In Our Own Image

How do we see the world, let us count the ways

Miami is in the news again! We have become one of the top five cities for worst traffic congestion in the nation. A report published by the Texas Transportation Institute, which covers 75 urban areas, also reveals the price Americans pay for their congestion: $69.5 billion in wasted time and gas on our highways. In Miami this means we spend on average 63 hours a year stuck in our cars, topped by only two cities, Denver and Los Angeles (check the report at Just one more negative outcome of a dysfunctional system -- so what can we do? Should we go "interventionist," putting our decision process in the hands of bureaucrats, or keep our anemic laissez-faire policies until our environment is damaged beyond repair?

Mette Tommerup's advice is to get involved. Her show "Free Transform" at Fred Snitzer Gallery, mostly photo plus video, has a just-now feel to it: artificially crisp and yet organic. Anyone remember a time when we felt like we feel right now? The world seemed upside down and though a little different, it was also the same. Tommerup's images look fuzzy, as if acknowledging their vagueness in today's ambiguous political contexts. See them through a transparent beehive wall, like a maze of flecks where each little hexagon holds a hue and your eyes move from shade to shade. My favorite piece is a handsome, big rectangular photo of a wall covered with graffiti -- later I discover it is a segment of the Berlin Wall. Read it: The message is the medium.

It's possible that we have run out of symbols, so Tommerup usurps old ones: the peace cross, the fingers in a "V" sign, the image of the sitting Buddha. Worn-out metaphors, overused, yes, but we may need them to build new ones. Tommerup intimates committed renegotiations of our living environments. Are these anti-metaphors a call to activism, in the sense of stimulating interventions to reshape our lives?

Wall, by Mette Tommerup
Wall, by Mette Tommerup

If so, I missed the artist's own hand in upsetting general complacency, particularly the kind technology generates; perhaps a hands-on collage, which, in the context of activism, makes a difference -- if you think how matter-of-factly a PC can crop an image by pixelating it. What I mean is the sort of labor-intensive marks that turn the most seemingly artificial into, well, the very human.

Next to Snitzer, "White Things," a show from Cuban artist René Peña, opened at Diana Lowenstein Gallery. In his photos the artist appears as object and subject, but Peña, a black photographer, knows how to morph subtle signifiers. Peña turns "white" into something of an accessory, a kind of ornament to be worn. And he truly enjoys it. Not all the photos have the same force, but some are exquisitely done. Peña is at his best when he brings together textures and hues so close that "white" becomes sort of wearable; a "part of" the sensual black male (or female?) body, as if one cannot exist without the other. White things such as a seashell necklace, linen shirt, fake nails, worn-out bra, or, as in my favorite photo in the show, Peña's face in profile holding a cigarette. I looked at this "black-smoking-white" image and thought of what the French intellectual Roland Barthes called "punctum," as in having that certain something few photos have, so that you just can't stop looking at them.

Several weeks ago a critic compared New York and Miami: "You know what I miss about New York when I come to Miami? Graffiti." Unfortunately he had left before the opening of the Placemaker Gallery and "And I Quote" by Tao Rey. I have to say that I prefer my graffiti rougher than this. But I hold nothing against Rey's work, which is polished. The elegant white calligraphy letters flow in baroque curlicues with a dancing quality to them, set against glittering white and grayish backgrounds.

I like that the messages look crowded in their syntactic concision. And the titles are the pieces: These Words Are All I've Got, Understanding is the Key, or In the Words. They remind me of Japanese lettering or Arabic script, where the intensity of the message is related to the calligraphy's ability to fill in the given space.

Placemaker is a commercial gallery run by the artists from The House. As they put it in their Website: "We seek to create an innovative model for an arts organization ... a balanced commercial/noncommercial entity, allowing for The House to maintain uncontaminated autonomy over its program."

Using a language akin to the political, the text goes on: "In the past, artists were dependent on validation by existing structures or hierarchies ... married to what might now have become antiquated methods ... now artists are empowered by ... notions of autonomy (director/entrepreneur), by astutely co-opting all the steps between the ideas in their work and its interaction with a viewer."

"All the steps?" I wish this last paragraph were true, but once inside the market, I don't see how one can be autonomous from galleries and museums and dealers and ... critics. This puzzled me: "An artwork's value lies primarily in the abstract exchange that it is able to produce between a viewer and itself." I have to side with good old Marx. Let's not forget that value and viewer are not outside a bigger context: the market.

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