For Magnus Sigurdarson the subtropical melting pot of Miami has become a fertile conceptual stomping ground. The Icelandic artist, who has made the Magic City his home for the past three years, says the town's fiery pulse, coupled with his dispassionate genetic wiring, helped stoke his show at the Kevin Bruk Gallery's spiffy new project space.
"Tropical Itch: Aesthetics of Scratching" features one of Sigurdarson's trademark stacked-newspaper-and-video installations and a suite of nine gut-busting C-prints in which the pale-skinned, blond, blue-eyed artist appears to have washed up on South Beach like a stunned mackerel.
The photos are the result of a recent performance during which the artist had his hair ratted and his peepers painted in an Alice Cooper raccoon mask before hitting the surf to douche the existential cobwebs from his brainpan.
"Tropical Itch: Aesthetics of Scratching"|"This Is Positive Thinking, Man"|"Music for People Without Friends"
Through October 10. Kevin Bruk Gallery, 2249 NW 1st Pl, Miami; 305-576-2000, www.kevinbrukgallery.com.
Hair and makeup artist Janda Wetherington spruced him up and Paul Stoppi photographed him during the daylong shoot in front of befuddled beachgoers. Imagine David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to South Pointe," and you begin to get the picture.
It was part of a project he calls El Vikingo/Loss of an Identity, in which the artist navigates the minefield of being a stranger in a strange land.
During the performance, some curious tourists asked him what rock band he played for; jaded locals never batted a lash. For a brief moment at least, it seems, Sigurdarson, in the role of "The Other," ironically found himself fitting in.
He paraphrases egghead theorist Jean Baudrillard, observing that when "you enter America, you enter the fiction of America," and explains that the sobbing goth superstar alter ego he portrays in his pictures is a prism through which he can poke fun at how Miami mutates many of its residents.
The conceptual cutup also cites Albert Camus's The Stranger and the lyrics of the Cure's "Killing an Arab" (a riff on The Stranger) as inspirational grist for his artistic mill.
In the suite of C-prints, titled I'm the Stranger, a paunchy, bare-chested Sigurdarson is buffeted by waves as he lies prone on the shore, appearing waterlogged, as if he just dog-paddled the 3200 nautical miles from Reykjavík to South Beach. One can't help but detect a whiff of the illegal-immigration squawk underpinning his hilarious scenes.
In some of these shots he is wrapped in seaweed; in others he stands, foggy and forlorn, staring at the horizon and stroking his chin. In most he is weeping and lost, his streaking mascara dripping into the sea.
"I was crying the whole time as part of that persona," Sigurdarson says, laughing. He adds that his crying jag was a tongue-in-cheek nod at the locals who wear their passions on their sleeves, unlike his mostly cold and reserved countrymen.
"Living here and slowly feeling distanced from one's identity, you almost feel like part of you is on the sidelines watching another part of you change. As an artist, I have become obsessed with capturing that."
That duality inspired the name of his show, which stems from a fruity cocktail called a tropical itch. "It combines the vodka we drink in the north with the rum you favor in the Caribbean," Sigurdarson says.
The artist, whose wife is of Puerto Rican descent, tried to show her some love in his video-and-newspaper installation, which fills an adjacent room like a sprawling sand dune.
He stacked a ton of the Miami Herald's "Tropical Life" sections into a gallery corner and nestled a video monitor inside.
In his short film Sigurdarson appears addled, intoning "Aye, aye, aye, Puerto Rico!" over and over before launching into the tale of a girl named Angelita, who sneaks through the window of her home to meet Manolito, the boyfriend her father has dropped the hammer on.
"It's just another layer to the tip of an iceberg," Sigurdarson muses. "As an artist, I want to scratch an itch that's hot and sticky to get at what's underneath. Miami is a Latin city and always will be no matter how much anyone might try to change that."
In Bruk's main gallery space, Toronto-based artist Andre Ethier's untitled oil-on-masonite paintings exude a vibe like Rob Zombie channeling Jerry Garcia during a bad mushroom trip. Ethier seems to be getting his fingernails dirty with the muck of his deep subconscious loam, creating hair-raising hybrid characters that detonate with toxic, tie-dyed rainbow hues.
"This Is Positive Thinking, Man" features 15 modest-scale paintings that are each like a gorgeous, ghoulish train wreck from which it's impossible to peel the eyes.
One of his pieces, bathed in acidy lime Jell-O hues, depicts what appears to be a leering Jabba the Hutt melting atop a rickety red Barcalounger floating in deep space. The bizarre creature sports an Indian chief's war bonnet and bares a single crusty pink tit as a honeycomb of purple and blue smoke curls from its lips.
Some of Ethier's figures have their noses lopped off, while others proudly boast a Jimmy Durante schnoz.
Genders blur, people and animals fuse like parts on a Mr. Potato Head doll, and general defacement and exotic plumage stun, all with adoringly applied brushstrokes that bleed colors into each other in writhing, luminescent backgrounds.
One intimate painting portrays a bug-eyed, Cerberus-like dolt — the three-faced mutant wagging Johnny Wad-length peckers in lieu of a snout. The loopy confection is the stuff of a horror-porn nightmare and is tinged in bubblegum pink, tamarind orange, and jaundiced yellow tones.
Upon close inspection, these unnerving pieces reveal the blurring technique Ethier uses to achieve the haunting, dreamlike finish in his exactingly worked paintings. His presence lurks on their surfaces not unlike the blood on one of his mutants' fangs, just as it does long afterward in one's reeling head.
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Rounding out Bruk's triple play is Craig Kucia's "Music for People Without Friends."
Kucia is one of Bruk's paint studs, and he delivers in spades. The artist is represented here by eight oil-on-canvas works — six large, two small — all of which are heavily impastoed and appear to be light years away from drying.
An untitled piece explodes with thickly daubed cherry blossoms rendered in velvety pink and red bursts across two-thirds of the canvas. The rich dollops of paint cascade over the head of a tyke cloaked in a devil-horned cowl and waving a pitchfork in the air.
Visitors to this show will leave laughing — in a good way — and with a taste of the truly weird to ponder. What comes across clearly is that Bruk's season-opening mulch is not boring.