The Price of Passion

Poetically arresting imagery takes the strangest forms

Tijuana-based Tania Candiani teases rather than ignites fires with her solo show at Kunsthaus Miami, but her work might provoke if one's perceptual libido responds to erotic irony laced with the soft and subtle instead of the hot and sweaty.

"Mattresses" distills what she refers to as "the cruel game of seduction" onto the space of a mattress where she carouses conceptually between objects and words without bouncing into the gutter.

The exhibit features the scarred interiors of bed mattresses, embroidered, jaggedly cut, or punctured by sewing pins to spell out phrases uttered in the throes of passion.

Not your ordinary Serta
Not your ordinary Serta
Double Dirt Man double-dares the viewer
Double Dirt Man double-dares the viewer

Details

"Mattresses": Through January 31. Kunsthaus Miami. 3312 N Miami Ave, Miami; 305-438-1333, www.kunsthaus.org.m x.

“Sweet Basil”: Through January 28. Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. 3550 North Miami Ave, Miami; 305-573-2700. www.berni cesteinbaumgallery.com.

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Instead of in-your-face, spank-me-I've-been-naughty sarcasm that the subject matter begs for, one encounters a muted, seemingly surgically antiseptic commentary on the sex act.

Upon entering the gallery, one sees In-Out, a labor-intensive mattress piece hanging on a wall, pierced with hundreds of sewing pins. A closer examination of the foamy material's undulating topography reveals that the pins actually spell out the words of the title on the seedy surface. The artist has stuck the pins into alternating bubbles of bed guts, which bear a striking resemblance to the diamond tuck upholstery favored by classic car junkies. An IN appears here and an OUT there, over and over as if conveying instructions to a fumbling lover.

Another mattress work, Don't Stop, features the title stitched repeatedly across the surface in red thread, and one senses the artist is attempting to cryptically negotiate love's brittle tension wires.

Jumping from mattress to mattress, one can safely assume that if Candiani doesn't cut loose with the moves and vocabulary, she may run the risk of being ditched by the spectator.

A series of works made up of embroidered bed sheets and pillows sporting embroidered cases seems downright frigid compared with the brawnier mattresses soaked in their histories of hidden secrets. Three pristine white cotton sheets are folded lengthwise and hung vertically on the gallery walls like limp banners. Their matching pillows are displayed at the bottom of each sheet, floating on invisible supports at knee level. One gets the impression the arrangement might have been conceived by a frustrated housewife spending her time at a sewing circle, hoping to send the hubby a subliminal message. One set is embroidered in gold lamé thread with the words more, more; a second in shimmering silver strands with oh my God; the last simply reads please scrawled in pure white string — each phrase betraying the corresponding titles of what seem to be starched Martha Stewart spinoffs.

Love Hurtscomprises a suite of ten doormat-size digital prints, arranged chronologically near the entrance, depicting what the artist refers to as a dialogue between a knife, a bed, and a heart. The series unfolds the sequential imagery of a woman's hand clutching a serrated steak knife as she stabs a mattress, perilously close to what appears to be a child's necklace or a soap-on-a-rope doohickey in the shape of a pink heart. Walking from image to image, one observes the hand, the knife, and the heart from multiple angles, as if the artist is trying to narrate a story that plays out in a maudlin haze rather than threatening undertones.

On a wall across the room, a syrupy digital print featuring a closeup of a white cushion with a skin-color Band-Aid on it made me wonder whether the artist might be suffering from bed head or if the gallery's curator was asleep at the wheel.

Disposed — the most visceral work in the show — may reflect the artist's spin on abusive relationships, infidelity, or wife-battering. Multiple pockets of the flayed bedding have been slashed vertically with a knife and propped open with small wooden rods, giving the gaping flaps the appearance of a vagina probed by a speculum. Only a closer inspection of the invasive wooden pegs, covered by barely perceptible words, shows that the flesh-tone orifices are vacant, disposed, submissive, reusable, facile, elastic, or oozy, and it becomes clear the gashes that the pegs inhabit are perhaps reminiscent of defensive wounds suffered by victims of domestic violence. This piece convinces that the artist can saw at the innards and make a compelling statement when she wishes, rather than safely play the field, forcing viewers to moan for more.


