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Story, Article: Elisa Turner 2

Jerome Soimaud: Breaking Tradition for Miami’s B Side

Article by Elisa Turner

“At first I didn’t like the city at all,” confesses Jerome Soimaud, smiling a bit in his faintly French-accented English. “But now I am hooked to Miami. Because Miami can surprise you. You can live in Miami for ten, twenty years and still be surprised by Miami.”
As he speaks, Miami streets bask in the thin winter sunlight of February. It is sweater weather in the subtropics. The morning air possesses a crystal-clear clarity: gone is the distorting, humid haze of the city’s extended summer and fall. The crystalline clarity in the air outside Yeelen Art Gallery, exhibiting Soimaud’s works of charcoal and pencil on canvas in the series “Miami B Side,” matches the exquisitely textured clarity illuminating these elegant vignettes of less-than-glamorous streets in downtown Miami, a city famously known for its fashion, fluff, and flesh.
Soimaud captures the flip side of Miami, the B side that’s old news to inner city residents, but not even breaking news to the jet-setting art world descending on Wynwood art district during Art Basel Miami Beach come December. Wynwood, where Yeelen Art Gallery is located, is blocks from neighborhoods like Little Haiti and Liberty City recreated in artworks by Soimaud. He’s embarked on a year-long project to make art about these neighborhoods and others in Miami invigorated by the African Diaspora. “Around Jenin’s” is his inventive, vibrantly colored series of photographs about life in Little Haiti, exploring facets of the community as it clusters around the corner store Jenin’s.

Jerome Soimaud, Liberty City. Charcoal and Graphite on Canvas. Courtesy the Artist.

In these photographs, there are dramatic colors and narratives which are suggested with exquisite subtlety in the charcoal and pencil series on canvas, “Miami B Side.” Employing respect for this upstart city forever reinventing itself, Soimaud depicts parts of Miami desperately deserving of documentation. With loving attention to carefully-crafted details, he recreates in “Miami B Side” the hand-painted signage on businesses and churches on streets bereft of steady commerce. “Liberty City” shows a man riding his bicycle past St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church. Here, Soimaud sighs, “you don’t receive so much help, maybe the only cultural relief you receive is the help of God.” But don’t call his art photorealism. It goes far beyond photojournalism.

Jerome Soimaud, Opa Locka. Charcoal and Graphite on Canvas. Courtesy the Artist.

Call it urban realism: art made for the Obama era, art that values humble people. With a rare gift for evoking the soul of street life at the fringe of fabulous wealth, his art documents the grit and groan of tough neighborhoods. Gently recalling vintage black and white photographs while skillfully using charcoal and pencil, Soimaud records the recent history of a place constructed on shifting sands, where things aren’t what they seem. His portrait of the Vagabond Hotel in “Upper East Side” anticipates its demolition, by depicting broken light bulbs on the metal garland of stars aimed to lure nomadic travelers to Miami.

Soimaud’s art can recall the solitude and play of light on details animating scenes of Depression-era city life in paintings by Edward Hopper. The time seems ripe for revisiting Hopper’s soulful vision of the city stripped of gaudy pretense. In “Edward
Hopper & Company,” a show this spring at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, paintings and sketches by Hopper are grouped with work by notable photographers, including Walker Evans, known for his black and white photos recording signage in the 1930s rural
South. Now that we can’t escape dire economic news of the 21st Century or comparisons to the Great Depression, art that hews to what is true and finds surprising subjects right before our eyes certainly packs a powerful punch.
So it is with surprising art by Soimaud.

March 2009
Copyright Elisa Turner
Art Critic & Writer for the Miami Herald, ARTnews and other publications.