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If you haven't visited the Bass Museum in a while, a pair of new exhibits will likely leave you scratching your head.
Gone are the typical old-fangled portraits or Baroque paintings for which the museum was once known. Instead you'll find a tricked-out lowrider tricycle and a giant chicharrón.
The institution's bleeding-edge transformation has come courtesy of new director Silvia Karman Cubiñá. No parvenu, she comes from the now-defunct Moore Space in the Design District, which was one of the most provocative art venues in town.
If her vision for a fresh direction and the reception by art world honchos during Art Basel offer a clear measuring post, those who recently hired Karman Cubiñá must be pinching themselves and whispering about the dawning of a golden age at the Bass.
The pimped wheels are on display as part of an exhibit featuring the works of Carlos Rolon, AKA Dzine, a Chicago-based artist who weaves elements of popular culture, Baroque design, kitsch, and his Puerto Rican background to create a vision fusing high- and lowbrow forms of art.
The gargantuan fiberglass pork rind is on view as part of "Where Do We Go From Here?: Selections From La Collección Jumex," representing one of the largest and most important collections of contemporary art in Latin America and marking the Mexico-based collection's stateside debut.
Near the museum's entrance, Dzine's sensational Ghost Bike is a custom lowrider tricycle that appears to have been hijacked from Liberace's garage. The pearl-hued opus is covered in Swarovski crystals and mirrors, and it boasts a crushed white velvet cushion fit for a Hispanic abuelita's den. The only thing missing is the plastic seat cover.
As you approach Dzine's gaudy wheels, Héctor Lavoe's plaintive wail perfumes the air. A trio of small video screens shows scenes of a wedding reception and a little boy playing on a swing as the crooner sings about waiting eternally for a lost love. An overwhelming sense of nostalgia and sadness fills the room as Lavoe's haunting song plays on and on.
In the hall nearby, the artist transports viewers to a psychedelic realm via an installation titled Infinite Maharishi, an homage to the Japanese artist and writer Yayoi Kusama, who is mentally ill and is known for creating works full of polka dots and repetitive patterns.
Dzine has created a mirrored alcove with a bejeweled tantric mandala painted at the far end. The kaleidoscopic red, blue, green, yellow, and purple colors of the shimmering pattern seem to vibrate eternally, like the ripples made by a stone tossed into a pond.
Equally mesmerizing is The Love Below, a garish chandelier jutting out of a gutted red velvet settee in an ornate gold picture frame attached to the ceiling. It recalls the chintzy shows the Bass was noted for not too long ago. As the viewer stands under the tawdry sculpture, the humming sound of a church organ with a stuck key seems to play the final note of a funeral dirge.
Dzine's schizzy retrophilia and kitschy chic have a unique, funky language that lingers in the mind, making a visit to the revitalized museum worthwhile for this exhibit alone.
Upstairs, La Collección Jumex is chock-a-block with works that have become part of art history over the past 40 years.
The well-curated exhibit — co-organized by Karman Cubiñá — deftly places blue-chip international names alongside top-shelf contemporary Mexican talent.
La Collección Jumex, owned by orange juice mogul Eugenio López Alonso, is the largest privately held contemporary art collection in Latin America, at nearly 2,000 pieces strong. The 41-year-old López is said to spend a whopping $4 million of his fruit juice fortune on art every year.
At the Bass, more than 75 of the pieces, spanning nearly a half-century, attest to their owner's remarkably playful and fearless sensibilities.
The exhibit is arranged into sections riffing on art about art, art and urban anthropology, text in art, and a series of artist profiles. It is highly didactic — the Bass has even organized a series of art classes around the show.
But if you're interested in just a one-visit primer on contemporary art trends, don't miss this show.
One of the exhibit's most striking features is that it shies from the overly serious.
A case in point is Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset's hilarious But I'm on the Guest List!, a stainless-steel door to nowhere with the letters VIP printed above. It's a wonderful reminder that you needn't be an art geek or meta-nerd to appreciate interesting work.
Looking at one of Jeff Koons's 1986 pieces, in which the former stockbroker-turned-artist floated three basketballs in a fish tank, it's easy to see where Damien Hirst got the notion to pickle a shark. A sense of déjà vu is also evoked by Robert Gober's urinal, a mixed-media nod to Duchamp.
One of the more surprising artists on display is Rudolf Stingel, who uses cast-off materials to upend contemporary notions about painting.
In one neck-craning piece, he uses four Styrofoam panels to conjure up global warming and melting icebergs by simply pouring acid on the surfaces to create jagged crevices and peaks. In another work, he employs insulation board covered in aluminum foil to suggest cave paintings or drawings by scratching simple doodles into the foil.
Francis Alyss captures Mexico City's urban sprawl and poverty through Sleepers, a projected sequence of more than 80 slides depicting people and dogs snoozing on the city's soot-covered streets.
Among the more entertaining works is Gabriel Orozco's Oval Billiard Table, which features a cue ball dangling from the ceiling on a string so it always swings back to the player, and a pocketless table you can't sink the balls into.
It's a nifty reminder that these knockout shows come to the Bass gift-wrapped for the holidays with a New Year's promise that the museum has turned a corner and is showing few signs of looking back on an uneven past.