MIAMI — Loriel Beltran and Alejandro Contreras both moved to Miami from Caracas, Venezuela when they were 15 years old. They met at the Design and Architecture Senior High School (DASH) in Miami, brought together as two of the five students in the ESOL class learning English as a second language.
Today they are best friends and enjoy successful careers as full-time artists. They have also created a creative infrastructure for themselves renting a warehouse with a group of artist in which they live and work. Although the aesthetics of their individual artwork remain fundamentally different, they do share strong similarities in their resourceful approach to materials. I sat down with them to uncover if their common background — being born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela and relocating to Miami — has impacted their approaches to making work.
When Loriel Beltran moved to Miami he was more into music than art (he played the drums) and at the time never thought he would be an artist. He had little exposure to art growing up in his hometown of Caracas — aside from one visit to a museum and his grandmother, who owned a magazine, and attended a lot of art events.
In Miami he began making art as a hobby but soon became integrated into the Miami art scene as a full time artist, with a number of solo exhibitions quickly following suit. When asked how he describes himself Beltran exclaims, “I say I’m from Venezuela but I live in Miami, I say it because I don’t know what else to say. Miami is still a strange concept as it is not yet cohesive and has too many Miami’s within it.”
He does however feel little formal connection to Venezuela and when he looks at artists he tends to rather look globally. For Beltran, much of the artwork being made in Venezuela appears politicized, an overshadowing theme of its art scene. “There are few artists I look at that are recognizably Venezuela — Javier Tellez is Venezuelan and makes pretty good video, but he is based on New York.”
Although he does not always feel an affinity with art practice from Venezuela, he does however feel a strong cultural connection with people from his birth country. “There are things about being from a different place that you carry with you and that you bring to your artwork” says Beltran.
The central subject in Beltran work is his interest in re-appropriating materials. He repurposes objects that have been “left behind,” describing his process as a natural system that uses what already existing. This natural system is different to an “art system” which he describes as “art as comfort, delegating production, making things weightless so they exist with no trace of being made.”
Beltran’s work actively draws attention to the labor and effort of making an object in order to instill a sense of responsibility of “making something,” be it social or environmental. By making an audience aware of an object being created, he is asking them to consider the consequence of making.
“In the Damaged works series I am not making images, the wood already has an image, I am recontextualizing the material through the burning process to invite people to look at this object in a new way.” Through process, Beltran is questioning what it means to make work.
Like Beltran, Alejandro Contreras was not engaged in the arts in Venezuela, but as a child made “stuff out of anything.” He moved to Miami when his father remarried and began attending the Design and Architecture Senior High school (DASH), which despite his long commute found its’ art-based classes fun and inspiring.
Interested in materials and how they function, Contreras started making work when he became curious about the effects of mixing of paints and combining materials. “I was not the guy who could draw a portrait and make it look like a portrait,” he explains.
Even though Contreras feels like a local in Miami, he recognizes that the lack of having access to tools growing up has developed in him an acute awareness of the usefulness of singular materials, how to stretch and use them in inventive ways. He feels this approach may have been different if he had grown up in Miami.
In his recent solo exhibition, HUE at Praxis gallery this year, Contreras created an abstract installation of vinyl and resin that was both colorful and illusionistic — like a scrambled, yet aesthetically more pleasing, advertising campaign. It is perhaps ironic then that Venezuela is a country with a reputed history in Geometric Abstraction.
Contreras acknowledges this may have been a latent influence and describes the art scene in the 1960’s in Venezuela as prolific prior to the impact of its political instability. Back then his hometown, Caracas, was considered the “newest town to Latin America” with a lot of wealth circulating within the oil industry. This liquid wealth gave birth to art collectors, the most renowned being the Cisneros family who also have a museum space, CIFO, in Miami.
Contreras hasn’t been back to Caracas in six years, instead choosing to travel abroad. “I’m Venezuelan but my art is me and I make art as me. If I go to Venezuela I am considered American and if I’m in America I’m classed as Venezuelan,” he says. “In this sense I could be anywhere, and I’m lucky to have a US passport. It’s like having a Collect $200 Dollars pass.”
Both Beltran and Contreras have recently returned from a long trip abroad that they both felt helped to concrete their ideas within a global perspective. Although processes differ, their shared interest in re-presenting materials has in common an inherent resourcefulness that they both acknowledge comes from growing up in a city like Caracas — an experience that insists on a first-hand connection with materials within ones active environment.
“The closest we have gotten to this same kind of resourcefulness in Miami is creating the warehouse space to live and work. Coming from the developing world, you find a way to do things unconventionally,” explains Beltran.
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