A Consensus of One

But within the context of "Defining the Nineties," none of these logistical problems matters as long as one can home in on the exhibition's real focal point -- the various works' wall labels. Here, along with the artist's name, work's title, date it was made, and name of the collector or dealer who owns the piece, are excerpts from reviews of the work or judgments rendered about the artist by an important critic. (In at least one case, however, Clearwater has written the text herself.) You thought you might try to evaluate the work on your own? Forget it. You're not part of the consensus.

The division between "consensus maker" and average Joe became obvious during MoCA's public opening. A group of visitors crowded together to read the label hanging over California artist Chris Finley's Double Click; the label includes a quote from Flash Art magazine: "It is the interactive quality of Finley's sculpture . . . that is its most distinguishing characteristic." After reading the card, visitors logically attempted to interact with the piece, putting their hands into a plastic bowl filled with toy dinosaurs, computer parts, and little rubber tubes. A MoCA docent stationed next to the work had to fend them off, barking "Do not touch!" and then body-blocking museumgoers until they removed their hands from the bowl.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the exhibition space, another museum volunteer engaged in some selective censorship regarding the work of model-turned-artist Matthew Barney. That docent, taking a group on a tour, shepherded her charges along, averting her eyes from a monitor that was showing a videotaped performance by Barney. In her rush, she effectively steered her group away from the video, in which a well-toned and naked Barney crouches and blows small white balls out of his butt.

Barney's and other artists' works included in the show -- short videos by Stan Douglas that mimic the structure of TV series and commercials, Nicole Eisenman's caricatures of master artworks, to cite two -- ironically comment on contemporary values, popular media culture, or the art world itself. These are interesting as separate statements to varying degrees. But this critical perspective is not consistent throughout the exhibition, which also includes abstract installations and more serious meditations on current affairs, such as Jose Antonio Hernandez-Diez's video projection of poverty-stricken Latin American children ascending to heaven. The juxtaposition is awkward, and "Defining the Nineties" comes off as a mere laundry list of what people are buying this year.

The title of the show suggests that the curator set out to examine the complex social, political, and economic influences on Nineties artists, museums, and collectors in New York, Miami, and L.A. But Clearwater explores these factors in only the most facile way. She notes in her catalogue essay, for instance, that a combination of the bust that followed the art market's Eighties boom, increased censorship, and the decline of public funding for the arts has had a marked influence on the kind of work now being made. She stresses that what has characterized art in the Nineties is the absence of any identifiable movement or defined styles, a thesis that conveniently serves to provide a rationale for the farrago of works in MoCA's exhibition.

Clearwater's ground rules for consensus on what defines an important Nineties artist are writ with caveats and contradictions. For example, it's logical that Miami-based Cuban artist Jose Bedia be included. He has been the subject of a major traveling museum show and many individual gallery exhibitions, and he's a favorite of a cross section of collectors in Miami, New York, and Latin America. But what is fellow Miami-Cuban Ruben Torres Llorca doing here? According to his resume, Torres Llorca has yet to have a solo show of any kind in the U.S., and even in Miami his work is not widely known. This show is supposedly about the consensus of collectors, critics, and curators, not about the preferences A aesthetic or otherwise A of just one curator (Clearwater). If that is the case, how can Torres Llorca be included when Tomas Sanchez, an immensely popular painter who currently has a solo exhibition at Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art, is not? And what of Miami-based Haitian painter Edouard Duval-Carrie? He's a big seller who has shown extensively in American and Latin American museums and galleries; also, he was recently selected to be featured in a show at Atlanta's prestigious Nexus Contemporary Art Center during the Olympic Games. Many other omissions could be cited.

The key to the Torres Llorca question can be found on the wall label next to a rather innocuous sculptural work, Casa Tomida. Casa Tomida was borrowed from developer Craig Robins, known to be a great fan of the artist. According to the show's catalogue, Robins is also the person who helped fund Clearwater's travels around the country in preparation for "Defining the Nineties." Casa Tomida also appears on the back of the exhibition catalogue. So much for consensus.

To understand Clearwater's shaky premise at all, it must be noted that this show is not necessarily about artists who live in New York, Miami, or Los Angeles. It is not even about what people buy in those three cities. Rather, it is about what certain collectors in those three cities already own. Twelve of the seventy-six items in the exhibition come from the influential collection of Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz, works primarily created by contemporary Latin American artists. Taken together, these pieces steal the show, although one may wonder why particular artists have been included. (Easy: Because their works are in the collection.) One such artist is Ernesto Neto, a Brazilian who has never had a solo show outside of his own country. Whatever the reasons for his inclusion, his abstract multimedia installation Topologic Fluency on a Structural Camp for High Density Point is given enough room to breathe in a separate alcove area. Composed of metal poles and stockings stretched into abstract shapes, it's a meditative study in movement and light that evokes the sensation of stargazing.

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