Miami Vice Meets Scarface: Luis Gispert Recalls a Childhood in 1980s Miami

Luis Gispert’s past subjects leave little question where the Cuban-American artist spent his earliest years: Miami. The artist’s multifarious projects have included “hip-hop Baroque” portraits of Latina cheerleaders wearing gold chains and acrylic nails; a Miami Escalade emblazoned in knock-off Louis Vuitton print; a film about an 11-year-old boy in a nightmarish 1980s Miami dreamscape; and a Minimalist sculpture using parts from a chrome-dipped Dodge sedan. “There was no discernible difference to what I saw outside our window and my favorite TV show, Miami Vice, or Brian De Palma’s Scarface,” Gispert says, whose photographs of street culture, subculture, and bling culture are not without nod to his beloved—for better or worse—childhood city. Years later, after his Yale graduation and near-immediate debut at the 2002 Whitney Biennial (where he stole the show), Brooklyn-based Gispert describes scenes from his backyard in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. His memories are as uncensored and visceral as his cinematic, hyper-real works that fill blue-chip galleries like Rhona Hoffman and Mary Boone and are soon to draw crowds at Art Basel in Miami Beach.

Artsy: What is your best memory of 1980s Miami? Can you describe this era of the city—and your childhood?

Luis Gispert: Growing up in Miami during the ’80s of absurdity and violence had a profound influence on my creative psyche as a child. Everyday I would encounter the uncanny. Reality would eclipse the fiction I experienced reading comic books or watching TV and movies.

My family moved to Miami in the early ’80s from Washington Heights, New York. I was ten years old. We settled in “Little Havana” which at the time was ground zero for the cocaine crime wave that enveloped the city. There was no discernible difference to what I saw outside our window and my favorite TV show, Miami Vice, or Brian De Palma’s [film] Scarface.

Behind our house, separated by a thin wood stockade fence, was an all-male, single room occupancy house. The room directly adjacent to my bedroom was an illegal gambling den run by a guy with two prosthetic legs. At night, with the lights off, I’d perch on my windowsill to catch a glimpse over our fence and through their window. The legless man would always sit with his back to the wall, facing the doorway, dealing cards and counting money. One evening in 1983, shortly after Christmas, I was intently mastering my new Atari 2600—thumbs sore from hours of blasting invaders from space—when a thunderous explosion rattled the jalousie and broke my concentration. I jumped to my perch, peered over the fence and saw the gambling room empty. Two prosthetic legs stuck up in the air. The Miami Police arrived a couple minutes later.

Artsy: How would you describe your Miami now? Is your favorite childhood haunt still in business? And when you travel to Miami today, where do you stay, where do you eat, and what place would a visitor be crazy to miss?

LG: Miami now has nothing to do with the Miami of my childhood. Either because of hurricanes or unrestricted development, Miami is a city that gets reset every decade or so. Most of my childhood and teenage haunts are gone. I could write a book of all the dirty cool teenage haunts and dives on the beach that are now frilly art world spots. Days when Versace walked to the corner to get his paper every morning.

The best food in town is still at my grandmother’s and mother’s house. Epic black bean soups!

But if one craves authentic Cuban cuisine don’t go to the extraordinarily average La Carreta or Café Versailles. The real deal can be had at Islas Canarias, same location since 1977, 13695 S.W. 26th Street. No pomp, just authentic, good food.

Artsy: What are you showing at Art Basel in Miami Beach this year? Can you describe the work and give a bit of background behind the themes you’ve explored?

LG: I’m exhibiting a suite of new work at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery’s booth for the Kabinett section of the fair. It will include a bronze sculpture, photography, and video. These new works further expand themes I’ve been wrestling with for some time: the intersections of class anxiety, politics of aesthetics, biography, and Latin American modernism.

Artsy: What shows are on your must-see list for Art Basel Miami Beach Week?

LG: I’m looking forward to Jacolby Satterwhite’s performance at Art Untitled.

Luis’s work is on view at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Art Basel in Miami Beach 2013, Kabinett, Booth B14, Dec. 5th – 8th.

Explore Art Basel in Miami Beach on Artsy and Artsy’s Editorial Highlights from the Miami Art Fairs.