Exiles in Never-Never Land

Tales of displacement when there's no place like home

After ingesting the weird brew served up at the Bettcher Gallery, one is left wondering whether Toc Fetch and Tricia Cline are savant fugitives from Bellvue's Peter Pan ward or just plain old-fangled eccentrics living off the fat of imagination in their Woodstock Xanadu.

"Exiles in Lower Utopia" narrates the story of River Scout Finnagain, PapaWolf, Pope Joey, Holybean, and a schizy cast of others that unfolds a tale of an inward pilgrimage or what the artists refer to as "the heroic journey to self."

Sounding as though they just manage to stay a few steps ahead of being snared by imaginary butterfly net-wielding orderlies (he calls her "Tree"; she refers to him as an animal in human clothing), the self-described artistic unit of Fetch and Cline confesses an obsession with "articulating consciousness, in images, as the subtext of the real."

Toc Fetch's V6.3 Page 24. River Talks to the Dead
Toc Fetch's V6.3 Page 24. River Talks to the Dead

Details

Through January 15.
Bettcher Gallery, 5582 NE 4th Ct, Miami; 305-758-7556.

Unfettered by contemporary notions of wholeness, their characters serve as metaphors and allegories for the fragmented interior life of the subconscious as reflected in the language of dreams, feelings, and inspiration. The deeply complex world the enlightened Birkenstock bohos conjure is striking and tends to hook the viewer like a walleye on a spin lure.

Fetch, who may have taken the gold in the Timothy Leary Triathlon and chooses to communicate in metaphysical haiku, is a cult comic book artist whose large pencil-on-paper panels are hallucinatory examples of excruciatingly detailed photo realism. The drawings in this show come from his eighth book about Lower Utopia, a place he calls the borderlands of the soul, where his heroine, River Scout Finnagain, travels through florid grottoes and fertile crevices of personal mythology to discover her gods and experience self-awakening.

In one vertical drawing with three panels, V6.2 Page 2. River Talks to Her Self, PapaWolf tells River: "You don't love us anymore" as they walk in a wooded clearing. Off to the side, a vacant-eyed preadolescent boy, Pope Joey — a trickster figure — watches as a bishop's miter shaped from the wolf's face hovers inches above his head. Below, River shuffles along sorrowfully in front of a suburban home with a white picket fence. Frowning, she tells the beast: "Don't be silly." The bottom panel features a closeup of PapaWolf's wizened eyes.

Another bath-towel-size work, V6.3 Page 24. River Talks to the Dead, depicts the heroine squatting over what appears to be a wolf-zebra hybrid in a rich copse of trees. Sunlight cuts through the dense canopy of leaves and branches, illuminating the quixotic scene.

These drawings and others in the show are masterfully executed and exude an ethereal quality that transports the viewer into the wacky machinations of what Fetch calls his Grand Circus Psyche.

Perhaps sipping from the same medicine jug, Cline creates exquisitely detailed porcelain sculptures depicting relationships between humans and animals or humans personified as animals. Her work tills the murky subconscious loam in which Fetch squishes his toes, and symbiotically serves to enhance the illusion that one might well encounter the sacred denizens of Lower Utopia in these artists' mysterious neck of the woods.

PapaWolf Sings to the Acolytes, a marvelous pedestal-scale arrangement, depicts five kneeling young women semicircled before a prone wolf to whom they reverently bow their heads. The inscrutable piece is reminiscent of ancient Chinese funerary statuary and breathtaking in beauty.

Another subtle work, Pope Tricksie Brings the Elephant, features a richly clad androgynous figure sporting what might be a dunce cap or a papal headpiece and carrying an elephant across its back like a rucksack. The figure stands erect with its left hand stretched outward, the index and middle fingers extended as if in the process of genuflecting or offering a benediction. A tiny horse stands ankle high near Pope Tricksie's left leg, its front right and left hind legs broken and splinted with wood. Nearby, a night crawler squirms into its doodle hole.

Inspecting the hefty prices that the pair's quirky work is commanding, I was struck by the thought that the harebrained shtick may be enterprising in nature but, alas, one realizes it must cost mad cheddar to feather a nest in otherworldly seclusion away from the evils of mind-numbing civilization.

