The qualities of a great artist, I suppose, are always up for discussion in the art world.  For intellectuals, a great work might be one that elevates the mind or translates an idea. For those who covet the superficial, the captivation of the eye does the trick.  Maybe an artist or academician would analyze the work for technical skill: the balance of the composition, manipulation of materials and process, and its maker’s use of color and line, before declaring it great.  There are also those who believe in the ability of art to alter the spirit, so for them a demand of another kind is expected.  They search for meaning and the piece’s accessibility to the esoteric.  Marina Abramovich, the iconic performance artist, takes this notion one step further.  She recently said that only those who suffer for their work are truly great, and art of any significance must come with sacrifice. 

All of these views are valid when considered independently, but what happens when our expectations encompass the whole and we demand more of our artists? As a society (and an artistic community) have we come to expect so little of those around us?  Do we settle for good when we should be expecting great? In my humble opinion, yes, but I’ll let you be the judge.    

Jerome Soimaud is an artist who actively enters the world of his subjects, places most dare not to go, especially not All-American looking French artists who hail from Paris.  He has traveled to the jungles of Columbia, not with ammunition or a machete, but with camera equipment on his hip.  Most recently he has devoted himself to capturing the underbelly of Miami, a side of the city rarely embraced and showcased.  And this latest body of work is about to be displayed by Yeelen Gallery in a new and stunning 10,000 square foot space on 54th Street.  Formerly a non-for-profit, Yeelen is ready to take on the market by exhibiting highly talented artists with a story to tell and a mission for change. It’s beginning by giving Soimaud his largest and most comprehensive show to date, bringing to the forefront the communities and people in Miami left destitute and abandoned, often forced to leave their homes and turning to a life of crime, as a consequence of gentrification.   

Jerome Soimaud, Keystone, 2009, charcoal and graphite on canvas, 60 x 60 in.; 
© Jerome Soimaud/Courtesy Yeelen Art Gallery, Miami. 

Soimaud uses three predominate media, drawing, photography, and painting, to capture the humanity and culture at the heart of neglected and tradition rich areas like Liberty City and Little Haiti.   In B-Sides, a series of black and white works in charcoal and pencil, Soimaud adeptally sketches detailed images of decaying neighborhoods and the people who inhabit them.  Murky, nondescript patches of black and white function as telling signs of the unsettling tension now present in these once prosperous locales.  In some, they stir to combine as ominous stormy skies ready to engulf the landscape at any moment.   In other works in the series, like Vagabond and Keystone, both from 2009, where the viewer is permitted access to the city’s occupants from a more intimate perspective, the clouds are no longer present, however energetic patterns and shapes of black and white still loom and agitate the surface. They morph to resemble the camouflaged designs of fatigues or possibly blankets of cancerous cells, waiting to devour what’s underneath.  In B-Sides, Soimaud invites his viewer to be voyeur, allowing them to silently hover from above or to crouch in secret spaces below.  His work says: “Look what’s become of us. Look who we’ve left behind.” 

Jerome Soimaud, Zoe Pound, 2009, pigment on glossy photo paper, 50 x 33 in.; 
© Jerome Soimaud/Courtesy Yeelen Art Gallery, Miami. 

In his series Around Jenin’s, photographs are used to document the cast of characters in the sordid world to which the artist was granted access.  Prostitutes, drug dealers, and savants, to name a few, serve as subjects.   The neon colors and bright lights of Miami are purposefully reflected in the pictures, but the luminous hotels, multimillion dollar homes, and fashionistas that act as a decadent veneer for the spaces most wish not to see, are nowhere to be found.  In Zoe Pound (2012), skinny streams of light zigzag below the bare shoulders of a gang member but fail to reach the heights of his tattooed announcement.  Here, the gritty urban streets of Miami are given the spotlight, but, just as in life, the colors and energetic movement often associated with its electronic music scene and the neon lights of Ocean Drive serve as a welcome distraction for those who choose to remain in the dark.

Jerome Soimaud, Dansi, 2012, acrylic and oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in.; © Jerome Soimaud/Courtesy Yeelen Art Gallery, Miami. 

Soimaud utilizes his creations as a means to transmit the ethereal and laces them with symbolism.  Much of his work records the Voodoo ceremonies that take place in the Haitian culture and, in his paintings, a group of works called Genesis, he intentionally inserts ancient markings and religious signs in an effort to channel mysticism and the energetic presence of source energy or God.  The artist pushes the paint, activating the surface with thickened swirling layers of rich color.  The abstract backdrop communicates with a distinct and static image that lies near the center of the picture plane.   The interplay between the two forges the never-ending, fluid link between mortality and the infinite: particles vibrate and combine to create recognizable images, ones easily understood and deciphered, while giving way to the unseen, magnetic presence of creativity and the essence of a higher power.  