"Sweet Basil," a group exhibition at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, spotlights its stable and features photography, sculpture, paintings, drawings, multimedia works, video, and installations in a tidy survey of the space's program.

In the elevator, the spectator encounters Teresa Diehl's untitled Plexiglas installation encasing two large flat-screen TV sets projecting a DVD loop from opposing walls. The stunning work portrays a flock of white-feathered finches, blown up to the size of seagulls that appear to be dive-bombing.

As one sits on the provided bench, the sound of an electronically simulated heartbeat echoes as the amplified flutter of wings and twitter of birds resonate loudly, heightening the sense one is stuffed in a birdcage. The artist — who built a huge enclosure for the finches and filmed them from inside the structure — captures a sense of Hitchcock's The Birds, almost prompting the viewer to protect one's eyes from the red-beaked peckers buzzing frantically overhead.

Outside the elevator, a startling entomological drawing by conceptual coconspirators Elsoca and Fabian rivets the viewer. The devilish duo, who might get their jollies by pulling the legs and wings off insects, creates poetically arresting imagery with the plundered body parts.

Snaking around the walls surrounding the elevator is the message "We were truly offensive and undesirable, but today we are redeemed, beautiful, and acceptable thanks to sacrifice done as an exercise. We are so proud of ourselves ... our wings ... our legs ... no blood smell" in a meandering cursive scrawl. The artists created the work by whipping bugs in a blender and gluing the luminous concoction to form words that delicately refract the gallery lights.

A drawing on canvas nearby showcases thousands of spindly housefly legs the amazing pair used to create an image that looks remarkably like a torn spider web or a bullet hole in a car window.

As one marvels at their inventiveness and mordant wit, the sounds of shattering glass and crunching metal split the air.

Walking toward the source of the ruckus, one is greeted by a hail of gunfire from Peter Sarkisian's video sculpture, Drive, a sensational piece that evokes the muscle-car era with unrepentant mayhem.

The toy model-scale version of a sliced-in-half Seventies Cutlass, painted burgundy with a black vinyl top, pimps a video screen the width of a business card inside the driver's-side window and triggers associations with epic car chases in movies like Bullittor of a zany demolition derby. It features a middle-age man clenching a steering wheel with white-knuckle intensity as he wreaks havoc on city streets, destroying dozens of cars chased by the police, their sirens blaring.

Another of Sarkisian's savory pieces, titled Milk Bath Mermaid, resembles a pair of burnished metal salad bowls until one peers inside. A video is projected into the bowl's interior, and as the viewer watches a creamy swirl and hears the sound of splashing, a fetching nude brunette pops up. The woman rolls languidly in one bowl, submerges herself, and reappears in the other, where she floats on her back.

James Croak's Double Dirt Man is a crunchy sculpture created from dirt and resin that has a noirish vibe and stopped me dead in my tracks. The work depicts two life-size trench-coat-clad goons standing back-to-back and ready to duel. Their heads are bald, their shoulders are slumped, and their eye sockets are as black as a lump of coal. The dirt-caked figures grip Saturday night specials, their index fingers tightly frozen on the triggers in a gritty scenario that smacks of a hardboiled pulp novel. It left me craving more of Croak's work.

One of the most evocative pieces in the show is Elizabeth Cerejido's poignant For the Record, a color transparency mounted on a light box and accompanied by sound. In it the artist is wearing her mother's white long-sleeve blouse and full-length slate skirt as she stands on a winding asphalt path bracketed by towering rows of trees. Though the landscape and foliage are sharply clear, the image of the artist looks haggard and out of focus.

Cerejido's mom was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and you can hear her voice on a scratchy recording capturing nearly 40 phone messages she left on the artist's answering machine one afternoon. "Liz, are you there?" Beep. "Lizzy, uhhh." Beep. The calls pile up, revealing the woman's frail condition, and one feels a discomfiting awkwardness, as if eavesdropping on a deeply complex psychological ritual between mother and daughter.

Contemplative in scope and isolated in a small room near the back of the gallery, Cerejido's work is a straightforward revelation in which the artist bares her reality. It will make a mark on anyone who has dealt with aging and ailing loved ones.

This show, featuring the work of 26 artists, including some of South Florida's most talented, seems holiday gift-wrapped and full of surprises.

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