Bas Fisher Invitational leaves a perfect parting imprint on downtown Miami with ‘Rip Current’

Arts / Article

Serge Toussaint painting during DWNTWN Art Days. Photo courtesy of Bas Fisher Invitational.

Bas Fisher Invitational winds down its time in Miami’s Downtown Art House, on a block soon to face the wrecking crews for new development, with an exhibit worthy of a standing ovation. “Rip Current” is a great fit for the current location and for the alternative philosophy behind the nonprofit gallery, which has significant support from Knight Foundation.

It’s a collaborative show between two artists who have worked with the concept of advertising and with literal signage, but in very different and striking ways. Born in Haiti and now based in Miami, Serge Toussaint is a self-taught mural artist whose work covers walls–and signs–all over Little Haiti. Michael Loveland is a former student and teacher from New World School of Arts whose pieces, inspired by poster art and billboard ad campaigns, are included in the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Perez Art Museum Miami.

The two have created their own “billboards” and collaged canvases; like rip currents that form channels of marine debris, they have funneled imagery and messages into these large-scale, colorful pieces. Hanging as they are in a developing neighborhood whose identity is rapidly changing, this reworked messaging seems like the perfect culminating exhibit.

Michael Loveland and Serge Toussaint. Photo courtesy of Bas Fisher Invitational.

For anyone familiar with Little Haiti, Toussaint’s murals need no introduction. He’s created those large images of Martin Luther King, Jr., President Obama and the Miami Heat on prominent street corners. But he’s also been commissioned to make smaller advertising signs, for those little barber shops and beauty salons that are the backbone of the distinctive ethnic enclave.

Loveland has used poster art (such as political signs from Occupy Wall Street, or posters of pin-up girls and music stars), along with more mundane visual directives (think nautical navigation buoys) as a base. Then he manipulates them into more abstract statements. It’s subtle, captivating and intelligent art.

Standing in the gallery, which has a huge roll-up gate that opens the space directly to the street, Loveland says he’s known Toussaint’s work for more than a decade and had always wanted to collaborate with him. “Serge,” he says, “is a modern pop artist.” Loveland describes Toussaint as a true and dedicated street artist in that he almost lives out of his car, which houses all his paints and brushes, ready to work at any given moment. Loveland says that aside from Toussaint’s commercial enterprises, he has also quietly made memorials of young black men killed in the area. Known as R.I.P. portraits, they are a far cry from the ad signage that is set out on the street.

“I just always wanted to do something with him,” he says of the artist who is referred to as King Serge.

A work by Serge Toussaint and Michael Loveland. Photo courtesy of Bas Fisher Invitational.

So over the summer, the two created pieces that reflect their similar interests, even if their backgrounds were disparate: Poster-like art with doses of social and political commentary, fascinating juxtapositions, and a playfulness as well. For instance, over the black-and-white print of a model’s face, there are images of religious iconography and Afro-Caribbean percussive instruments.

Another work is photo of cows on a farm, superimposed with a drawing of a tire surrounded by a ka-boom splash of yellow, like the loud signage outside of an auto and tire outlet. Sitting on top of the collage is a painted African mask. One piece continues with the brash yellow–the favorite color of cheap signage–that deliberately feels handmade. The black print on yellow reads “GIFT,” but the irregular writing of “500,000” in red overlaying the poster is a commentary on the hundreds of thousands of wasted dollars sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

A work by Serge Toussaint and Michael Loveland. Photo courtesy of Bas Fisher Invitational.

The most powerful piece references the plight of Haitians who are being driven out of the Dominican Republic, a policy now being roundly condemned. It’s a disturbing collage, with a base of a photo of a family holding hands and possibly taking a hike. But their faces have been covered in strange masks, and the scene dissolves into a resemblance of refugees fleeing towards a border–Haitians, Syrians?

“There are different levels of communication here,” says Loveland, “from corporate to street level.”

Serge Toussaint recreating Knight Foundation’s logo by hand. Photo courtesy of Bas Fisher Invitational.

When “Rip Current” opened during the event-packed DWNTWN Art Days earlier this month, Toussaint was on site, creating a mural for the show. Slowly, the scene on the wall emerged as a familiar one–a beautiful tropical sea encircled by distant mountains and palm trees, with migrants on a sinking boat. Toussaint, also a sign master, then turned to fastidiously recreating the logos of the funders who made this event happen, including the blue-and-white one of Knight Foundation.

Although Bas Fisher Invitational will be moving out of its current space, its mission continues. The gallery won a Knight Arts Challenge South Florida grant in 2011 to support its Weird Miami bus tours, and another in 2014 to take Weird Miami tours and exhibits to cities across the country. On Sunday, Sept. 27, Toussaint and Loveland will lead the first Weird Miami bus tour of the season. It will travel through Little Haiti, which really is Toussaint’s outdoor studio; up to Loveland’s indoor studio at the north end in Little River; and stop off at botanicas, hair salons and, indeed, auto-part stores along the way.  

“Rip Current” runs through Oct. 31 at Bas Fisher Invitational. This month’s Weird Miami bus tour is on Sunday, Sept. 27  from 5-8 p.m. Tickets are $25 and available on Bas Fisher’s website.