The Sorcerer's Apprentice, an installation at the Miami Art Museum by Alexis Smith in collaboration with Amy Gerstler, is a meditation on the humble broom and its appearance in folklore and culture, especially as a symbol of servitude and witchcraft. Broom similes abound, so I'm allowed to say that this sweeping treatment of the subject brushes lightly on the surface without ever really taking off. The broom is proven to be a broad metaphor but not a particularly deep one.
Both Smith and Gerstler are figures of some renown; Smith has been widely exhibited at major venues, including the Whitney Museum (which seems to be an entrance requirement for the New Work space at MAM), and Gerstler has eleven books to her credit. At any rate, there is no doubt in Gerstler's mind about Smith's import:
Alexis Smith is necessary; her work, essential, she coos in a monograph on the artist.
Luckily for us, she sprang into existence somehow. If she hadn't, we would have had to invent her.
This allegedly essential installation consists of images and text applied to the walls, and some free-standing objects meant to interact with them. Prominently featured is Smith's broom collection, nearly seventy of them leaned up on the far wall. A complete list of incorporated objects would be impossible to describe here, but would include a roofless doghouse, a framed Target ad, and a set of antique monogrammed books.
Smith has to be credited with great professionalism, although one can almost smell the sun-warmed smog of Los Angeles clinging to her aesthetic. A Big Bad Wolf is rendered large-scale as if by an expert sign painter. The image at the entrance, Prince Charming dancing with a Cinderella whose face has been obscured by a broom, is one of the moments in the piece where collage has been elegantly employed to produce an emotionally complex image. But
Sorcerer's Apprentice suffers from too much actual and logical distance between its elements.
The installation begins with a quote from Goethe:
The hand that has the week-day broom to ply/On Sunday gives the pleasantest caresses. Here are two juxtaposed ideas which fire the imagination, setting a narrative in motion in the mind. Gerstler does the opposite, stacking images willy-nilly to produce a dull effect.
Oh, Broom, she sings with one comma too many,
with your long, spindly arm that collars us slobs, you're the shifty janitor's right hand, a witch's steed, the neglected housewife's foxtrot partner, a scarecrow's backbone, the hyperactive first-grader's unbloodied sword. Oh, Broom. Oh, brother. While nobody's writing is going to look good on the wall next to Goethe's, he is not meeting his match here.
In the end, Gerstler's problem is similar to Smith's. The latter's smaller constructions wreak interesting havoc with American pop culture, occasionally recalling the nostalgic wit of Joseph Cornell and the satirical hijinks of Richard Hamilton. On a small scale, she can actually collage objects to evoke wider meanings. But here in this large installation, the objects are too separate to form any kind of synergy, and the result is a piecemeal presentation of broom metaphors. Smith's stronger work derives largely from its density. Expanded to fill this large container, like a gas, this density is sacrificed.
Likewise, Gerstler is capable of some effective free verse; two examples are on the wall here, a poem about a witch's potion, and another about a Cinderella type and her sisters' efforts to do her in. Their strength lies in their containment of narrative and length. But the rest of her snippets of text peppering the walls come off as glib and extraneous; again, they form a tedious parade of broom- and sweeping-similes.
Ironically, it was only a few weeks ago that the art critic for the Village Voice, during a talk at the Museum for Contemporary Art, issued a plea for an end to an overused device - the room full of identical objects. As if on cue, here is a row of seventy brooms. And no text-heavy installation would be complete without a naughty bit:
This message written in semen and ash - can we just reply in ink? asks a disembodied line. Yes, I'd say, preferably red, warning to try to be more interesting in the future.
Alexis Smith - The Sorcerer's Apprentice is on display at the Miami Art Museum, 101 West Flagler Street, Miami, through July 9th. Call (305) 375-3000 for more information.