A Crying Shame

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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."

Izydorek met Arias at the Bruk Gallery a few months ago. The artist immediately knew she wanted to exhibit at LaLush. Last Saturday was her first and last opportunity. "Nina, on her own, follows through," Izydorek adds. "If you call her, she responds. That sounds minimal, but when you're trying to establish yourself, it's essential."

Izydorek hopes her one-night stand this past Saturday at LaLush will generate exposure similar to that enjoyed by Lori Llamas. Llamas's pieces, particularly her manipulation of raw rabbit meat, have been hits with both lowbrow and highbrow art aficionados. She has exhibited twice at LaLush and recently sold three pricey works to notable art dealers in Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Llamas moved back to her hometown of Fort Lauderdale from Boston a little more than a year ago. Schooled in Chicago, she says there's no comparison between Fort Lauderdale's art scene and her former haunt. "Artists are leaving, dropping like flies around here," she says. "It's disconcerting. There aren't enough people to support it here. It's like people in Fort Lauderdale would rather spend their money on a bigger television."

Llamas says she "won't even go down to Las Olas," a strip where several businesses operate as galleries. "But they aren't galleries; they're shops," Llamas says. "And that's OK if you want to buy a soft watercolor of the beach. I don't bother going to the [Las Olas] Art Fair. I'd rather stay at home and work on my own pieces."

The current state of art in Fort Lauderdale is "a shame," Llamas laments. The artist regrets constantly having to depend upon the contemporary art scene in Miami to sell and exhibit. The Magic City has been enjoying a renaissance of modern art during the past two years, prompting the area's collectors, gallery owners, and dealers to go so far as to declare a "movement" underway. Leading the city away from kitschy mall-driven art of the past decade are innovative Lab 6 and the House, heralded for displaying Tate Gallery-level installations on meager budgets. A bevy of other show spaces has also popped up in the Wynwood neighborhood and the Design District, attracting local hipsters and collectors with deep pockets.

In North Miami, the Museum of Contemporary Art is anchoring a new collection of small sidewalk galleries. The neighborhood has been renamed NoBe, betting that the trendy nickname will boost its comeuppance quota.

Nationally renowned collector and MoCA board member Maggie Hernandez has purchased art by young and emerging modern artists for 20 years. The money manager with an MBA in finance and a master's degree in art history frequently bought from Arias and LaLush. "Nina has a vision, a special eye, and incredible energy," Hernandez says. "She was very professional in the way she got sponsors to help with mailing lists and posters. Galleries in Fort Lauderdale are conservative, more interested in commercial decorative art. There doesn't seem to be a vested interest in art there or a cultural identity."

Hernandez concedes that Arias should have complied with the law and applied for the appropriate licenses. "But given that she was helping to create all this dynamic enthusiasm, sometimes politics and the law should be adjusted to allow that to continue," the collector says. "I've been to the shows; she's right by the railroad tracks. It's not like she's making noise or disturbing anyone."

Lifetime art collector Nick Cindrick is also a LaLush fan. "This is a great experimental space where you can see music, emerging artists, and meet with people that have a broad base of interests," he says. "Nina brought something fresh that Fort Lauderdale needed."

An art dealer for 19 years, Cindrick moved to Fort Lauderdale eight years ago from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he worked for one of the city's oldest contemporary art galleries. In exchange for his desire to live by the ocean, he gave up living in "an artistically sophisticated city," he says. Cindrick believes LaLush could have been the beginning of a grassroots infrastructure that would have attracted more galleries, collectors, and artists to the city. Its failure has sad implications.

"There's really no polite way to say this: Fort Lauderdale -- and Boca maybe more than Fort Lauderdale -- have more commercial aspects to what they're showing," he says. "The people in Santa Fe read more, were more learned, and [were] better-traveled. That's what made Nina's space so great: She filled a void. It's hard to see that end and avoid feeling like there aren't deeper repercussions."

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