As seen in issue 53 of Closer Magazine, published on 2008-07-20 in the "Featured" section.
Art During Wartime
Guerra De La Paz Recycle the World
By: Beth Feinstein
A chain link fence with a padlock guards the front door of a nondescript green warehouse in Little Haiti. But it could just as well be a turnstile with a ticket booth, for inside the warehouse is the thrill ride that is the studio of Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz. Their politically charged art has burst the bounds of Miami’s arts scene and, in the last year alone, won eyes and minds in New York and across the United States, and from Berlin to Istanbul.
Step into the duo's creative nerve center and mounds of clothing mingle with action toy figures, religious figurines and assorted treasure of the streets to create a rainbow-hued carnival for the eye and mind. The camouflage fatigues, combat boots, sequin tops, feather boas and beaded gowns in piles and on mannequins give off a Donald Rumsfeld/Donatella Versace vibe: military-industrial complex meets fashionista chic.
It's also apparel that would have ended up in a landfill, if not for the artists’
fertile minds, feverishly turning America's trash into thought-provoking installations that bear the joint artistic signature, Guerra de la Paz.
The pair adopted their nom de plume when they began their collaboration in 1996. They first met in 1994 in Chicago when introduced through friends. After resettling in Miami, they reconnected and clicked, becoming partners in life and art. An inseparable force, yet easy to tell apart: Guerra is the good looking, charming talented, talkative one. De la Paz is the good looking, charming talented, quieter one. Both are very intense when it comes to their art.
The duo’s name, Spanish for War of the Peace, is appropriate given the many moods and messages their works evoke. And given the current state of world affairs, it's become even more fitting. By recycling castoffs rescued from rag trade dealers and thrift shops, the Cuban-born, U.S.-raised Guerra de la Paz speak to our consumer society's lust for, well…everything. Their work speaks to environmental concerns and economic realities.
"We throw away perfectly good things that people in other countries can't afford," Guerra says. "We're taking refuse and it’s ultimately becoming nature once again."
MEN IN UNIFORM
Their visions have found their way into multiple tableaux, from a fantastical room-sized forest made of twisted and torn fabric to soldiers in discarded camo gear, some of the troops in poses inspired by classical Greek sculpture. Some have missing limbs. All are faceless.
The military installations are the most striking and, perhaps, controversial. The first of the series, from 2004, was The Vigilante, a tall, lone, ominous figure with arms as long as the artists’ imaginations. Other installations followed, modeled on sources both personal and art historical. The duo's Pieta is based on Michelangelo's original of the same name, but shows a soldier comforting a dying comrade instead of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus. Ring Around the Rosey has a small circle of troops clasping hands in a reenactment of the traditional childhood rhyme.
Guerra and de la Paz have been called un-American. Detractors have labeled the pieces as statements against the Iraq War. But the works neither pinpoint a specific country nor single out a particular war. Rather, the installations serve as a mirror to our collective history, a response to a long timeline of unrest and chaos, crafted out of salvaged fashion camo once earmarked for retail stores, hunting gear and actual military uniforms from around the world - Africa, the U.S., France, Germany. The tees and pants worn by suburban teens, with flak jackets that bear stitched name tags and bullet casings in the pockets, are compelling.
"It's a look at war through the ages," Guerra says. "It's not just Iraq. It's North Korea, Africa, South America. It's the rise of the military on a global scale."
Darkness and light. Light and darkness. It's a never ending cycle of war and peace, says Lynn del Sol, Guerra de la Paz's agent, and proprietor of the Creative Thriftshop gallery in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the artists’ regularly show.
"You can't separate the two," she said. "You can't separate hope from misery. What's good if you don't know what’s bad?"
It began with a hooker.
As struggling artists, Guerra and de la Paz landed in Little Haiti with limited resources. They found their current quarters by driving around Miami at random. "It's like we were guided here," says de la Paz. "It was run down. There were hookers, crack, voodoo, chickens, roosters, homeless people. It felt like home."
The rag trade dealers in the area had piles of clothing, much of it for export to Haiti. That merchandise soon became the two artists’ palette, the women of the streets their muses. "We noticed they were dressed to the nines," Guerra said. "We began asking where they got their clothing."
