Two Miami Art Museum exhibits question how we view our surroundings
What does a bucket of black paint poured onto a wall and a giant cube full of 200 gallons of velvety black ink have in common? At Miami Art Museum, these and other sensory-numbing works are part of a modest but intriguing exhibition critical of the institutional white cube.
"Space as Medium" explores the evolution of artistic practices directly addressing the walls, floors, and ceilings of the physical spaces where they're installed.
The group show includes works by William Anastasi, Lynda Benglis, Tom Burr, Eugenio Espinoza, Ryan Gander, Katharina Grosse, Wade Guyton, Nicolas Lobo, Charles Ray, and Rachel Whiteread.
It's the type of exhibit that typically provokes heated theoretical debate while leaving the average viewer dashing for the exit and feeling like the victim of an egghead's scam.
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Indeed, Lynda Benglis's untitled 1968 sculpture, concocted from pigmented polyurethane foam, looks more like a jumbo melted ice-cream cone than a radical work for its time.
The artist is a pioneer of Process Art and among those who first used the floor to directly display work. Her oozing, poured sculpture/paintings have unmoored viewers from traditional notions of experiencing art on a pristine white wall.
Likewise, William Anastasi's gallon of high-gloss enamel paint might leave spectators dazed. A founder of minimalist and conceptual art, he subtly splits the gallery space by simply pouring the tarry black contents of a paint can from the juncture where the ceiling meets a wall, allowing it to cascade in a thin streak until it pools on the floor. The artist did so to inject the chaos of everyday life into the hallowed confines of the contemporary art environment.
MAM associate curator René Morales, who organized the show, has written an erudite essay elaborating the fertile theoretical background behind the 13 works on view. He notes that during the past 50 years, artists associated with Minimalism, Institutional Critique, Process Art, and other tendencies created works that specifically question how space is used.
"The goal of this exhibition is to draw upon the rich ideas that those artists developed while exploring in-depth some of the ways in which their underlying premises were later questioned, reconfigured, and eventually redeployed," he writes.
Morales staged the exhibit as an intergenerational dialogue among those who developed these practices and those who continue advancing the premises today.
Fred Sandback uses barely perceptible media. Two sections of thin black acrylic yarn arranged delicately on a corner section of wall suggest a sense of concrete volume that elicits a stunning perceptual head fake. His lengths of yarn, arranged in counterpoised L shapes with a faint space between them, cast a delicate shadow against the wall, upending one's sense of depth. The simple yet elegant untitled piece originally dates from 1975 and has been re-created for the show.
Rachel Whiteread's 1995-1996 Untitled (Plaster Table) and Tom Burr's 2002 Coffee Table (Smoked) are displayed across from one another. They evoke plain geometric forms that pummel the starch out of stuff-shirted criticism by the likes of Clement Greenberg, who asserted that minimalist sculpture "would, upon engaging with real space, become indistinguishable from furniture."
Whiteread's crate-size sculpture consists of a cast taken from the space underneath a long dining table and has a raw surface. In stark contrast, Burr's pair of "nesting tables" are highly polished and look like they were ordered out of an Ikea catalogue.
Katharina Grosse hijacks painting from its traditional institutional support via an untitled 2009 site-specific installation that swallows up its own section of the museum. A gargantuan mound of soil sits as if freshly spilled off a dump truck onto the gallery floor. The surrounding walls, along with her sprawling pile of dirt, are painted a hallucinogenic wash of orange, purple, yellow, and green. The effect is that of a dystopian landscape or a dangerous toxic spill and brings to mind a hothouse of unbridled experimentation.
For his part, Charles Ray's Ink Box (1986), a steel cube filled to the brim with printer's ink, is a ringer for the drab cubes made famous by artists such as Donald Judd. The exception is that Ray has filled his box with the fluid many people have used to soak the pages of art history books in an effort to blot out the past.
As one walks through this thoughtful exhibit, it becomes clear Morales has deftly tied the modest array of works together with a tidy Ariadne's thread. It's a cranium-challenging show, but it delivers a sucker punch to those with the curiosity to give it a fair shot.
In an adjacent gallery, MAM is presenting "Carlos Bunga: Metamorphosis," marking the Portuguese artist's first U.S. solo show.
Bunga's large-scale installations mine the ongoing tensions between architecture and urban space. Two sprawling structures made of cardboard and packing tape are freighted with an unruly DIY veneer.
His pair of site-specific works fuels all types of references, ranging from Brazilian favelas to the B-52's "Love Shack" to the makeshift shantytowns Miami's homeless construct under local bridges.
The artist worked for several weeks, covering the museum walls with corrugated cardboard and erecting faulty cardboard beams.
After completing his structures and painting them in muted rust, mango, turquoise, and salmon shades, Bunga tore into them in a cathartic final act to uncover the hidden layers underneath.
It's an effort to reveal traces of the dispossessed and unseen, successfully bringing into the museum the stark realities of the harsh life on nearby streets.
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