Two Postmodern Nightmares

Grotesque sculpture for one, problematic videos for another

Miami's art venues have experienced many changes recently, but OBJEX Artspaceremains steadfast and safely in place. Now on exhibit there is "House and Garden: A Dip in the Deep End of Domesticity" by Chad Abel, an artist and photographer with a taste for parody, revulsion, and the grotesque. He works with surfaces, paint and glaze, reassembled plastic toys, and makeshift furniture to set up bizarre sculptures. He is also a good painter.

There is enough in "House and Garden" for two different shows -- one of painting, one of sculpture. But in keeping with OBJEX's particular aesthetics, the works belong in the same postmodern nightmare. Interact with Abel's troupe of the misshapen: hopping duck-feet dildos (friendly looking and budding from a huge, amorphous anus-like sculpture on four legs), shit-mound figures on the floor comically attending a talking-dog sermon, crowd of critters inside a triple-toilet box. The bulbous cocoons from which these creatures would surface literally take over the gallery, with their colorful tentacles reaching ceiling and walls. It could be a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and it's an inventive display of pulp and biting cultural satire.

As imaginative and fun as Abel's sculptures may be, I find them a bit undemanding when viewed within mainstream counterculture. But his paintings are a different story. Less overt, they convey a more intricate vision. Some are very busy in a psychedelic kind of way. Others (my favorites) are more laid-back, radiating a lingering though not objectionable graphic-processed aftertaste.

Stop by Abel's 2002-2003 wooden diptychs and triptychs of interiors filled with pop-art and op-art tapestries and rugs and populated by young women posing with self-indulgent abandon. The work reminded me of American painter R.B. Kitaj's colors and his non-Euclidean geometric solutions. A façade of comfort, peppered by Saarinen and Eames interior décor and flamboyantly displayed, hides an undercurrent of domestic depravity.

Abel's sanding and wounding these wooden panel's surfaces contributes to an overall sense of psychological collapse. One of his more recent triptychs, In the Garden, shifts to a more sinister and didactic style you'd find in the elaborated moral allegories of some Dutch Baroque masters. In the first panel, an unclothed female bends over (showing us her back) while a naked man with a very long penis gathers flowers. The middle pane's foreground portrays a half-male, half-female sort of distorted bare anatomy, eating from a bleeding heart as the same female figure recedes in its background. Next, the same man (now wearing pants) strikes an affecting kneeling pose while he holds a dog whose urine stream has formed a poodle. Again we see the woman from behind, but now she slightly looks at us.

Aside from the obvious hints at female objectification, and our possible descent into animalization, I think Abel's art brings up the possibility of a "human abyss," as English philosopher Thomas Hobbes anticipated. It's the troublesome prospect that, in spite of our moral piecemeal learning through the centuries, in the absence of rules and punishment we are more like those children in William Golding's Lord of the Flies: animals driven by base instincts.


"The Pattern Playback" and "Let's go!" at the Moore Space in the Design District are two shows curated by Silvia Karman Cubiña. "The Pattern Playback" is the name of a machine, developed in the late Forties at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, that converted the patterns of voice prints into actual sounds. Crowding together thirteen artists under one thematic umbrella may be justified by the tenuous link between this machine, John Cage's idea of chance, plus different art disciplines and audience interactivity. Though plausible, I find some of the connections between the artists' works trivial. Yet Karman Cubiña is able to pull it off because the show does not pretend to offer anything more than "come see and have some fun." And why not? Along with some locals, there are several big international names, such as Cory Arcangel, Atelier Van Lieshout, Bjorn Copeland, Christian Jankowski, and Mike Kelley, among others.

I favored Copeland's "ready made" piano with motor and bird toys, Ryan Johnson' s proto-futurist Rambling Man, and Atelier Van Lieshout's Sensory Deprivation Helmets, but didn't care much for Cory Arcangel and Frankie Martin's self-indulgent video.

There are two paintings by Miami's Gean Moreno, though he's now doing much more interesting things with collage. My favorite work was Cristina Lei Rodriguez's black-magic room of dropping crystal tears and a plant arrangement that sweats pink, green, bluish opalescent icy juice. Akin to French Symbolism, Lei Rodriguez's work is sensual, detached, and fantastic -- a world of almost-perfect imperfection after the human fall. She is without doubt one of Miami's rising stars.

Also at the Moore is New York video artist and musician Ada Ruilova's video Countdowns, which supposedly builds upon post-apocalyptic films of the Seventies and Eighties. Two different videos play side-by-side on two adjacent walls, forming a 90-degree angle. The imagery evokes a sort of countdown using disconnected characters amid barren urban landscapes. Ruilova did not engage me. I found her work fast and repetitive, which brings me to one big problem with the video format as it stands now. How can the form move away from the tiresome cut-and-paste and looping and disconnectedness and toward something more interesting?

Video art is sometimes disengaging not because, as some critics suggest, we're biologically wired to follow more sequentially narrative forms. The problem is creating a "hook" to pull us in. Art, after all, is always a hook form, as Roland Barthes would have admitted -- only he called it punctum.

Karman Cubiña is developing an educational component at the Moore that I find promising. At the time of my visit there were a bunch of students visiting from DASH, the Design and Architecture Senior High School across the street from the Moore building. The kids were having real fun, singing along (karaoke-style) to Christian Jankowski's video. The Moore Space, along with sponsors Craig Robins and Rosa de la Cruz, has given some money to help artists develop educational tools to get kids involved with contemporary art. The student show that was on display in the projects-room section -- under the tutelage of George Sanchez -- looked pretty good considering they were all beginners. Indeed, of all the gallery spaces in Miami, the Moore has created a uniquely fluid, informal environment for learning that I've come to appreciate.

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