Nature. As an aesthetic theme, it just might be to the current artistic moment what the "body" was for much of the Nineties: a conflicted, embattled zone over which partisans squabble, draw lines in the sand, and constantly redefine the terms of the battle itself. One thing is clear. Nature today ain't what it used to be. Once the most benign, traditional subject matter of artists, inspiration for countless landscape studies, nature now is confusing, slippery, and provocative. What is it? Where is it? Whose is it? And how are we supposed to relate to it? Two current South Florida exhibitions offer impressions of nature, employing vastly different sensibilities and strategies.
At the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, Guerra de la Paz, the artistic duo Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz, assembles a natural world in "The Four Seasons" that is homely and fabulous at the same time. In their works of sculpture and installation, composed of discarded clothing gathered from rag shops near their studio in Miami's Little Haiti, the two achieve a plasticity with their materials comparable to the lushness and nuance of oil paint. Keen observers of natural phenomena, they begin their inquiry with recognizable forms but quickly leap to broader, iconic images of nature. They are unafraid to embrace visual clichés of nature scenes and then gleefully push them one step further.
With the giddiness of window dressers and the deftness of seamstresses, Guerra de la Paz transform the detritus of American closets and their once fashionable, or at least functional, garments into art and theater. Gnarled and knotted sweaters, errant pant legs, sleeves, and scarves are stuffed, wadded, and arranged in families of colors, from pastels to earth tones with the occasional glint of something metallic or sequined.
Petticoats show their undersides like huge blossoms or jellyfish. The jumble of textures, ranging from cashmere to double knit, from silk to corduroy, creates a motley surface as variegated as one Mother Nature herself might invent.
The four seasons to which they refer are decidedly of the northern variety. Anyone who has trawled the thrift shops of South Florida knows that the miles of furs and tweeds originated in glorious autumn and winter days in New York or Green Bay or Montreal. They evoke nostalgia for some, pure mythology for others.
Occupying its own mini exhibition hall, the show's eponymous centerpiece consists of four trees barely larger than bonsai, mounted on pedestals and depicting winter, spring, summer, and fall. They are made from gathered, shirred, and draped fabrics, pantyhose, and balled-up socks. There is an obvious affection on the part of the artists for their materials, which, while infectious, renders the work only mildly subversive. But this is such a marvelous entertainment, it's difficult to complain.
Works that introduce human figuration, however, are disquieting. The autumn tableau, composed of Woe (a kneeling headless figure), Racockosan (a hybrid creature part raccoon, sock, and moccasin), and Cub (a child's figure with a wig in place of a face), address some of the ambivalence of the traditional harvest season -- innocent and robust but with more than a tinge of ghoulishness.
Curator Samantha Salzinger and the artists succeed in creating an experience that benefits from equal parts splash and restraint. Gratefully a judicious application of scale and proportion prevent this work from overflowing into formless ooze. Blank spaces intervene to permit the appreciation of more subtle gestures, so a diminutive work such as Nesting, a pathetic, hand-crocheted bird, can be appreciated in its juxtaposition to more ambitious, sprawling pieces. Understatement is a powerful tool, exemplified here by evoking the summer sun as a tepid, lemony yellow light cast on the wall.
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It's a sculptural challenge in and of itself to create a satisfying viewing experience within the Art and Culture Center's vast but low-ceilinged space. A meandering route connects smaller rooms, each with varying quantities of viewing space, which therefore demand works of differing scale. Unfolding in subsequent galleries are Window, a fabric quilt of stylized floral prints framing a photo-silk-screened garden; and Florid, a vase with a flower arrangement made of socks. Flutter, whose cheerful irony made me laugh out loud, is an arrangement of butterfly-wing sequined blouses, cast-offs from countless bar mitzvahs, quinces, prom nights, and mother-of-the-bride costumes -- all suspended in midair before a crystal-pocked wall covered with velvet.
Artist Ivan Toth Depeña provides a sober counterpoint to the wacky and broad references in the works of Guerra de la Paz. Toth Depeña approaches nature cautiously, warily. In his show "The Portraits," now on display at Ingalls & Associates in Wynwood, Toth Depeña exhibits digital prints that are the product of a steady, undistracted gaze. His subjects are contained and precise, approaching sterility. One example: the subtle ways in which rooted trees and equally unmoving lampposts affect one another. Toth Depeña exposes an obscure cycle of nature in the midst of a banal suburban parking lot. His lens focuses on this nocturnal micro ecology, no cars visible, and he appears to be conducting some arcane analysis. The smooth beacon of sodium lighting bathes the treetops, penetrating to their leafy interiors and recasting their natural green hues as a lurid, artificial palette. Technically brilliant, and bracketed by handsome frames, these images are tentative, suggesting vague possibilities that are not clearly defined.
The Four Seasons Works by Guerra de la Paz (Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz). Through December 5. Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood. 954-921-3274, www.artandculturecenter.org.
The Portraits Works by Ivan Toth Depeña. Through November 20. Ingalls & Associates, 125 NW 23rd St., Miami. 305-573-6263.