Inside North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), a flashy, truck-size work by Paris-based collective Claire Fontaine beckons visitors to discover more high-wattage displays.
Titled Please Come Back, the dazzling piece uses fluorescent tubing to spell out that exact phrase in a darkened room. Situated behind a black curtain, the work is activated when spectators enter the closed-off space. Because of its size, the piece sears the peepers as if they're staring directly at the sun.
The stunner is part of "Pivot Points, Part 3," an exhibit curated by MOCA director Bonnie Clearwater that is designed to showcase the 14-year-old museum's approach to collecting. MOCA's goal has always been to acquire international contemporary artists' works that reflect seminal moments in their careers. The "Pivot Points" series of shows is intended to mark the represented artists' evolution as well as turning points in contemporary art. The exhibit includes paintings, sculptures, photography, mixed media, and video and light installations.
"Pivot Points Part 3": Through November 8. Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125 St., North Miami; 305-893-6211; mocanomi.org. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday 1 to 9 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
Because of Clearwater's keen curatorial eye, viewers can easily detect intriguing and close correspondences between works spanning several decades and generations of artists. For example, Claire Fontaine's 2008 light piece shares a common bond with works by Dan Flavin in 1965 and Mark Handforth in 1999.
Flavin, one of minimalism's early gurus, began using industrial fluorescent fixtures in 1963 to produce formless works of pure light in an attempt to make color physical. His Puerto Rican Lights (to Jeanie Blake) #2 is a corner piece mixing three different colored incandescent tubes that bathe the surrounding walls in fiery tangerine and golden hues. The effect is almost reminiscent of a Jedi master brandishing his lightsaber or a neon beer sign outside a pool hall.
Outshining Flavin, Handforth amps up the heat with Untitled (Lovelight), in which the Miami-based artist has sawed off the upper half of a streetlamp to create a mystifying sculpture that continues to glow while lying prone on the gallery floor. Oddly, it does so seemingly deprived of electrical juice. The piece not only tweaks the viewer's perception but also, as in Handforth's other works, shines a light on the corroded corners of urban space.
Two other artists that seem to share sensibilities are Catherine Opie and Jeff Burton.
Opie's arresting C-print titled Justin Bond first appeared at MOCA's inaugural show in 1996. The iconic image was among the artist's full-length photographs of her drag queen friends, which helped earn Opie her art-world spurs. In it, a drag queen appears trussed up in a corset, fishnet stockings, and black leather gloves while holding a black vinyl hat box and demurely staring into space. Opie's stunning shemale blends the tradition of 17th-century portraiture with contemporary photography, mining issues of gender and identity.
On an adjacent wall, in mid-'90s works such as Untitled #37 (red plaid/white socks), Burton catches scenes from Los Angeles porn shoots. He began his career as a still photographer for adult movies, but when the actors weren't looking, he surreptitiously took shots of their feet. The actors unknowingly appear wearing stockings or boots as Burton's subversive gesture to undermine the porn industry's obsession with the money shot. The button pusher has a sharp eye for tight compositions that steer clear from the lurid or shocking.
Some of the works, such as Magdalena Abakanowicz's Head and Rita Ackermann's Firecrotch, are making their MOCA debut.
Abakanowicz's unsightly noodle dates from 1974 and is one of the vaunted Polish artist's first pieces created from burlap. The huge sculpture resembles a giant's noggin with a Venus flytrap-like maw. The head's features have been obliterated as if cleaved by a pole ax or some other grisly act of violence. The discomfiting piece exudes an eerie, shamanistic vibe, mirroring the artist's youthful experiences observing the torn and mangled bodies of her neighbors during World War II. Abakanowicz is noted for using textiles in her sculptures and is considered one of the most influential female artists of the 20th Century.
Hungary's Rita Ackermann presents an equally fierce image in her totemic mixed-media sculpture, Firecrotch, which boasts a feral wolf's face inspired by her young daughter's drawings. The menacing beast, wigged in garish orange yarn, looms with drippy Mercurochrome-hued, Freddy Krueger-esque claws while a pair of disembodied hands points a pistol at the spectator's eyes. Below it, a third hand tucks another handgun into the creature's pants. The unsettling fiend seems to riff on man's brutish nature and violence in American pop culture.
Surprisingly, there are only a few video pieces on display, but they are all equally compelling.
Tracey Emin's seven-minute loop from 1995, titled Why I Never Became a Dancer, captures the notorious British artist leisurely narrating her promiscuous coming of age in the seaside English resort town of Margate. In one of her trademark confessionals, she sordidly details how she dropped out of school at age 13 to lose herself in a miasma of sex with older men, lunchtime disco trawls, and a steady diet of fish 'n' chips and back-alley assignations.
As the camera pans around the haunts of her hometown, Emin narrates that by the age of 15, she had become bored of her sticky couplings and turned to dance competitions for self-fulfillment. She then informs that while competing for a dance trophy, she was hooted off the stage by all the blokes she had shagged, who were chanting, "Slag! Slag! Slag!"
At the end of the video, Emin exacts revenge by exuberantly spinning like a whirling dervish to the tune of Sylvester James's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," reminding one and all she hit the big time as an artist instead.
Likewise hilarious is Return of the Pilgrim, by the artist COOPER. Dressed in a costume fashioned from sunflower-yellow rubber boots and cardboard boxes, he took to the streets of Miami to feed stray dogs. In the video, COOPER feeds the occasional whelps doggie treats from a dispenser cut into the boxes. Next to the video monitor is the actual outfit he wore during his loopy goodwill pilgrimage. The artist, who was a Wynwood pioneer and one of Locust Projects' founding members, filmed his performance as a commentary on strangers earning the trust of the denizens of a new neighborhood.
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Hands down the biggest showstopper at MOCA is Cory Arcangel's sensational Apple Garage Band Auto Tune Demonstration, situated near the entrance of the museum. It drowns the entire space in the plaintive wail of dissonant guitar twangs. The New York-based computer geek digitally scrambled Jimi Hendrix's famous Woodstock performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" using Apple software GarageBand's auto-tune function, which corrects off-key music.
While the video rolls images of Hendrix aggressively attacking guitar chords and the crowd writhing spasmodically, Arcangel's audio intervention robs the musician's iconic performance of its radical impact. It reminds us technology can be a double-edged sword and forces the audience to digest the noise from a place deep inside.
MOCA and Clearwater deserve a tip of the chapeau. The daring artwork and its seamless presentation make for a memorable show that telegraphs a bright future.