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.