Michael Peter Smith's Johns I Have Known (top); Jason/Opalka's Happiness is a Warm Gun

Batter Up

Contemporary art has rummaged through fashion, Hollywood, and pornography in an attempt to attach itself to the allure present in those modes. Aesthetic experience and erogenous pleasure have always been close relatives, to be sure.

In two current group exhibitions, this is evident. The postures of subversion are everywhere. Rather than any genuine countercultural agenda, though, artists in 2004 are armed with a stylist's finely tuned eye for the retro, a fascination with the abject and unlovable, a salacious eye for soft porn, and an unquenchable nostalgia.

This trend was made apparent in "Cakewalk," a terrific group exhibition curated by artist Jen DeNike at Ambrosino Gallery. DeNike rounded up works by more than twenty artists from New York. A cakewalk suggests something easily done; the diverse works do hang together with ease, and in a logical way. "Cakewalk" is an accurate survey of the many modes of expression prevalent today.


"Cakewalk" and “Definitive Juxt”

Swirling, kaleidoscopic color is esteemed highly (several works sport rainbow-colored bands). Nature plays an intimate, romantic role, and there is more than a smattering of the usual pop culture references (Darth Vader appears twice!).

The homely processes associated with craft are also present. Peter Coffin appropriates Mexican folkloric eyes to create God's Eye Glasses out of acrylic yarn and sticks.

Eleggua, revisited by Delia R. Gonzalez and Gavin R. Russom, sports silvery sequins in addition to cowrie shells. Michael Peter Smith's Johns I Have Known (Fire, Landlord, Surveyor, Collector, Burnout, Roommate and Geologist), made of cast urethane, styrene, and paint, features meticulously sculpted miniature figurines, straight out of Casting 101 and the local hobby shop's model kits. Aristides Logothetis's rope ladder, constructed out of men's tie material stuffed with foam, is winsome.

But the crafting urge is represented in epic proportions in Ambrosino's Project Room with Justin Lowe's Destination Habitat and Sabrina Gschwandtner's KnitKnit magazine and Sundown Salon video.

Destination Habitat channels one of the most popular symbols of authenticity today, the teenager's bedroom. Lowe scatters pods made of lowly T-shirts on the periphery of a large shag rug, evoking a faux naiveté currently in fashion.

The prize for most subversive work here has to go to Sundown Salon, for its truly monumental appreciation of handcrafted knitwear. The repetitive creative process of knitting, offset by the dramatic unraveling of labor so symbolic of forces in life and nature, and the depiction of Gschwandtner's neoprimitive knit costumes in action actually dare to suggest a new social order, to hint at some secret truth to be discovered in the knit and purl.

Expanding the definition of drawing to encompass doodling is a recent artistic development. Doodling sidesteps more rarefied draftsmanship and oozes charm, infinite variety, and a freewheeling associative manner, which tangles images in its obsessive web. Chris Jahncke shows several strong mixed-media drawings that exhibit exactly this concatenation of blithe, childlike figures amid lurid vortices and webs. Amy Sillman is at ease in this mode as well, merging drawing full of interesting incident with vigorous painted swaths.

Collage media remains a rapid way to incorporate the mediated texture of reality into art, and Gretchen Bennett uses shards of stickers to intense effect, almost sculpturally, creating strands of layered scraps. Jim Richard's Loft with Painting, composed of cut-and-pasted Seventies home-decoration book pages, creates an ambiguous pictorial space, which is formally inventive.

The inclusion of several examples of conventional photography was really welcome, this reviewer personally tiring of the monotony of supersized digital snapshots with ultrablurry resolution. Susan Lipper's rich black-and-white print invites close inspection, to feel the darkness of the night imagery and the contrasting tracery of tree branches in her Not Yet Titled Series. Stephen Shore contributes an impeccable C-print of a suburban street with an underlying minimalist structure. Chris Verene's prints reference an earlier era of photographic production: the 1970s. Other photos reflect the interest of artist/curator DeNike in the human figure's magical relation to natural landscape, as in Carolyn Monastra's The Ice House.

A contender for one of the strangest artworks ever is Bobby Abate's Vader, a 3D animation/video hybrid depicting a nude male figure wearing a Darth Vader mask and seated in a woodland setting -- it all resembles a thrift-shop painting -- while a curious, stilted running figure darts among the trees in the background. It is thought-provoking, and grasps the imagination the way an incongruous dream image does.

"Definitive Juxt," curated by Lissette Garcia and co-organized by José Carlos Diaz at the Odegard Building in the Design District, also challenges viewers to accommodate highly personal visions of a group of artists, these from Miami.

Works by the Paper Dolls, Mauricio Espinosa, Sarah Murrie, Brian O'Dell, Jason/Opalka (FeCuOp's Jason Ferguson and Brandon Opalka), Bert Rodriguez, Gustavo Roman, and Eugenia Vargas all investigate levels of engagement with popular culture.

The Paper Dolls use tricky projection on the floor to highlight exhibitionism and feminine identity. Jason/Opalka's QuickTime movie Happiness is a Warm Gun borrows heavily from the authenticity of two disparate iconic cues, the Beatles and lowrider car culture.

Vargas slices through cinema celebrating the relation of women to horses with the detachment of a surgeon. The resulting work, Girls and Horses, is an ironic thrill ride, as one scene of horse/girl ardor jump-cuts with lightning speed to the next. Roman's exquisite series of drawings made of human and synthetic hair, Erotic as an Ape, have a wholeness and integrity that radiate beyond their paper support. Espinosa's small-scale video projection 0.00 depicts slow, revelatory movement through a mysterious architectural space. The overall installation of this show is handsome and theatrical.

The risk highlighted in both these exhibitions is whether artistic eccentricity necessarily yields a transcendent experience, or merely devolves into the formulaic, the obscure, and the confusing. The now-ubiquitous DJ's mashup produces a rush for citizens today that iconoclasts throughout history would marvel at.

Through July 3. Ambrosino Gallery, 769 NE 125th St, North Miami; 305-891-5577.

“Definitive Juxt”
Through July 8. Odegard Building, 47 NE 36th St; 305-205-8079 (by appointment only).


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