Men and Women of the Cloth

In Miami, summer is the best time to visit a museum. While crowds, unfortunately, are never a big problem at our local art institutions, on a weekday during the summer months a person can often have the run of the exhibition space, with only the museum guards for company.

And why not? Free from the social demands of the "season" -- the revolving door of visiting relatives and friends from cooler climes -- there's finally time. Up north summer provides a long-awaited chance to commune with nature. Down here it's a great opportunity to see art.

The truth is that on a summer afternoon in South Florida, museum air-conditioning alone might be enough of a draw. So consider the Miami Art Museum's current exhibition a fine bonus. Changing Spaces features installations by fourteen contemporary artists -- including heavyweights not often seen in these parts, such as Mona Hatoum, Chris Burden, Louise Bourgeois, and Rachel Whiteread -- created during their respective residencies at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. A very personal yet utterly universal material, fabric easily lends itself to metaphor; the evocative works here use that tactile symbolism to subtly probe social and political themes, personal testimony, useless beauty, and serious fun. The show has nothing really to do with summer, but it has a busy, almost carnivalesque atmosphere that seems right for this time of year: Where else in town are you going to find a flea circus and a boxing gym under one roof?

Marion Boulton Stroud founded the Fabric Workshop in 1977 to offer artists an opportunity to work with a medium often dismissed owing to its relationship to fashion and "women's" needlework. The first efforts at the workshop were rather pedestrian silkscreens, with artists designing patterns and transferring them to cloth under the supervision of a staff of master printers. But the scope of the workshop expanded considerably in the late Eighties, when visiting conceptual artists began using its resources to incorporate textiles into their multimedia works. Some were artists who habitually work with fabric. Beverly Semmes, known for constructing huge sculptural dresses, is represented in the show by a giant stuffed black velvet cat. Other artists have used their residencies to explore new territory within a collaborative setup that liberates them from the constraints of working alone: Each artist in residence is assigned a project manager to help carry ideas through, and workshop artisans do the stitching and other labor.

In the case of Chris Burden, one workshop staffer's duties included asking a Los Angeles police officer to disrobe (he did) so she could examine the seams of his uniform. That expedition resulted in four exact replicas of regulation "tropical" wool serge blues. The uniforms include real Berettas, bullets, and nightsticks. The metal badges aren't sold to civilians and had to be fabricated by hand. Most strikingly, Burden designed the uniforms to fit a seven-foot-four-inch man, and they make a menacing sight side by side on the wall of MAM's upstairs gallery. L.A.P.D. Uniform was inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles riots; for the California native, whose performances have included having someone shoot him, the work is a comparatively subtle meditation on violence. That said, the uniforms effectively summon up conflicting feelings about cops as symbols of relief, fear, and contempt. The empty clothes also point to the anonymity of the job -- both the public's dehumanization of the police and the cops' own wish to be unidentified during the riots, when officers involved in the street-fighting taped over their badge numbers.

The only downside is the installation: Burden's uniforms would have been more powerful had they been hung in an empty room. As it is, they share a space with Glenn Ligon's Skin Tight, a work with a related theme. Ligon, who grew up in the South Bronx, designed eight punching bags, created in the workshop following the pattern of standard Everlast bags. The tongue-in-cheek logo on Ligon's bags: Thuglife. Six of the bags hang from the ceiling as they would at a gym. Two lie crumpled against the wall; surrogate bodies, they seem human and might be victims of a beating by Burden's violent cops. In white canvas, black vinyl, and in one case shimmering white satin, the bags are embossed with texts or shadowy pictures of black youths' faces. One, which quotes Leon Spinks -- "I beat the man and the man beat me: That's all there is to say" -- about sums up the premise of the work, which concerns America's hero worship of blacks as athletes and its denigration of them as white society's punching bags. While this is not exactly a relevatory statement, Ligon's work holds its own as sculpture. On the whole it's a poetic display, owing in large part to impeccable craftsmanship by the workshop staff, evident throughout the exhibition.

A more cerebral installation by Renee Green also alludes to racism in America. This looks like a Southern living room or parlor, with a chaise, chairs, and other furniture. The main element is an eighteenth-century toile, which was originally printed with a romantic pattern of scenes of typical gentlemen and ladies of the period. At Green's direction, Fabric Workshop staffers removed some of the images from the material and replaced them with silkscreened pictures from a book of representations of black people in Western art -- drawings of them being lynched, images of slavery, et cetera. The artist has used this new fabric as slipcovers, curtains, and wallpaper. The installation has an air of propriety until the viewer investigates the patterns on the walls or cushions up close. Green's subversive Mise-en-Scene is provocative, but it doesn't have the visceral appeal of other works in the show.

One piece gets you right in the gut, so to speak: Mona Hatoum's Entrails, a fantastically gross carpet covered with sticky rubber intestines. The entrails carpet is laid on the floor; displayed across from it on a platform is Pin Carpet, stuck with a layer of pins so dense that it looks soft and lush, like a boy's crew cut or freshly cut grass. Hatoum, a Palestinian artist, infuses the common associations to the carpet in Middle Eastern society -- prayer mats, rug sellers, beds of nails, magic carpets -- with deeper, darker meaning. Neither of these pieces is easy to forget.

Some artists equated the idea of working with fabric with memories of childhood. Louise Bourgeois based her work -- basically a grim fairy tale about women's dependence on men -- on her father's long-term affair with her governess and her mother's acceptance of the situation. Bourgeois printed her story on a 148-foot voile scarf, which has been hung on a specially constructed curved wall that spirals around and ends with a small, claustrophobic chamber. There sits a large, rough-hewn wooden ball held by an iron clamp inscribed "fears." In an absurd but ultimately touching video that accompanies the installation, actors more or less act out the story.

A tent sewn from bright-colored silks sets the scene for Maria Fernanda Cardoso's rather surreal Cardoso Flea Circus. Inside there's the tiny circus ring, with a tiny tightrope, a "high dive" with a thimble below, a toy train and other equipment, some tweezers, and a magnifying glass. Look hard and you can see some black dots that appear to be dead fleas glued to the various apparatus. Watch the fleas on a video in which Cardoso puts them through their paces, including a "fatal" triple somersault (the flea misses the thimbleful of water at the bottom) and a tango on her thumb. Fascinated with the legendary flea circuses of the last century, in creating her own the artist seems to have tackled the project seriously and scientifically, to the point of putting the fleas on her arm at feeding time. Aided by the magic of videographer Ross Harley, she puts on a show that's amazing, ridiculous, and -- really -- suspenseful. While it recalls Alexander Calder's fantastic circus performances, Cardoso has said that for her the flea circus is a metaphor for the senseless deaths from violence in her native Colombia.

The delicate beauty of Cardoso's circus tent stands on its own, whatever the intended social content. The same is certainly true of Jim Hodges's Every Touch, a wide curtain made from colorful silk flowers that hangs from ceiling to floor at the top of the staircase on the museum's second floor. The expanse of fake flowers can be seen as a symbol of death or femininity, or as an ode to abstract painting. Most of all, it's a beautiful piece of work that -- like the rest of the sensuous, tactile works in "Changing Spaces" -- begs to be touched. The one big negative about this show is that the museum guards won't let visitors feel their way through (much less punch one of Ligon's bags). Understandable, but a shame.

There's the tiny circus ring, with a tiny tightrope, a "high dive" with a thimble below, some tweezers, and a magnifying glass.

"Changing Spaces." Through August 17 at the Miami Art Museum, 101 W Flagler St; 375-1700.

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