The Large and Small of It

From dirt specks to sprawling canvases, these shows clog the eyes

Civilizations crumble and others ascend in the wake, yet humanity must be suffering from a learning disability, considering the average Joe is still digging his own grave.

This seems to be the conceptual furrow James Croak tills in his engrossing exhibit at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. Croak drops a hammer on us, reminding that we live in an age where we can get "voted off the island" just for passing gas. "Chandelier Mistaken for God" features a series of haunting, figurative sculptures that portray the human desire to connect with the universe in an increasingly volatile age where war, poverty, famine, and ecological disasters grind the myth of transcendence.

Created mostly from his trademark material — common dirt — these gritty pieces evoke a moody presence. Initially hand-modeled in clay before being cast in a dirt-and-glue binder — a technique Croak invented in 1985 — they exude a heightened sense of the uncanny and a pathos that stands in bleak contrast to the unbridled building boom knocking optimistically against the sky. The pieces are reminiscent of the lava-embalmed figures that littered Pompeii after Mount Vesuvius blew its stack, as though they were excavated by a backhoe across the street and arranged for a cultural autopsy inside.

James Rosenquist's The Stars and Stripes at the Speed of Light at Miami Art Museum
James Rosenquist's The Stars and Stripes at the Speed of Light at Miami Art Museum

Details

"Chandelier Mistaken for God": Through May 13 and "James Rosenquist: Traveling at the Speed of Light": Through July 2
Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, 3550 N Miami Ave, Miami; 305-573-2700
Miami Art Museum, 101 W Flagler St, Miami; 305-375-3000

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In an ironic self-portrait, Dirt Man with Shovel, a solitary figure wears a business suit, overcoat, and fedora. His brim is dipped low to shade his hollow eye sockets as he leans slightly forward, gripping a shovel in his left hand. The crunchy surfaces appear to have been textured with clots of soil in every conceivable earthen tonality, and glint like glittery sandpaper refracting the gallery lights. The figure sags under the burden of his abject existence and of digging a hole into which he hopes to crawl to escape the rat race. Croak's enigmatic dirt men often wear business suits and fedoras as they navigate the vagaries of life. They incite references to Depression-era hobos riding the rails, the homeless standing in soup lines, or denizens of dimly lit billiard halls where society's castoffs shuffle numbly in a smoky haze, their ambition as faded as a beat-up pool table's ragged felt.

One striking piece, from which the show takes its title, is isolated in a room near the entrance. Fashioned from resin instead of dirt, it depicts the ghostly figure of an emaciated, knobby-knee boy standing under a cut-glass chandelier that floats overhead like a piñata. It's a pregnant metaphor for the nutritious abundance over which the kid might salivate in his wildest dreams. He's clad only in boxer shorts, and the hungry youth's ribs strain against the milky skin of his chest, mimicking the armature of the elaborate crystal lamp above him. He appears to be imploring it for divine intervention and for release from an empty stomach before he collapses in despair. Croak's darkly provocative vignette holds a mirror to society, asking us to examine the distance between grandiosity and destitution while challenging our value systems and notions of tolerance.

Another piece from his Dirt Man series, tucked into one of the gallery's corners, is a nifty example of the artist's talent for capturing a frozen gesture in time. In it a solitary bald man in a trench coat, standing with his back to us, stares at himself in a cheval mirror. We come away feeling as if we've intruded on the poor chump's privacy while engaging him face-to-face in the mirror from a behind-the-shoulder perspective. But it's difficult not to smile when we realize Croak has deftly weaseled us into a peeping Tom position.

For all of their down-at-the-heels squalor, these works possess an uplifting quality, reminding us that living in a disposable society can wither the human spirit. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, Croak might say, but we have to hope we will ultimately amount to more than plain worm kibble.


At the Miami Art Museum, the New Work Gallery is featuring eight large paintings in "James Rosenquist: Traveling at the Speed of Light." Rosenquist, one of the pioneers of the Sixties American Pop Art movement, is known for creating massive works influenced by an early stint painting commercial billboards in Times Square. The exhibit, which includes pieces from 1987 to 2004, fluidly mixes obscure fragments of imagery in overlapping relationships between the abstract and real, creating a visual experience that toys with perception. This marks Rosenquist's first U.S. museum show since his 40-year retrospective at New York's Guggenheim in 2003, and it showcases a pair of paintings that have never before been exhibited in the states. Many of the works reflect Rosenquist's examination of current issues and his interests in space, technology, and science.

The most modest oil-on-canvas work on display, The Stars and Stripes at the Speed of Light, is about the size of an industrial washing machine's front, and depicts what looks like Old Glory and sheets of Mylar swirling together in a rinse cycle. The highly abstract piece dynamically fuses color, line, and shape while alluding to Einstein's theory of relativity.

An unusual school-bus-scale mixed-media construction was inspired by the artist's 1992 trip to Berlin. In Early Catapult, a huge canvas affixed to a ceiling beam balances precariously on a trash-can-lid-size tondo wrapped in barbed wire, creating a seesaw. At the far right, a pyramid-shape canvas atop a small plastic caster is stacked against the painting. From it, painted flames lick onto the larger canvas. The conflagration consumes most of the picture, while a turtle inches across the bottom of the composition, in the process of tilting the whole piece over. At the left side of the work, what appears to be an upholstered love seat run through a ham slicer juts out like a ship's prow. Above it, a magnetized metal bar adheres to the wall. Attached to it are a wristwatch, cutlery, eyeglasses, a gun holster, a ruler, and sundry other doodads. The Z shape of the sliced piece of furniture and the metal bar above it hint at a swastika split in half. Here the artist appears to be ruminating about how the Nazis plunged Europe into chaos, leaving Germany in cinders.

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