Soimaud has committed his life’s work to a people; not only to a group, but to humanity.  His bravery in entering these communities as an unfamiliar outsider shows belief and trust in the human spirit and its ability to embrace differences when tested.  When treated with respect and sensitivity, art has the capacity to create harmony and unite us.  Anything is possible.  Soimaud is proof that an artist need not be limited to an idea, esthetics, proficiency in the manipulation of a media, or even, as ambitious as it may be, to art that serves as a vehicle for consciousness.  He can challenge himself and go beyond what’s expected, producing art that is its best self, a perfect integration of all that we seek and are.  Soimaud shows us that, when pushed, our art and our artists can be great.  We can all be. 

Jerome Soimaud’s Miami B-Side exhibition opens this summer at Yeelen Art Gallery, 294 NW 54th Street. Watch for it and visit this magnificent new gallery space in Miami, Fl.

Contemporary art has been stuck, locked in a frozen space that began somewhere around the moment that Andy Warhol capitalized on capitalism.  It’s gigantic.  It’s grotesquely commercial.  It’s elitist and cold.  And, guess what, it’s dead.  I know, I know, there are a few of you who want us to stay trapped in this era, mostly commodities traders that claim to be collectors or those who love the idea of dismissing beauty and emotion as insignificant notions of the uneducated.  But let me encourage you to let go.  Give up your resistance.   A Jeff Koon’s sculpture can still be placed near the swimming pool if you so desire.  The rest of us are ready to feel something and move on.  We need air.  We yearn for more…something else.  So let me be one of the first to say, “I see light.”  And much of it is coming from Miami. 

This month, in a small space downtown, there is an exhibition I bet you’ve never heard of by an artist that I’m sure you don’t know, and it’s phenomenal.  It’s moving, intimate, inspiring, and soulful.  It’s a diamond in the rough and is the first exhibition by a humble Columbian artist named Cesar Rey.  The show, “Lightness,” is an installation of the same name and is created from the heart.  It is an experience that can be likened to meditation, where one travels to a watery dreamlike world occupied by peaceful, levitating beings that have condensed from the energy of their human counterparts.    Soft music fills the air and shadows dance across the walls, invoking the same gentle, safe calm experienced by newborns or toddlers as they lay down to sleep.  

Cesar Rey, Detail of “Lightness,” 2013; © Cesar Rey/Photo by Marcello Ibanez.

The exhibition features seven twisted and contorted works titled according to number.  All of the pieces within it are recycled from used materials, mostly plastic and metal, that hang from a ceiling covered in white fabric panels.  Rey has created a space that can be viewed in two separate settings: one light and airy, the other, dark, where pieces are illuminated with glowing color.   Each environment creates a different experience, but in both instances ghostly reflections haunt the works, magnifying their ethereality.  No one piece within the installation is the same.  And the artist purposefully designs each with ambiguity, allowing their physical associations to be worked through in the mind of the viewer.   However, each inherently embodies extensions of the spirit, where notions of balance, evolution, and transcendence are considered.   Through each structure and the interplay of the sculptures within the space, Rey explores the unification of man and woman, the delicate exchange of feminine and masculine, and the contrasting necessity of positive and negative, as well as light and dark. 

Cesar Rey, Variation 77, 2011, plastic and wire, 85 X 122 X 65 in.; © Cesar Rey/Photo by Marcello Ibanez.

In Variation 67 (2011), vaginal and phallic forms on opposite poles work in concert.  As they reach towards each other, they join, blending and bending as the work expands and grows in the center where it naturally becomes more complex.   Compressed and woven wire occasionally sprouts small plantlike bunches of transparent plastic, signaling points in a timeline where stages of growth for the being may have occurred or challenges might have been met. 

Cesar Rey pictured with his sculpture Variation 8, 2012; © Cesar Rey/Photo by Marcello Ibanez.

In Variation 8 (2012), the sculpture winds in a different way.  Here, the male and female projections have been eliminated and the being morphs into a circular creature devoid of a point of departure.    It spirals and shifts with no beginning or end.  It is whole and complete.  

Some people choose to remain as they are.  The place they occupy feels comfortable and easy.  Fear creeps in and they are unable to move.  But it’s all that lies on the other side of that fear that shapes and molds, elevating us to new heights.  When we are stripped of our comforts, we evolve.  Our suffering becomes our salvation, for without it we could not reignite and empower ourselves within, leaving our inner spirit stronger than ever.  This is what Rey and his artwork encourage.  “Lightness” speaks and tells us to seek harmony, to float above, and to release what is heavy.  It is a reminder that each and every one of us are magnificent points of light.   We are all the same.  We are all valuable.  Even wire, once disposed of, can function as art.  Seeing it as such only requires a shift in perception.  Whether it is in this lifetime or the next, the light within us will never stop searching for perfection and peace within, because it knows, with absolute certainty, love begins and ends there.  There is no stopping it.  So release your grip, flow, and invite the scary shift.  If we’re lucky, there will always be a Warhol on view or the possibility of catching a balloon sculpture (if you don’t have room for one near your pool) at Versailles to remind us from where we came.         

“Lightness” is open to the public until May 11th at the Aluna Art Foundation, 172 West Flagler, Miami, FL.  Please call ahead for times.  

For a video preview of the exhibition go to

A special thank you to Marcello Ibanez for his generous contribution to this article.