American Art Today: Fantasies and Curiosities" at the Art Museum at Florida International University is a rich and well-crafted show. Director Dahlia Morgan has explored the idea of the fantastic in art, the so-called uncanny, which seldom is addressed in today's often faddish and overly didactic curatorial establishments. Not to blame them. Since the Fifties, when science and then consumerism took over, we simply felt better in the land of abstraction, conceptualism, and minimalism. It was, and still is, an epoch with little room for the imagination and plenty for all imaginable political agendas.
Fantasies and Curiosities looks at Wunderkammer, or cabinets of wonders, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century collections that predated the establishment of public museums in Europe. In that era of colonialism and scientific discovery, the incipient middle class was fascinated with the rare and exotic, no matter how bizarre or frivolous. One thinks of the famous collections of luminaries such as Madame de Staël's marvelous porcelain dolls, Alexander von Humboldt's shrunken heads from Melanesia, and even the fin-de-sicle writer Joris-Karl Huysmans's decadent hero Des Esseintes and his collection of flower essences in the book Against the Grain.
Wunderkammer reflected the Enlightenment's obsession with the natural sciences and the general practice of classification. The taxonomy of Fantasies and Curiosities can be classified as well: into the natural, the supernatural, and the artificial. My selection does not intend to summarize this collection of oddities; it expresses my own preference given the space in this review.
There is, for instance, James Barsness's rather interestingly titled There Was a Farmer Had a Dog, which represents neither farmer nor dog. Barsness has painstakingly glued hundreds of old bingo cards onto a large canvas, over which he has painted the familiar cosmic animal world of Hindu mythology (a turtle and an elephant are most prominently featured). The carefully ornamented piece takes its title from the children's song verse, There was a farmer had a dog, and Bingo was his name-o, revealing Barsness's take on associations and artistic process.
In Thomas Woodruff's All Systems Go: Mission Poesy #4 (Lil' Hot Stuff and Guardian Angel), the fantastic is captured by means of character and incongruity. In a style reminiscent of Spanish or Dutch Baroque, Woodruff superimposes a dense metaphoric atmosphere onto his canvas. A dwarf dressed in a red devil suit is caught in the act of hunting a butterfly with a net. Above him a calm and complicit female guardian angel contemplates the action in the company of forest fauna: rabbits, deer, and an owl. In the background landscape, an archaic rocket is ready to blast. There is something pleasant but also very unsettling about this world, which according to the artist's own report, has to do with souls departing from this planet owing to the AIDS epidemic. In the show both Woodruff and Barsness's pieces can be classified as supernatural, because they refer to acts of divine intervention and depict otherworldly beings or holy relics.
No guesswork is needed to put Trophy in the natural category, as it is an oil painting done directly on a log by artist Alison Moritsugu, who ingeniously ponders environmental issues. Moritsugu has stopped using canvas as a work surface and has begun creating three-dimensional paintings. On the flat face of a cut tree trunk, Yellowstone Park-type scenery is painted, carefully executed, and somewhat shattered by the bark's own rings and cracks. The piece and the environment in Trophy are one and the same, physically and conceptually speaking.
Elizabeth Olbert's Johnny Angel, a large painting in mixed media, is a gem. More an intergalactic-looking creature than that familiar white-robed winged figure in human form, this angel has an egg-shape head with swollen nose and tiny bright orange eyes. From the nose up, his skin is covered with yellowish blisters. Johnny's sad but intelligent stare confronts the observer, eliciting mixed feelings of sympathy and repulsion.
In the artificial category don't miss Liliana Porter's bizarre, ubiquitously bluish photo print Blue with Mirror. It shows a doll looking at himself in an oval mirror supported by duck feet. Amid the glossy dark-blue color saturation, imagine the back of the doll's almost swollen head and his reflected face exuding a malevolent innocence. Porter has another mind-bender in the show: Dialogue/Limit. A large white canvas shows a small Chinese figurine on a pedestal affixed to the wall, almost touching the beak of a tiny bluebird's head, which is glued to the canvas's surface. Again it's Porter's color contrasts and size manipulation that make for a wonderfully asymmetrical piece.
Philippe Favier's four glass boxes are good examples of Wunderkammer. Painted in acrylic on glass, the artist evokes those boxes that were intended to be a collection or study of an anthropological cross-section of a culture. Only in these he's dealing with a kingdom of skeletons, along with the panoply of humorous objects they use. The complex story being told on the glass surface is supported by touches of ink on the light teal-color paper underneath the glass. Favier forces his fleshless carcasses to perform odd acts of blatant contradiction, such as playing musical instruments, eating, squeezing milk out of their own bulging breasts, and even taking part in cannibalism.
The Art Museum's director Dahlia Morgan has been interested in theme exhibitions since the early Eighties, when they were not the norm. Past shows in the series at the museum include Night Paintings, Images from Abroad, and most recently, The Garden. Morgan's idea is to give these themes a challenging and contemporary twist. My goal is for the visitor to walk in the museum and profit from an intellectual engagement. She says Fantasies and Curiosities fits in well with this mission. I've been always fascinated by works out of the mainstream, by folk art, circus oddities. She looked nationwide and says the show's lenders come from all over the nation, from Portland, Oregon, to New York to Miami. We asked a lot of questions and did a great deal of research, which has already been used by our own students at FIU.
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