The (Kind of) Magnificent Seven

Even before the air turns to soup, an endless summer of eclectic group shows takes over local museums and galleries. For example, the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale is currently exhibiting the works of seven artists awarded fellowships by the South Florida Cultural Consortium, a partnership of publicly funded arts agencies in Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, and Monroe counties.

The grant recipients (chosen from approximately 350 entries) were selected by a five-member, out-of-state jury: curators from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Washington, D.C.'s Phillips Collection; a critic from the Los Angeles Times, and a film- and videomaker from Texas. Each winner received a $15,000 prize, a significant cache in these times of fade-away funding.

Typical of juried exhibitions arbitrated by an unrelated "panel of experts," this one is uneven. Included are three painters -- two of whom use mixed media on canvas -- two photographers, a collage artist, and a filmmaker, Tag Purvis, whose work caused a controversy at the museum even before the show opened on May 17.

Purvis's America the Beautiful, a film installation of two men kissing, sparked a spontaneous censorship debate when he projected the work in the window of his Lincoln Road studio in late 1994. At the Museum of Art he wanted to project it onto one of the walls in the museum's second-floor exhibition space so it would look like what he terms a "moving canvas." Instead, after consulting with museum director Kenworth Moffett, curator Laurence Pamer relegated the film to a small screening room, where it is projected, home-movie size, on a wall.

The three-minute, 16mm film shows two attractive, muscular men making out. While their embrace could be characterized as loving or passionate, it is not lewd. Purvis has stated that his intention in making America the Beautiful is to challenge the prevalent perception that love between same-sex couples is perverted or frightening. The filmmaker conspicuously romanticized his images, bathing the couple in soft lighting and shooting them up-close so that the entwined figures blend together in a beatific arrangement of shapely forms. Purvis's piece is also a declaration of sexual freedom, a point he makes through the accompanying soundtrack, a languid rendition of "God Bless America" sung by Jodi Horovitz from the Miami-based band Sister Madly.

Black curtains cover the entrance to the screening room, and a label on the wall outside the doorway reads "This film contains homoerotic imagery that some may consider disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised." Purvis reluctantly consented to a warning sticker, but the statement he approved did not contain the words homoerotic or disturbing. Without Purvis's consent, Moffett changed the wording before the opening. The director notes that the original warning "didn't seem like what we needed" (it indicated only that some viewers might find the film controversial). He also had the curtains put up.

According to Pamer, if the couple kissing in the film were a man and a woman, the museum would not have found it necessary to take such precautions. "[Purvis's film] is the type of imagery that some people would question," the curator explains. "Our audience in Fort Lauderdale tends to be a little conservative." Ironically -- and unfortunately -- the museum's installation of America the Beautiful in a dark booth gives the work a prurient, peep-show quality, rather than making it a celebration of intimacy, as the artist intended. Also included in the show are two other short films by Purvis, Sweet N Sour and Peas N Corn, tragicomic looks at Southern life set in the artist's native Mississippi; these works play on a small video monitor outside the screening room, where viewers must stand to watch them. The monitor's volume has been set low, making the films' dialogue difficult to hear. (Viewers can get more out of these works by turning up the sound themselves.)

Nearby, a series of photographs by William Maguire has been hung along two gallery walls. Maguire, who lives in Homestead, takes pictures of desolate rural settings in South Dade, Louisiana, and North Carolina. His glowing silver gelatin prints have an eerie quality that evokes a sinister side of country living. Photos of a fluorescent South Dade Checkers drive-in restaurant with no customers, a ramshackle house in Homestead, and a truck stop in Naranja are strangely romantic; at the same time they are chilling, haunted by a spirit of hopelessness. A photo of four teenage boys with shaggy hair who stand on an unpaved street corner with their arms folded over their chests is a powerful portrait of small-town restlessness.

A different view of the American experience can be seen in photographs by Fran Bitett Beck, a resident of Pembroke Pines. Beck takes color pictures of people and their pets: a woman who keeps her poodle in a crib, a girl with a boa constrictor in her lap, a little boy holding his crotch as he poses next to a fat cat sprawled in a chair. Beck captures a sense of the strong feelings her subjects have for their animals, and her photographs reveal the sometimes exaggerated importance of pets in American homes. But technically the photos are amateurish -- kitschy snapshots of offbeat characters that are amusing but not particularly memorable.

Key West's Kim Northrop glues illustrations from medical texts and magazines, plus her own typed phrases, onto small, monochrome canvases. Her Dadaesque works, 24 of which are exhibited here, are one-line stories, wry observances on relationships, identity, or daily events. "She liked to pretend sometimes that she was more than the sum of her parts" is a line the artist has placed below a diagram of female organs taken from an anatomy book. Northrop's multimedia works are nicely executed, and her juxtapositions of pictures and text can be both funny and thought provoking, but they also are naggingly reminiscent -- too derivative, really -- of Barbara Kruger's photographs with texts and Jenny Holzer's well-known messages posted on billboards and posters (her "Truisms").

Lake Worth-based Victoria Skinner's highly imaginative and finely crafted works recall Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, Dali's surreal landscapes, and the bar scene in Star Wars, yet they are refreshingly original. Her elegant collages, intricately pieced together from scraps of cut paper, depict strange beings in medieval-looking landscapes. In Tongue Tied, for example, a creature with a frog's head and the body of a dog sits in what looks like a lushly furnished turret out of the ancient Arabian tales A Thousand and One Nights.

Robert Nathans (Fort Lauderdale) and Carlos Llerena Aguirre (Miami) fill their paintings with a postmodern pastiche of cultural icons and art history references. Nathans crowds his muddy neoexpressionist pictures with animals and plants, figures from European paintings, and cartoon characters. Jerusalem, for example A painted on an oriental rug rather than on a canvas A features a mule, an outline of Pluto the Disney dog, and a gnarled tree, among other items. Six other works offer a similar pictorial cacophony. Nathans's best piece here is Kaddish, a sparser, more powerful painting that depicts a man crouched on the ground over a bird of paradise plant, his fist clenched in anguish ("Kaddish" is the Jewish prayer for the dead); it offers a welcome respite from his other overworked paintings.

Aguirre's works are of the Latin American magic realist sort that clog the galleries of Coral Gables. The artist, originally from Peru, revisits the genre's perennial subjects -- Carnival, imperialism, and ecclesiastic imagery -- in large, garish, bright-colored paintings. Aguirre's revisionist interpretations of classical Latin American Catholic themes (he paints Jesus black -- whoa!) are none too original, and aesthetically they're not much to look at, either.

Some of the artists who received the Cultural Consortium grants seem to have been chosen because their work typifies aspects of life in South Florida A i.e., Latin American imagery, gay themes, and suburban culture. Others do not fit into that formula. While the judges' selections, for the most part, have merit, what is obvious to anyone who sees a lot of art here is that they did not acknowledge any South Florida artists doing sophisticated conceptual or abstract work. Visitors to the Museum of Art can only wonder why.

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