Remembering… Miami before Art Basel
David Rohn as Teddy Behr, 1994.
As we prepare for the impending chaos (and brilliance) of Miami’s Fall 2008 season it feels pertinent to remember how this city’s current fortuitous circumstance came to pass and why we are all still here.
From meager, somewhat desperate beginnings as a drug run backwater, Miami is flourishing as a city of real cultural importance. Much like oceanic vents whose teeming life systems are supported by subterranean tributaries that carry essential minerals to barren, otherwise indistinguishable regions of the sea floor, art hubs feed off attention paid to them by the eyes of the wider world and similar, longer established hot spots.
The inhabitants of either of these bustling communities may grow at speed but their existence can also be short; for just as the fickle fancy of trend setters might move onto greener seemingly ‘hotter’ locales, the vents too do not erupt indefinitely. At any given moment, some eddy, deep in the earth’s crust could divert the energy, and an entire micro world could be extinguished.
As we approach Art Basel Miami Beach 2008 we would do well to remember our precarious position. The art world as we know is cruel, ruthless and rarely considerate to the needs of those striving for recognition; irrespective of whether they are an individual artist or a whole city. Nevertheless, the bonds forged between makers, patrons, and all those close enough to the furnace to feel the heat have been proven to withstand leaner times; and annealed by a uniting desire to marry into a life defined by art and personal exploration they make long term subsistence realistic whatever the weather.
Today we speak to Miami based Artist David Rohn who first settled in Miami when the genesis of our now thriving art community was just beginning to form.
When did you first come to Miami?
I came to Miami on New Year s day 1991. The Beach wasn’t called ‘South Beach’ yet but there was a nightlife-oriented mostly gay artist scene emerging alongside the elderly people and Mariel refugees who’d wound up South of 5th street since the 1980 Mariel boat lift from Cuba. That’s where I moved to and that’s where I learned that a lot of the people who came in Mariel where not just criminals and mentally ill but also Aids victims and gays who were routinely jailed by Fidel. It reminded me of the East Village in New York where I’d lived in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.
Center: David Rohn as “Teddy Behr” with “Adora” (right) and Digby Liebowitz of “Swirl” (left) on South beach, circa 1995.
Were there any galleries to speak of?
There weren’t any galleries to speak of but there were a lot of open studios in storefronts on Lincoln Road – which at the time was completely dead as a retail area. It had one restaurant and a few stores for things like orthopedic shoes but not much else except artists and it was deserted after dark.
In the afternoons you might see some people around (other than the rows of 80-somethings parked in wheelchairs in front of their buildings) and maybe at the beach on 23rd street or South of 5th too but it was mainly in clubs like Warsaw, Torpedo, and Boomerang. There you could see that a very grass roots and rather gritty (by current standards) community had somehow congealed in a place that was otherwise literally dying right before your eyes.
I can’t remember any galleries in South Beach at that time but I rarely left it. I tried to go to the Bass Museum but it was closed the first time and kind of expensive the second. Finally I went to see their tapestries and other what-not; sadly realizing there was no need to go back. Once I went by bus to the Kane Concourse near Bal Harbor because I’d been told that that’s where the galleries were but it was mostly second generation abstract expressionism and chrome sculpture so I didn’t go back there either. Eventually I went downtown to the Center for Visual Arts (now called Miami Art Museum (MAM)). They had put up a travelling show of Degas. It was nice.
The first time I exhibited in Miami was at an event called the Hortt Exhibition held every year at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. I proposed a loaf of pink papier mache bread which was accepted and won an honorable mention (including an honorable mention in the Miami Herald). I’d been making these painted breads of papier mache in Paris and it wasn’t clear that it would make any sense here. Bread is an iconic shape and symbol in French Culture but that’s not so true here, we have our own icons. Some months later I showed towels embroidered with erect penises in pastel colored yarn at the Alliance for Cinema Art on Lincoln Road – and in conjunction with a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, it doesn’t exist anymore.
At the time I thought both gay and straight cultures were very involved with machismo and my own experience was increasingly that male sexuality was more tender, boyish and sweet – a lot of the local Gay community came and I felt great about that.
Later on I tried to organize a show in an abandoned motel building on 3rd Street – around ’94 I guess – with some artists in the area; Skip Van Cel, Lazaro Amaral and Mike Borosky are still around. It wasn’t easy getting organized and then the building got knocked down.
A little later I did a show at a place called Swirl, which was a very relaxed club on Washington Avenue started by an art friendly guy named Digby Liebowitz who’s since moved to LA, but one of the pieces got stolen; maybe I should have been flattered but I was mostly annoyed. Eventually I met someone while at a small hotel fair in Amsterdam who told me if I lived in Miami I should get in contact with Bonnie Clearwater. When I got back I did. That led to Bonnie buying a piece for the Museum and eventually offering me a solo show there in ’97. Since then the opportunities and locations to exhibit art in Miami have increased exponentially.
Where do you exhibit now?
The short answer is ‘wherever I can’. Lately I’ve been involved with Carol Jazzar who puts on interesting exhibitions in my view and doesn’t seem overly commercial in her programming. From time to time I’ve been included in Summer group shows at MOCA and the Optic Nerve Series and participated recently in ‘Shelf Life’ (maybe an apt name for summer in Miami), a group show put together by Scott Murray of Twenty Twenty Projects. I’ve also belatedly realized that performance can be taken to the streets and so for some months now I’ve been shooting myself in various locations throughout Miami; in various ‘situations’. The first was the bridal dress and the most successful shots have included passers by who somehow interact (or pointedly don’t) in the frame.
That s been interesting for several reasons:
1. Miami is a… well, let’s say ‘un self-conscious’ urban locale. There are lots of scenes that are very real, semi developed, semi cleaned up (or not at all), in this fast growing burg. The people too are VERY straightforward – really like New Yorkers were when I was growing up but with gentrification even they’ve become boringly polite these days.
2. It’s a great way to bring art to the street; and if and when photos get exhibited I find the move from the street to the rarefied art fascinating as they are really two very different dimensions – I mean when do you see someone who’s really FROM Wynwood at Gallery night? Another series I shot is one with an American soldier (me) and a Muslim detainee (my lover Danilo de la Torre) kissing on the street – there’s been no place yet in these for reactions but lets see…
The main thing about taking it to the public is that it allows me to practice without having to wait for the ‘art public’. Of course there’s no commercial vindication but you can’t have everything. And who knows, maybe later there will be… or not. Past experience has taught me not to hold my breath on that one.
Yes I’m a Miami artist if only by default – and I’m happy to be a part of the Miami art community because it is a very vital and generally inclusive one. Yeah there are many discussions about what isn’t entirely ‘right’ here but it s still a community with more accessibility and contact between collectors, curators and artists than New York or Paris -2 larger cities where I lived and worked. Nor do I think the gap between ‘successful’ ($) artists and those less-so is so wide. Obviously there are lots of ‘feelings’ to consider but things and perceptions of things are always changing. And I think that Miami is really part of an international community now even if [at this point in time] I’m not participating internationally. I guess it’s helpful to have a sense of humor but I m always curious to see what s going to happen next. I guess none of us can have great shows or exercise good judgment all the time but there are a lot of people who put in the effort in Miami and I’m glad they do[.]
David Rohn installing at Locust Projects, 1998.
For more information on this artist please visit: www.davidrohn.net