At the Miami Art Museum, Catherine Sullivan's sweeping multiscreen video installation engulfs the viewer in a fanfare of haunting organ music and guttural cawing.
Revolving around disparities of wealth and poverty, Triangle of Need boasts a cast of dizzy characters reminiscent of fugitives from Mel Brooks's History of the World, and unfolds at Vizcaya and a nondescript apartment in Chicago.
Sullivan's surreal narrative seems impenetrable and twitchy, but the work is both spellbinding and opulent, immersing the spectator in a world of extravagant imagination from which it's nearly impossible to pry the senses.
Miami Art Museum
"Recent Acquisitions": Through October 11. Miami Art Museum, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-375-3000; miamiartmuseum.org. Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
On an old-fashioned screen, in a chamber cloaked floor to ceiling with luxurious burgundy curtains, a quinceañera whirls in grainy footage shot on the grounds of Vizcaya's lush gardens. An adjoining room, featuring four digital projections showing black-and-white and color scenes filmed at the estate, flickers with characters ranging from cavemen to deranged aristocrats often dancing spastically and warbling unintelligibly.
In one scene, three Neanderthals pull up to Vizcaya in a speedboat while a woman evocatively belts out an opera. In another, a lady languishes in the waves lapping at the shore behind the villa while a pair of men in bowler hats, who look like early 20th-century tax collectors, stroll the grounds nearby.
The Chicago artist's beguiling and complex opus is on view as part of "Recent Acquisitions," an exhibit showcasing MAM's growing collection in anticipation of the museum's new state-of-the-art compound, slated to open in 2012.
But more than a third of the artists in this diverse show are homegrown, and many of the pieces on display are making their South Florida debut.
Miami's Hernan Bas is represented by a pair of sumptuous acrylic-on-linen paintings that erupt with wildly colorful fields of flowers and vegetation, conjuring the indomitable sway of nature.
Across from these, and in near-pitch-perfect alliance with Bas's vision, is Christina Lei Rodriguez's Yearning, one of her trademark plastic, foam, epoxy, and paint sculptures of gaudy, decaying vegetation, hinting at humanity's careless stewardship of natural splendor.
Another local artist whose work cultivates a woodsy vibe is Loriel Beltran, who has succeeded in re-creating what appears to be a Bunyanesque sliced-off section of a giant redwood tree.
In Untitled (Years of Belief #6), the 23-year-old Beltran has used acrylic and enamel paint, plywood, and tree bark to convey the notion of passing time. The artist's labor-intensive process typically involves pouring layer after layer of paint into large accumulations and allowing the pools to dry over time. He later slices the dried paint scabs into razor-thin cross sections before applying them to canvas or plywood. His resulting striated surfaces recall the rings of an enormous tree often used by geologists to chart the passage of "deep time."
Other prominent local additions to MAM's collection include Alonso Mateo's Etiqueta Rigurosa and Martin Oppel's Warped 2 x 4.
Mateo has crafted a wall-swallowing piece fashioned from fabric and buttons that looks like a deconstructed tuxedo, slyly equating upper-crust formalities such as black-tie galas with the lofty aspirations of abstract paintings. Hinting at the work of artists such as Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, Mateo hems up the gaps between highbrow notions of art and the less grand craft of tailors and upholsterers, wall text informs.
Oppel's deceptively simple crooked length of lumber offers a wink at artists associated with the minimalist movement of the '60s and '70s. He recalls Carl Andre's use of raw, unprocessed building materials and John McCracken's leaning plank sculptures. Oppel's warped wooden sculpture, easy to overlook in the exhibit, powerfully nods at the economic implosion that has stalled Miami's building boom.
Perhaps the most arresting work by local talent on display here is Años Continuos (Continuous Years) by María Martínez-Cañas. The massive collage of photographic prints is the template from which the Cuban-born artist created the sprawling etched-glass commission at Miami International Airport. The eye-catching work marks the culmination of a map series exploring the artist's search for identity, employing overlapping drawings, snippets of travel documents, and fragments of 16th-century Spanish maps and prints as a commentary on displacement.
Among the international names adding muscle to the collection are London's Rachel Whiteread and Cuba's Alexandre Arrechea.
Whiteread's Untitled (Plaster Table) is a monumental sculpture, consisting of seven solid plaster casts, not unlike the concrete barriers guarding federal buildings and military installations, that snake across the museum's floor.
On an adjacent wall, Arrechea's color photographs of anonymous dark-skinned men, holding towering stacks of bricks that occult their features, provide a stinging commentary on Cuba's crumbling and overburdened infrastructure, as well as lingering traces of racism and the loss of self common to authoritarian regimes.
Another photograph that leaves an impression is Matthew Barney's Cremaster 2: The Executioner's Song, relating to a scene from the second installment of the artist's Cremaster Cycle, an epic work comprising five hallucinatory films.
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The acrylic-framed c-print depicts Barney playing the role of Gary Gilmore, a serial killer who was executed by firing squad in Utah in 1977 for gunning down a Mormon gas station attendant. In the ambiguous image, the killer square dances with his executioner in what appears to be an ornate elevator.
Given pride of place is Richard Tuttle, whose Loose-Leaf Notebook Drawings (1980-82) fill a room on their own. The suite of watercolor-on-paper drawings are a promised gift from Dorothy and Herbert Vogel of New York.
Tuttle transforms blue-lined loose-leaf notebook paper, used by countless generations of grammar school kids, into poetic compositions arranged in an abstract grid. His experimental lyricism has influenced artists from the '60s through the present day.
At the Miami Art Museum, signs are irrefutable that its expanding collection reflects not only some of the most engaging works in contemporary art from across the globe, but also that local talent is more than holding its own on the big stage.