Water, Water Everywhere

One numbing source of desperation for American artists is the fact that this past summer Congress passed legislation to cut federal arts funding. The casualties are starting to mount. A case in point is the Southern Arts Federation/National Endowment for the Arts Southern Regional Arts Fellowship Program; as of 1996, the grant program for Southern sculptors will be discontinued. An exhibition of work by this year's ten sculpture fellows is now on view at the South Florida Art Center's Ground Level gallery on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.

The exhibition at Ground Level has the feel of a garden. And the work of half of these artists does in fact resemble various types of gardens or natural elements. In the gallery's window, Eunice Kambara, from Tampa, has suspended rows of small Plexiglas panels (about the size of piano keys) from wires above a sandy floor. Each panel is inscribed with a letter; it takes some time to discern, but together they spell out "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." And in fact Kambara's piece, which she has called Round, has a musical sensibility; the viewer can imagine the tinkling of the glasslike panels, particularly at night when a spotlight reflects off them and lends the work the illusion of movement. It also exudes the meditative quality of an oriental garden.

That idea is taken more literally in Xuhong Shang's Garden to the Unknowing Pilgrim. Shang, from Savannah, has constructed a Buddhist garden with a wooden bridge and a pebble-covered floor below it. One area of stones is darker than the rest, suggesting a grave or the shadow of a spirit. But the work does not quite succeed; the bridgelike platform that viewers walk on to experience the pebble garden is clunky and does not provide the spiritual atmosphere that the artist apparently sought.

Nearby, Roxie Thomas creates a revisionist Garden of Eden. Her glass and metal sculptures, which rest on a carpet of rock salt, represent ancient women who the artist feels did not receive their due in the Bible. Her Eve is a glass and metal mesh swing; its two chambers are filled with white ceramic eggs, symbolizing the mother of all things. Her Jezebel is a giant glass spinning top lying on its side; inside it she has placed bones that resemble human ribs. Elsewhere the artist offers a box (titled Anonymous) lined with mirrors, designed to celebrate the unnamed women in biblical pages. The execution of these works is impeccable. Thomas, from Sarasota, subscribes to a formalist, modernist style, using traditional shapes and sleek lines.

Upstairs the work of Carol Jacque, the only Miami-based artist in the show, has more of an edge to it. Jacque, who previously worked with used crutches and bandages as media, continues to be interested in the language of everyday artifacts. In her untitled piece she places wooden folding chairs back to back on round platforms that look like gears; a white mailbox has been attached to the underside of each chair. The platforms look as though they should revolve, but when one attempts to move the sprockets, the gears stick fast and refuse to budge. Jacque has a fine sensibility for the placement and juxtaposition of her materials, and her installation offers an intriguing comment on relationships and communication A or the lack of it.

These and other sculptural works by artists from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina show little of the provocative bravura of the art (made by Mapplethorpe, Serrano, et al.) that has fueled the federal funding debate. One almost wishes these ten had used this opportunity to act out a bit more. Instead, they used their grant money to -- Sen. Jesse Helms's opinions to the contrary -- work hard to develop personal artistic visions. This is a dignified swan song that reminds us of the need for regional public support for artists living outside New York and other jaded urban art centers.

Written on Water. Through December 30. Gutierrez Fine Arts, 1628 Pennsylvania Ave, Miami Beach; 674-0418.

Southern Arts Federation/NEA Fellows in Sculpture Exhibition. Through December 30. Ground Level, 1035 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 674-8278.

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