Writing Archive

Miami's Artistic Childhood

Accent Miami, Issue 1, 2001

A few months ago an interesting object formed in our driveway. Our neighbors have a Miami Herald subscription, issues of which are tossed daily into the duplex yard. Often they stay there a while. One Sunday morning, a bulky Herald came to rest in the driveway, bagged and untouched. The rest of the week it lay there, enduring the repeated crushing of their pickup truck as it rolled in and out. Then it rained for four days straight.

In two weeks, it had become an intriguing pile of greyish-blue pulp, bursting from its plastic skin, sloping gently out of the asphalt with which it had merged. I couldn't help but contemplate its transformation from information to brute matter, from signal to noise. When my girlfriend and I came upon it, an identical thought flashed through our minds: Alert Locust Projects!

This is shorthand for an ongoing joke with us which needs to be explained since this essay is not going to be about Locust. The full version goes like this: we've found something that, with a little reflection and a lot of stretching, can be impregnated with symbolism, implications, and meaning. Thus it is as good as or better than many of the things we see in our contemporary art spaces. The thing to do, then, is bring it to the attention of Locust Projects, who may be interested in exhibiting it. Then maybe we can sell it for a thousand dollars.

This is not an indictment of Locust. Locust Projects is run on a lot of heart and sweat and not a lot of cash. The people responsible for it are intelligent, astute, and willing to work for something they believe in despite the fact that glory is going to be tough to come by. Ten more groups doing what they're doing - running exhibition venues based on taste instead of sales - would revolutionize Miami's art world in a month. (In fact, we used to say to each other, Alert the Whitney! But then we saw the Andrew Wyeth show there and we had to change it.)

It may however speak ill of a style of art we've been seeing a lot of lately here in Miami. Riffing metaphorically on an object, like our melting newspaper, is a semiotic exercise which has largely taken the place of self-criticism in this style. The method is this: using a combination of sources as inspiration, the artist produces an object or environment, and leaves the interpretation to the viewer.

Here's a sampling of exegeses from installments of "New Work Miami" at the Miami Art Museum and "Making Art in Miami: Travels in Hyperreality" at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Robert Chambers, on his own work: "I see the materials and throw them together. I'm looking for responses from the audience to fill in the blanks." MAM, on Consuelo Castañeda: "Her images are crisp and dramatic, yet consummately ambiguous. Their themes often spring from advertising, reference books, or aspects of the urban landscape..." MoCA, on Bert Rodriguez: "After their initial uneasiness with these unfamiliar objects, viewers can relax and just accept that their personal reactions and experience are the sole meaning of this encounter."

It's clear from the above that we're not supposed to have a big aesthetic response to work in this style. As far as I can tell, we're just supposed to think that it's clever. If the object can make us think of some larger issues, it is said to have succeeded. But since even a melting newspaper can do that, hardly anything can fail. And because hardly anything can fail, the work is often boring. There's no triumph because the game is too easy.

The viewer is being asked to do something here that he doesn't do in the face of any other creative endeavor - switch off evaluation. His CD collection represents music that swings for him, his favorite resturants make food he likes, he sees movies he hopes will move and entertain him. But at MAM he's supposed to go gaga over Consuelo Castañeda's use of reference books for the simple reason that she used them.

Non-evaluation has been taken a step further in regards to "The House at MoCA" and "The Sears Building" at The House itself. These shows feature the work of a group of young artists who live in or associate with a residence/alternative space off Biscayne Boulevard. Alfredo Triff at the New Times put it thusly: "...they also have other valid priorities: to react to their world, to hang out, to say something, to provoke (sometimes negatively), even to do shitty art on purpose. Plain and simple, art can be successful outside the measurements of originality and beauty - all depending on the context." In other words, we should enjoy their enthusiasm, never mind how the work came out. That is how we look at the art of little children, not grown-ups. I don't think that's the context in which the artists want to be placed.

With evaluation switched on, the semiotic games and juvenile esprit drop into the background where they belong, and the shows listed above can be seen to follow the old 80/20 rule: 20 percent of the artists are throwing around 80 percent of the artistic weight, and vice versa. What was true of the circle of Rembrandt is true today: some people got it, some people don't.

In the former group is Bhakti Mar Baxter of The House, who seems to be the strongest of the young talent. Nothing he did for "The House at MoCA" is as striking as the grid of twine and dry plants he crafted for the "Not a Commodity" show at 800 Lincoln Road Gallery, but he still looks better than just about anyone else there. His Light Made Visible is a mandala of monofilament held by nails which, despite its simplicity, evokes rose windows. For the same show, Frank Wick constructed an elegantly tailored blazer out of Band-Aids which I thought about for days. Natalia Benedetti, also at "The House at MoCA," acheived a moment of brilliance with The Impeccable Murder. As a DVD projection shows an extreme close-up of a tabby fussing over himself, headphones play a deadpan conversation between two people about how a recent murder they committed thrilled them. In this work feline nature was captured perfectly and hilariously.

Back at MAM, Adler Guerrier's after/for/with (mingus, ellington, mjq) sets up a DVD slide show with C-prints and piped-in tracks from the musicians in the title (mjq is Modern Jazz Quartet). This thoughtful installation shows us scenes from an occupied apartment in downtown Miami. We never get a good look at the couple depicted; we see their hands, their furniture, their records, and a warm nostalgic light over everything. Without any solid narrarative, a feeling of romantic tension is conveyed.

As for the latter group, oy. It's hard to watch Aja Albertson go down in flames with her artless wall-mounted one-liners at MoCA. It's even harder to watch Consuelo Castañeda assemble enough material to make an epic statement and fail to do so. Some kind of directive thrust was needed - formal, conceptual, or material - to make her Cybernetic Information Center at MAM cohere.

Here's a semiotic take on these shows as a whole: Guerrier and many of the artists associated with The House are in their 20's. Bonnie Clearwater remarks on "The House at Moca" that they make "distinctively 'un-anxious' objects." For Making Art in Miami she said that "most of the artists in this exhibition do not conceive their work as an expression of their inner self." Robert Chambers is lauded for his comic wit by MAM. Interpretations are largely being left to viewers. Youth, lightness, lack of reflection, fun, avoidance of responsibility: these are the signs of childhood which characterize Miami's art world. And why not? Despite the longtime presence of artists, the international interest and influx of energy are newly arrived. Childhood is fine, as long as one isn't stuck there for good.

Word count: 1339

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