a slight smile, Arsham describes the variety of events as adding up to, "a normal Robert affair. He thinks completely differently from anyone else who organizes things." The Miami household in which Chambers grew up in the 1960s seems to have been one that nurtured out-of-the-box thinking. Chambers' great-grandmother was a pioneering midwife on a farm near the Oregon coast while his father, Edward L. Chambers, taught biology at the University of Miami. Now professor emeritus at UM, his research there included fertilizing sea urchin eggs.

He's also the author of the classic textbook,The Living Cell. No surprise, then, that the artist's mother, Elenora S. Chambers, is an abstract painter whose lilting canvasses have sometimes resembled interlacing cellular forms. While his father would be conducting research in the Marquesas or on the Massachusetts coast, Chambers remembers how his mother brought along huge rolls of canvas that she tacked up to work on. "My parents led exciting lives," Chambers says. "They were always traveling. They went everywhere, from Cuba to remote areas in France, and my father traveled around Tunisia. Some trips I went along with them, and my mother just loved the diversity of all these places and meeting new people. " "That's how she met my father. She was discussing existentialism with several scientists, and she caught my father's ear and eye in Portland, Oregon." TWIN PASSIONS So it was natural that art and science would become passions for the couple's son. His parents frequently took him to art museums, and he also developed a talent for making horrific messes in his father's lab, stopping up sinks to create floods. At home, a family heirloom, a charming 19th Century wind-up bird that chirped arias from La Boheme, was one of many objects Chambers relentlessly took apart and reassembled. A burly man with a loping gait, black hair that explodes into ringlets in the summer humidity, and the demeanor of an intelligently manic Peter Pan, Chambers celebrated his 44th birthday in August on his great-grandmother's farm with his wife and fellow artist Mette Tommerup. "I wish I was stuck at 24," he says. "Then my brain would be matching my body." Not that the considerable variety of his art--which has been featured in solo shows at the Miami Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, as well as in galleries in New York, London, and Rome--ever suggests sluggishness. Instead, it tweaks the machine-like sculpture of Jean Tinguely with bravura invention and humor.

Over his career, he has moved from noise-making pieces made of cast-off industrial parts scavenged from Miami River junk yards to installations oozing with fluorescent chemicals once used to trace water pollutants and reconfigured to suggest bubbling abstract paintings run amok. Many pieces invite watchful observation or participation, such as the silkily inflating and deflating "Capes" in MOCA's permanent collection or the luminous "Ballship," a vast fiberglass globe that echoes and distorts ambient sounds, transforming viewers' speech into unearthly music.

"He's very inventive in doing things with different materials," Jeanette Ingberman, co-director of Exit Art, a non-profit venue in Manhattan, says of Chambers. "We did a show called 'Danger,' which suited him because a lot of his pieces imply danger." Chambers' piece featured "a huge kind of rotating blade that was quite difficult to turn and made an excruciating noise," Ingberman remembers. "As dangerous as it seemed, it was also quite inviting to use. He's created wonderful machines, and many of them are participatory, so he's creating in his art a situation that you can get involved in just as he does with his curatorial work." "Not every artist is as generous as a person," she continues, noting that Chambers has frequently recommended artists for Exit Art shows. "Not only does he come up with ideas for the shows, but he comes out with a truck to pick up the artwork." CREATING BY CURATING With his free-wheeling curatorial projects, including one planned to coincide with December's Art Basel Miami Beach, Chambers is moving into a new phase, an extension of the interactive style he adopted while teaching art from 1993-98 at the University of Miami. Then he took students to New York and introduced them to artists and other contacts he developed while doing graduate work and teaching at New York University in the late 1980s and early '90s.

"I always made sure my students would stay with artists and curators all throughout New York and New Jersey," he says. "We would spread out all over the place, and then we would meet together at a deli on Second Avenue. I was always mixing it up so the faculty regarded me nervously." Now operating in a less institutional framework, Chambers is generating an infectious energy that has been embraced by young artists here such as Jason Ferguson, Christian Curiel, and Brandon Opalka, who call themselves "FeCuOp." At Chambers' insistence, FeCuOp developed the "NO to Discrimination" banner, another work in the SAVE Dade campaign, now hanging outside Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. "Robert is a little frazzled sometimes," Ferguson says, "but he's really pushed us and helped us get our bearings. He's like a mad scientist." Mad scientist. Impassioned maverick. Those are just some of the names he's been called by bemused friends and associates. "He's a total original," adds Miami Art Museum director Suzanne Delehanty. "It is always an inspiration to be around him."

One response to “Miami Artist Robert Chambers Featured in Books & Books Talk”

  1. Capetown says:

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the ability.

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