A Consensus of One

The Museum of Contemporary Art's (MoCA) new 23,000-square-foot space in North Miami is a triumph. Opinions may differ on architect Charles Gwathmey's multicolor building, a geometric study painted in earthy colors. But strictly as a physical space, MoCA offers what Miami's other major art venues lack.

For starters it's in an accessible and quiet area, removed from the grit of downtown Miami. Additionally, its palm-lined front plaza and courtyard, to be used for film screenings and performance art, are designed as community gathering places, providing the kind of hangout that has been conspicuously absent from the city's art scene. The museum's exhibition gallery -- an open warehouse-type space with cement floors, a high ceiling with exposed metal beams, and movable walls -- can be adapted to present various types of work, from painting and sculpture to multimedia installations. As Miami's only collecting museum dedicated to contemporary art, MoCA will be able to offer more innovative displays than spaces that feature a traditional design, such as the Center for the Fine Arts, or smaller venues like the Art Museum at Florida International University. MoCA opened to the public on Saturday, February 24, with much fanfare and palpable excitement. And yet the museum's inaugural dog-and-pony show of an exhibition doesn't measure up to all the attendant hoopla.

With the presumptuously titled Defining the Nineties: Consensus-making in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, MoCA curator Bonnie Clearwater professes to pinpoint the distinguishing characteristics of work created in this decade by artists under 40 years of age. But this poorly displayed, vacuous, and disappointing show accomplishes no such feat. "Defining the Nineties" is a shallow treatment of the mechanics of the art world -- in the right hands, a potentially fascinating subject -- that comes off as little more than a transparent ploy for courting potential donors to the museum.

Clearwater's exhibition focuses on the art collector, art dealer, and art critic as unquestionable arbiters of style (with the collector as the central figure). It is they who "make consensus." Simply put, they decide who's in and who's out. The curator explains this elementary art-world precept ad nauseum in her catalogue essay, an exercise in relentless name dropping. Within Clearwater's tunnel vision of art-as-commodity, the artwork itself becomes almost incidental, a fact that's borne out by the arrangement of works in this initial MoCA exhibition.

The curator has divided the main space with freestanding walls to create four separate exhibition areas and an adjoining corridor. Problems with "Defining the Nineties" begin as soon as a viewer enters the galleries, where he or she is greeted by three works by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, to whose memory the exhibition is dedicated. Here the artist's Untitled (Beginning), a beaded curtain that hangs from ceiling to floor, has been strung across a corner of the gallery with very little room behind it. This readymade (one in a series devised by Gonzalez-Torres), a Sixties-style room divider fashioned from white plastic beads and spangles, can take on a shimmering, majestic, and almost mystical quality when installed with some light and space around it; in such a manner, the viewer can experience the piece both by looking at it from a distance and by getting close and moving through the beads. But in its current constricted setting it fails to transcend its identity as a cheap beaded curtain. (Upon seeing the work during a press preview for the show, one journalist exclaimed, "Hey, it's Greg Brady's room!")

Another Gonzalez-Torres work, Untitled (Billboard), hangs opposite the curtain. A billboard-size photograph of a bird flying in the sky, it, too, suffers from tight quarters. The only way to view Billboard head-on is by standing between it and the curtain, or by positioning oneself behind the curtain and viewing Billboard through the beads. Either way there isn't enough space to see it as the artist intended A as a billboard. A real-life perspective on the image is lost, and so is the work's emotional effect. A similar difficulty plagues Gonzalez-Torres's third piece, Untitled (Ross in L.A.), a stack of posters, each printed with a gray square. The artist frequently created such stacks, the idea being for museumgoers to take one of the posters as they passed by the display. In the past such piles have usually been exhibited in the middle of the floor, where they exist as decreasing sculptural forms, simultaneously enticing people to approach and pick up a poster. When a visitor helps himself to one -- while visible to other people in the room -- that person effectively becomes part of the piece. However, at MoCA the stack has been shoved against a small side wall, where its form cannot be enjoyed, the people-watching element has been virtually eliminated, and the charm of the work has been lost.

Nearby, eight large drawings by Jose Bedia, his Ogun Series, hang in the corridor. While these commanding, figurative images inspired by Afro-Cuban lore can be studied up close, it is very difficult to view the entire series at once as an integral work. In this case -- and in other cases throughout the exhibition -- the piece's installation diminishes its impact, preventing it from having a life of its own.

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