A Crying Shame

Nina Arias hoped her LaLush Gallery would be home for edgy art. Now she's homeless.

This is Nina Arias's party, and she'll cry if she wants to.The pixie-sized owner of LaLush Gallery is fluttering up and down a flight of stairs with a cordless telephone. She's laughing into the receiver, the chiffon of her vintage, teal cocktail dress swinging to catch up. It's hard to believe she can have a conversation right now. The ear-blistering sounds of local punks Trapped by Mormons are entertaining the hundreds of people milling around the bright, white showroom in the warehouse district of Fort Lauderdale's Croissant Park neighborhood. The crowd is, to say the least, diverse -- cardigans talking to nose rings talking to Bruno Maglis talking to a woman with electrical tape over her nipples spill out onto the gravel driveway, where a Ryder moving van is parked.

They've come to LaLush tonight to examine pressings made of raw meat and resin crafted by Lori Llamas, a local artist who has recently scored write-ups in major national art mags such as ARTnews and Juxtapoz, or to take in the Roy Lichtenstein-inspired cartoons filling half of one wall. Rounding out the spectacle is goth's answer to the Blue Man Group: three performance artists covered with body latex and piercings posing for a photo. Lithographs, paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media pieces infused with religious and sexual themes fill a back wall.

Arias sprints down the stairs. "Don't go anywhere," she says. "I think we have a performance everyone is going to love!"

Minutes later, a nude woman with a cartoonishly enormous pubic mound descends the stairs. A collective breath is held. The woman has a brown paper bag over her head, and her hands are bound behind her tiny waist with pink gauze. A woman dressed in masculine clothes assists the naked one, turning her around slowly, and then -- after the onlookers have had their gawk and processed it into artistic appreciation -- the bagged, buff chick proceeds to the corner, where she sits for most of the night, her hands still tied.

Just to reiterate: This didn't happen in New York City or Los Angeles. It happened last weekend in a city better-known for beer bongs than Basquiat.

Despite the praise that the small but close-knit community of Fort Lauderdale artists and art lovers has heaped upon Arias, LaLush closed its loft-style sliding doors for good at 1:30 a.m. Sunday. If Arias is going to weep for LaLush, it might be when that Ryder truck hauls her out of business this week. The shuttering of the city's sole venue for cutting-edge artists begs the question: Will Fort Lauderdale ever get beyond flamingos and fruit bowls?

"I'm gonna be upset next week, but tonight is a celebration," Arias says wistfully.

The gallery was pink-slipped by Fort Lauderdale authorities two weeks ago for lacking an occupational license. "I went to the city and became involved with the process of getting a license," she says. "But a person at the licensing department said that I'd have to pay $50 to have someone inspect the gallery to see if it's up to code, and even it were, I was told that I didn't have enough bathrooms or enough parking. I was told that I couldn't hold art shows no matter how many licenses I got."

Besides, the 26-year-old says, the very point of having an underground gallery is to avoid the bureaucratic hoops. A painter herself, Arias got the idea for a gallery when she heard that a friend was giving up his warehouse space. "It was a freak thing, a lucky chance," she says. "I wanted to create something for me and my friends. This was not a business for me."

Arias works full-time as director of Miami's popular contemporary house the Kevin Bruk Gallery. "I operated LaLush with the money I made from my day job," she comments. "It was a hobby, a labor of love."

Arias's hobby garnered more attention than she anticipated. The local art scene buzzed with the idea that there was a chance to exhibit. Hundreds attended her eight well-advertised shows. Alternative bands caught a break playing at them. Not surprisingly, Arias snagged a write-up in Juxtapoz. While LaLush created quite a stir in the art world, Arias didn't create enough noise to prompt complaints to the Fort Lauderdale Police Department.

Then city officials learned that Arias lacked proper permits for the operation.

To continue running the gallery legally, she would have had to move out; although the young gallery owner was living in the warehouse, the area is not zoned residential.

"I said, 'What do I have to do?' But it's just tainted... it's tainted now," Arias says. She is packing her bags and relocating to Miami. "I'm killing it while it's still good."

According to art-world mavens, no other contemporary art spaces are quite as good as LaLush. Arias has developed a reputation as a reliable, tenacious, and fair dealer. And the gallery, with its clean white walls and crisp lighting, was an anomaly in the world of "alternative" show spaces. "Traditionally in an alternative space, the light is not good, like you're in someone's living room," says Paula Izydorek, an artist who works in two-dimensional mixed media. "LaLush's walls are excellent, and you feel like you're showing at a space with clout and respectable clientele."

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