Culture

The Painterly Brilliance of South Florida’s Foliage

Jose Felix Perez, “Dimming” (2018) (all images courtesy Swampspace and the artist)

MIAMI — The title of painter Jose Felix Perez’s show at Swampspace, The Magic Hour, is an aureate retelling of the photogenic “golden hour,” of which there are actually two: the hour after sunrise and the one before sunset, when the light is threaded like gold and casts the landscape as honeyed, hazy, and warm. It’s silly to romanticize the mundane; there’s nothing magic about a sunset, and the tilt of a planetary axis is no real enchantment. Still, most of us are entranced, if not lulled, by that momentarily painterly brilliance. Perez, who was born and raised in Miami, told me over email that he was forever “awestruck being at the beach — or anywhere outdoors — at that time of day.”

There’s a reason trips to Florida, won by beaming contestants on 1990s game shows like Wheel of Fortune, elicited bemused laughter and groans from those of who lived there. That proto-prize was nothing with which to guerdon a winner; their hotel stay and access to a privatized beach would merely act as veneer for what Michael Grunwald once referred to as “a weird but remarkable civilization … [built] in a weird and unsustainable way.” (The article from which this quote is taken is titled, ingeniously, “A Requiem for Florida, the Paradise That Should Never Have Been.”)

Come summertime, Florida, particularly South Florida, is a hot, sticky, barely habitable morass, a mosquito-dense, sunburnt skein of high-rises and dredged canals, of man’s attempts to quell something untamable and then dress it up (consider the irony of an “Art Basel threatened by zika”). From its palm tree-lined edges emerge body-hungry gators and killer hurricanes; less a part of the mythos but even more deeply entrenched are its realities, too — like, say, environmental racism and economic disparity in cities like Miami. For a paradise, living’s not easy, save for the very few and rich.

Jose Felix Perez, “Last Light (Shielded)” (2018)

But, truthfully, there’s a collective admission of its sheer aesthetic loveliness, by both inhabitants and — we think — tourists. The landscape is beautiful, especially on first glance — and then on your second, and third, and again and again. Florida is green-blue as a stone and just as precious; like ink in water, sunsets here appear perpetually in motion, multiple strata of red-pink clouds forming a kind of visible heaven. The 12 landscapes comprising The Magic Hour, which mostly depict sea grape trees, are limned with reverence, but there’s also the microscopic gaze — and indeed awe — of someone as curious as he is mystified. The gaze is set just below the length of the sea grapes’ crowns, sometimes closer, to imply mesmerized, myopic immersion in the climate of a single tree.

I was long familiar with Perez’s portraits, in which the graphic, bruised strokes of his subjects’ expressions render them sharp, more abstract than figurative. His landscapes, by dint of their close perspective, retain the same sort of abstraction. Perez, it’s said, draws from the Florida Highwaymen, the black painters illustrating the banyans and waterways of the state in distant postcard views. More accurately, he narrows their scope and zooms in, sometimes to a single veined leaf, as if one’s nose was pressed there. The foliage of a tropical landscape is dense enough to feel like a snug embrace. Perez, as it were, paints from inside the clasp.

Jose Felix Perez, “Gust” (2018)

“Sea grape trees, commonly found along the coast,” he told me, “… already have a sort of paint-daub aspect to them.” Their leaves, big as lily pads, layer each other, jellied together with a density that belies their slight, papery weight. Like a litmus test for the colors themselves, Perez’s shades suggest hues at their most saturated, the reds sanguine and rufous, the greens their own palette of bright lime and deep emerald. This Florida is ferocious and fecund, set ablaze not only by the sun but by the reflection of another, unseen subject: the water, affixed to the sea grape tree by the latter’s very name. The thing that draws visitors to Florida’s shores is the same thing that early white settlers — and later developers — tried to control through drainage, dredging, and building; it’s now the force that keeps everyone’s skin unseasonably wet, the foliage consistently growing, sea grape trees included. If The Magic Hour brings us into the fold, it casts its gaze outward, too, toward that ocean beyond the trees.

Jose Felix Perez: The Magic Hour continues at Swampspace (3940 N Miami Avenue, Miami) through June 22.


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