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.

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.

New York City-based Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco's Four Bicycles (There Is Always One Direction) is another highlight. An exercise in geometry and frustration, the piece fuses together four bikes in a delicately balanced configuration. All of the bikes' seats have been removed, with the frames then becoming a formal device, an immobile sculpture constructed from an assembly of unridable wheels.

The MoCA show contains many intriguing examples of Nineties art, but they are seldom displayed to particular advantage, nor do they come together to delineate much of anything. "Defining the Nineties" is not so much about identifying the artistic trends of a decade-in-progress as it is about the taste of a handful of weighty collectors and the ambitions of one curator.

Defining the Nineties: Consensus-making in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. Through April 6. Museum of Contemporary Art, Joan Lehman Building, 770 NE 125th St, North Miami; 893-6211.

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