An introduction to one of the rag tradesmen through a lady of the evening led Guerra de la Paz to an arrangement: They would pluck items from those targeted for the trash. What they found was a treasure trove of fur coats, evening gowns, sweaters and wool scarves - apparel that would be of no use in the tropics.
"They were cool about it," Guerra says. "We were saving them cash. By taking the items, they were saving garbage hauling fees."
The district's been ripe with other finds too. Weathered billboards and torn posters made their way into Guerra de la Paz's early collages, which still decorate the walls of their studio. But it's the garments that have taken root and blossomed into glorious forms that have earned the couple international acclaim.
Guerra and de la Paz initially documented the clothes, in a photo series called "Barbed." The pictures depict the clothing strewn and discarded, tossed onto the barbed wire fences of the neighborhood. Their vision expanded into sculpture, first with a 2002 public installation, Overflow, in which piles of clothing toppled from the roof and hung down over the marquee at the African Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City.
They were just getting started.
Little Haiti has changed since Guerra and de la Paz settled there. The rag trade dealers are gone. The area is undergoing a resurgence. There's a Starbucks nearby.
"Caffeine has replaced crack," says de la Paz.
The revitalization has made it more complicated to find materials. The pair now gather garments--along with anything else that's necessary, like dishware and cooking utensils--from thrift shops, from friends’ donations and in their travels. The world has become one giant dumpster.
Their installations have won international attention, with shows from Illinois to Istanbul. "Blogging has made us known," says Guerra. "I thank the Internet every day."
Their latest work, Green Zone, might boost them even further into the art world stratosphere says del Sol, who has represented Guerra de la Paz since 2005. "They're breaking through," she says. "They are amazing. I've see a lot of art. I've lived and worked in New York City all my life. It takes one second to look at something and it hits you that hard."
The piece--titled by del Sol to reflect the mirage of being removed from harm's way--debuted this winter in New York and is being considered for exhibit by several museums.
Visitors walk into the installation and are greeted by a bright space with trees and an endless loop of recorded breathing. Turn a corner, the lights get dimmer. A red glowing light illuminates a stark white room with a lone camo-clad figure in a crucifix pose. It's beautiful and unsettling. Much like walking through many city neighborhoods, where turning the corner can lead from bling to blight.
"It's not about the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, or whatever war we're in at this point," del Sol says. "It's the idea that you can carve out safety zones. It's not to say whether war is right or wrong. It can refer to anyplace."
The planned, gated communities of South Florida. The condo boards of New York. "The idea is growing all over the world, to make safe zones," says del Sol. "It's very scary. That we're only going to take care of road A to road B. Everything outside is not our concern."
Guerra de la Paz continue to create and show in South Florida. At the recent Art Basel Miami Beach, one of their pieces was purchased by Charles Saatchi. At the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, where they had a solo show in 2004, they will participate in the group show "Child's Play," from June 7 to July 30.
"Their work is fascinating," says Joy Satterlee, the Hollywood facility’s executive director. “Their last exhibit was exciting, colorful and captivating. It's amazing the kind of art they can create from recycled pieces."
Guerra and de la Paz continue to evolve and travel. Their latest installations are reinterpretations of ancient mythology, much of it shaped by their show last year in Istanbul. "We did the tourist thing and fell in love with the Hellenistic sculptures," says de la Paz. Among other new pieces are a tree of found clothing inspired by Apollo and Daphne and a trio of soldiers that are an updated version of The Three Graces.
Many of the works are scheduled to be shown this fall in Berlin, Paris and London. The pair will also be participating in an artist residency program this summer, in the mountains of Spain.
Little Haiti remains the pair’s creative home, where they soak up the vibrant culture. In the back of their warehouse, beyond the small outdoor garden patio where they sit and reflect, the air is filled with the sounds of laughter and domino games from the backyards of small homes.
"We love it here," Guerra says.
For how long, who knows? They intend to stay for as long as the rents allow, but revitalization has a way of pushing out creatives. "We do expect it to happen," says de la Paz. "When it's time to move on, it's time. It's part of the cycle. When we see designer baby strollers on the sidewalks, we know we've overstayed our welcome."