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Nam June Paik
Burn Calories Not Octane
in "Imagine"
at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami

Abbot Fuller Graves
Gathering Lilies
in "An American Celebration"
at the Norton Museum of Art

David Levinthal
at Daniel Azoulay Gallery

Dominique Figarella
Les Meditations
at Daniel Azoulay Gallery

Sandra Ramos
Self-recognition of a Fish
at Casas Riegner Gallery

Sandra Ramos
Why does rain look like a flood of tears?
at Casas Riegner

Hans Hofmann
Untitled (male figure)
ca. 1935
at Galerie d'Arts Decoratifs
Letter from Miami
by Nicole Davis

Miami in the summer isn't exactly art central. Anyone with money is out of town, visitors are few and the locals just fry in the sun. At the museums, life goes on -- though in this year of budget shortfalls the curators all seem to have taken refuge in their permanent collections.

The exhibition titles have a certain spin, at least. At the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, the show is "Imagine: Selections from the Permanent Collection." Both the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach and the Miami Art Museum downtown have gone with a patriotic theme. The offering at the Norton is "An American Celebration: Recent Gifts to the Permanent Collection," while MAM goes with "American Tableaux: Many Voices, Many Stories." Although good, the shows seem a little lackluster in the dying afterglow of the Fourth of July.

Meanwhile, the heat drones on, and in our melting minds the last thing we wanted to think about was art. Several galleries in Miami's Design District did their best, however, coaxing visitors to take the plunge with exhibitions titled to evoke the cool oasis image of water.

At Daniel Azoulay, the summer show was titled "Sharks in the Morning" and featured works by 25 gallery artists, as well as a few others. The theme was light-heartedly nonsensical ("intoxicating and profound pieces that will fill your morning appetite"), and the entire show seems to have been dipped in lacquer, since most of the photographs were printed on or mounted beneath thick plastic, or some such substance.

Still, the works did generate energy together. David Levinthal's celebrated photos of Barbie dolls and cowboy toys intermingled with narrative images by Monica Lopez de Victoria of teenagers who seem to be drowning. A photograph by Chieko Tanemura titled Caroline, Catilina and Miguel depicts three students huddled in front of a chalkboard, while a small canvas by Dominique Figarella is covered in sinewlike threads of pink bubble gum.

The show's most stoic and poetic images were made by Azoulay himself. His five black-and-white photographs capture a traveler's life -- an airplane interior, a view of Hong Kong through a hotel lobby window, a typical European square in Spain. Azoulay also exhibited two large lambda prints of insect larva, close-up and done in varying shades of electric orange. Shall we make a connection between the artistic impulse and the larval stage? Acts of creation, say?

At Casas Riegner we swam with "Heritage of a Fish," a solo show by Sandra Ramos, a Cuban artist who lives and works in Havana. The gallery was flooded with images of water. A life-sized self-portrait in cardboard includes five real aquariums (on the artist's head, hands and feet), while the center of the gallery is filled with large, tear-shaped glass vases, filled halfway with water and suspended by clear threads from the ceiling. The installation is titled Why does rain look so much like a flood of tears? Ramos' works are visually intriguing and beautiful, with a narrative dimension that adds emotional weight.

Like many Cubans, contemporary artists among them, Ramos repeatedly addresses the question of whether to leave or stay home. The title of the show comes from a Spanish poem by Gaston Baquero, a poem that is narrated by a fish that professes its regret for leaving home. A work titled Air Mail consists of eight light boxes hung at eye level, each with a background of illuminated clouds and a single image -- a $50 bill, a ring, a house, a ship -- drawn directly onto the surface. Are these the hopes of immigrants, floating in the clouds, or just lost illusions?

If we are the fish then the Galerie d'Arts Decoratifs is dangling an exotic bait in a famine-stricken sea. Ten ink-on-paper works by Hans Hofmann are on view at the gallery, a small space specializing in Art Deco-era art, furniture and collectibles, which is located off Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. The Hofmann sketches date from 1930-40, when the artist lived and taught in Provincetown, Mass. His subjects range from landscapes to nudes, like a two-way conversation between intimate friends.

Done in a loose and confident hand, the sketches generate a high level of intrigue -- unlike Hofmann's paintings, these were left unmapped and esoteric, little pieces of Hofmann's life found discarded and floating. The viewer is given no instructions and must determine the history of each work, or create his or her own version of a story.

Also interesting is discovering what fish these little treasures drew in. According to Regina Nuessle, owner of the gallery, seven of the ten pieces were sold (the price is $3,500 each). The works went to "a sweet couple from San Francisco," a famous fashion photographer who shall remain nameless, an important art dealer from New York, a Miami art collector and one Hans Hofmann addict from Los Angeles. Pas Mal!

All of the gallery shows ended in August. Miami is expected to resume its regular art tempo in the fall.

NICOLE DAVIS is a writer and filmmaker living in Miami.