Immaculate Deception

Tangled tale of intrigue unfolds at the Frost

Ruben Torres Llorca has staged what he terms a thriller in the guise of a fairy tale at the Frost Art Museum. And no shit, Sherlock, he wants us to solve the crime.

His bilingual exhibit "Modelo para Armar/Easy-to-Build" is structured in a nonlinear fashion that invites multiple readings and challenges spectators to draw their own conclusions from what appears to be a cinematically charged plot line.

In the film The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey's Verbal Kint character delivers the line: "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." Greeting viewers in Torres Llorca's convoluted world of deception and intrigue is a similar line — a Lewis Carroll quotation — via a rabbit in a waistcoat: "The only consistency you can expect from me is that I did and will do everything possible to disappoint you." The spectator is then given a choice of one of two portals leading to the installation: to the left, Modelo para Armar; to the right, Easy-to-Build.

Is Ruben Torres Llorca giving us a chance to slip away from 
his stinging barrage?
Is Ruben Torres Llorca giving us a chance to slip away from his stinging barrage?

Details

Through March 19.
Frost Art Museum, Charles Perry Building, Florida International University, SW 107th Ave, Miami; 305-348-2890.

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The deadpan conceptualist is known for his methodical, dry-witted delivery and for a Faustian mix of language, image, and objects that offers honed critical commentaries on art, culture, and politics. This exhibit is likewise freighted with literary references. In addition to his new works on display, the artist has borrowed pieces from collectors, which compose different scenes or chapters in this abstract tale, one that ultimately coalesces into a tightly scripted whole.

The first clue in the English version of the exhibit emerges in Better Dead than Alive. The work features eighteen plaster heads of deceased artists, many of whom failed to achieve recognition during their lifetime. The busts are lined up on a shelf and positioned in front of small slates showing chalk drawings of ordinary objects. Depicting Frida Kahlo in front of a bicycle, Joseph Beuys before a pickup truck, and Eva Hesse in the foreground of an old-fangled TV set fuse, Torres Llorca reminds us that although their works command princely sums today, these artists were haunted by economic hardships throughout their careers.

Across from this piece, a Franz Kafka quote on a wall reads, "Leopards burst into the temple. This happens many times. Finally it is expected and becomes part of the ceremony." Down the hall, German filmmaker Rainier Werner Fassbinder's words observe, "The last chapter of the history of art will be written by bankers." Nearby, a couple of mixed-media works layered in meticulously cut snippets of newspaper depict a Depression-era blue-collar worker wearing a surgical mask and holding what appears to be a pesticide spray pump. On one panel, a schematic drawing of a house is superimposed over the black-and-white figure. Underneath it reads, "What matters most is how well you walk through the fire." In the smaller panel next to it, an identical figure is seen overlaid with a drawing of a bed frame.

Another piece, All my lies are wishes, depicts 49 postcard-size reproductions of the artist's previous works; they are riddled with graphic-style advertising imagery as if to suggest the banality of domestic life. Close by is Remedy for the Evil Eye, a large spider web crafted from rope featuring an outturned hand surrounded by slate eyes.

Meandering from work to work, one wonders if the culprit hinted at in the artist's allegory is not the art world itself.

Maximum Intensity of Emotion, another newspaper collage work, portrays a samurai warrior slashing with his sword. The words respect, loyalty, trust, disrespect, disloyalty, and distrust appearing in the piece may speak to the tong warfare an artist experiences when navigating the commercial trenches. Below it is a sculpture of a demure geisha, which may allude to the role an artist adopts when seducing the public while carefully maintaining subservience to the gallery system.

In another room, rife with allusions to children's fairy tales, a wall features a large image of a hand clearing an air bubble from a syringe. Beneath it appear the questions "Who's been eating my porridge?" and "Quién se acosto en mi cama? (Who's been lying in my bed?). On the floor sit nine wooden bins, almost criblike in shape, filled with works Torres Llorca has recovered from collectors and decommissioned from life as if commenting on the inflated value of art.

Off to the side, an ominous quote by Patricia Highsmith cautions, "Hansel and Gretel were abandoned by their parents. End of Story." Busts depicting Hansel blindfolded by twine and Gretel shedding tears made of rope seem to refer to fairy-tale notions of purity in contemporary art and the loss of innocence in a market where collectors and dealers overshadow the role of the artist.

Watch Me Disappear, a large wall installation, features 135 small opaque pictures arranged in a grid in which the artist — whose face is among those of family members — virtually vanishes, along with his entire family tree, before one's eyes. This is the endgame, Torres Llorca seems to say, as if mucking through the dustbin of relevancy and pondering whether he, too, will be worth more when he is dead.

Ducking around a corner, a prizefighter with his dukes up taunts, "Aren't you tired yet?" Perhaps the artist is giving spectators a brief respite to slip out of a clinch and away from his stinging barrage.

No chance. In the Spanish-language chamber of Torres Llorca's neo-noir novela, viewers come across a series of elegant men's and women's suits patterned from burlap. The coarse material of the clothing seems pristine and bears his trademark slate chalkboard images of men and women from the mid-1900s. "Have you seen this person?" the artist cryptically asks in a tone dripping with irony, which conjures thoughts of missing-person mail inserts often discarded without a second glance.

Political Speech, a small bust of a man retching up a tangle of rope, lies on the floor nearby. Knotted into the mess are small faces of men and women, their mouths erased by a black slash of paint. The work seems to reference a byzantine drain down which swirl contrasting ideologies: the extreme left of the artist's native Cuba and the extreme right of Miami's Cuban exile community. Another Kafka quote mentions that although the hunting dogs are romping in the yard, the hare can't escape regardless of how swiftly it flees into the woods. On the floor below, the artist has arranged a sculpture of a dog and a pig watching cheesy samurai dustups followed by static in a grainy video shown on a monitor.

In American Kamikaze, a World War II pilot clad in bombardier gear holds a cigarette butt. Words in this collage read like a middle-class moan-fest decrying taxes, recession, inflation, mortgage payments, and the high cost of health insurance and education. This piece, like others scattered throughout, appears to be a red herring compared to the more scathing and direct comments referencing the artist's dalliances with the art world, such as a quote in Spanish by French writer Boris Vian. Torres Llorca relates that when trolling the commercial waters for benefactors, one often finds himself hustling. Roughly translated: "I won't kiss you on the mouth — it's too personal. Anything else can be arranged for a price."

New Acquisitions from the Collection of the Artist — a compilation of Afro-Cuban fetishes bearing the names of curators, art critics, collectors, museum directors, and art dealers — convinces the viewer that Torres Llorca is weary of grabbing his ankles for the powers that be and feeling like a puppet on a string.

Perhaps too deep in the mud to make his point more emphatically, the artist asks us to solve a crime in a nightmarish scenario where he finds himself foisting eye jewelry on fat cats like pearls before swine. For all of its exacting and flawless execution, the exhibit reveals that Torres Llorca wants out of a hole. He's tipping us off that the art racket ain't nothin' but trouble, and any way you cut the mustard, it's a crying shame.

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