At Alonso Art, "Nowhere," featuring photographic work by four contemporary Cuban artists, focuses on how exiles deal with global turmoil, issues of displacement, and social or political tensions in their adopted regions, eschewing commentary on Cuba's political climate.

Juan Pablo Ballester, who resides in Barcelona, weighs in with five stunning cibachrome prints from his series "Enlloc," the Catalonian word for nowhere. In the first public showing of his work in Miami, Ballester addresses stirrings of Catalonian nationalism and general conflicts of immigration in compelling theatrical fashion.

The artist auditioned porn stars to play characters in staged scenes and hired photographers to capture his provocative imagery as a critical analysis of the stark realities immigrants confront in the process of negotiating established power structures.

In a large untitled photograph, a flaxen-haired officer wearing the powder blue shirt of the Mosos de Esquadra, Barcelona's police force, is mounted atop a white steed with a bouquet of wild flowers tucked in his saddlebag. Another photo depicts the same fellow lying bare-breasted on his back in an ominous forest setting, a friendship bracelet knotted around his left wrist. The flowers are strewn nearby, and a Rottweiler lolls at his feet. An exotic, olive-skinned gypsy girl, clad in a black bra and pink pants, sits astride the cop's pelvis and is in the process of violently attacking him. Captured in the instant of plunging a knife into the startled policeman's chest, the woman evokes a sense of the recent immigrant uprising in Paris where disaffected Arabs stunned the city in a fiery outrage.

José Iraola, who splits time between Miami and New York, concentrates on achieving the perfect composition in a single frame in his "Fact" series of images, where parked cars on desolate streets become both seductive abstractions and commentaries on anonymity.

One digital work from another series titled "Fiction," examining violence-fueled stabs for ratings on television, seems lifted straight off the boob tube and might be a worked-over scene from a Jerry Springer gab-and-smackfest where an unruly guest gets the business from bouncers.

Consuelo Castañeda's large-format, laminated digital prints mounted on industrial light boxes are collectively titled "City" and attempt to underscore parallels between diverse American cities. They appear to be the most tired images in the show. The artist, who also resides in the Big Orange and Big Apple, has strung up her work nearly at ceiling level and wrapped it around a corner wall, achieving somewhat of a billboard effect where the neon lights of one city blur into the next.

The antiseptic snapshots of Miami, Las Vegas, and New York are redundantly familiar examples of Anywhere USA and seem to lack the conceptual bite of Castañeda's previous work. Like drugstore postcards hymning the banality of urban street corners, the images quickly fade as if fleetingly glanced from a speeding car and fail to occupy a lasting space beyond the amplified ordinary.

The work of Alexandre Arrechea, the youngest of the group and one of the founders of Cuba's edgy collaborative Los Carpinteros, is arguably the most provocative and relevant in the show. It also marks his first public foray into the local art arena. Arrechea, who parted company with his former conceptual team in 2003, has ensconced himself in Madrid, where he has been experimenting in a dizzying array of media while exploring his trademark architectural subjects.

In five large digital works from his series "Architectural Elements," the artist re-creates a stately colonnaded edifice, using images of his body, bricks, and the lens of a surveillance camera in a remarkable composition reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home and plantation, Monticello.

Arrechea has been mining themes of government control in his work and deploys the cameras as another staple of architecture in the modern security state. The arresting piece features a zoom-in closeup of the surveillance camera's lens in what might be described as the building's portico.

The four flanking digital panels depict the shirtless dark-skinned artist holding a towering stack of large white bricks in front of him, occluding his face and giving the impression of the imposing columns in Washington's corridors of power. Together, the images seem to allude to the unprecedented measures government has taken in safeguarding our nation post 9/11 and the personal price exacted for freedom in an America at war.

Also premiering at Alonso Art is Arrechea's The Garden of Mistrust, which packs a formidable wallop and projects the sobering reality that in our current political climate, Big Brother's protection reaches into most facets of contemporary life. The powerful piece consists of a soaring metal tree with bushels of motion-triggered surveillance cameras recording one's every move from its branches.

The work — Arrechea's riff on fear as a strategy of unlimited power and its crippling effect as an obedience tool — left me mulling over our old-school patriots' vision of a kinder, gentler America, where a proverbial liberty garden alluded to an end-of-world conflict.

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