Away from the Basel fray, a local artist, Clara Varas, reflected on the two starkly different versions of her hometown, each of whose inhabitants think of themselves as the “real” Miamians. “There’s the Miami of luxury and then there’s the other Miami, where I live.” This week finds Varas with one foot planted in each world.
Varas seems primed to benefit from the fair’s exposure. Spinello Projects, which represents her, is one of just four South Florida galleries included in this edition of Art Basel. She simultaneously has a solo show of her latest work at Dimensions Variable, an artist-run nonprofit space also on the itinerary of many visiting heavyweights.
She certainly doesn’t argue with Chambers’s take on Basel’s transformative power. Growing up on Miami Beach, after arriving there in 1980 as a 7-year-old when her family left Cuba, has made her well aware of the fair’s impact: “Now I see a lot more local artists being part of the conversation.”
Yet it’s an artistic discussion that can leave Varas feeling conflicted. Her installations, which she’s called “expanded paintings,” feature meaningful detritus scavenged from the city’s streets and embedded into unstretched canvases whose fields of color evoke the abstractions of Sam Gilliam.
“I collect things from places where I live,” Varas explained, which means spending municipal trash pick-up days scouting the curbs of immigrant-centered neighborhoods like her own current home of Allapattah. “It’s my life. But it’s not just my own life, it’s the life of my neighbors, of my friends, of the people I’ve grown up with. Of everyone who has dealt with migration and displacement.” With the city’s affordable housing crisis showing little signs of slowing, Varas said, the resulting street pickings were, sadly, all too revealing.
“A lot of the stuff I find comes from apartment buildings where it seems a family had to take off in a hurry, or got evicted,” she said. Yet the artwork into which Varas incorporates the found objects will likely end up — if a sale is successful — in a home whose daily concerns are quite distant from the ones that inspired it. “It’s a very strange dynamic and it’s not an easy one for any artist, especially if you’re trying to make a living from your work.”
It’s only been in the last few years that Varas says she was able to return to artmaking and saw her work attract notice — a good two decades after graduating from New York’s School of Visual Arts, struggling to make rent in Brooklyn, and eventually returning to Miami. Living a life as a full-time artist now seems tantalizing close. Still, she had a more immediate problem, one caused by her raiding her own kitchen for items that mesh perfectly into her artwork. “I better go buy a new salad spinner right now,” she quipped.