A Collaborative Canvas

Fashion and its built-in seasonal obsolescence has long been the engine that drives aesthetic innovation in contemporary art. As soon as a new style bubbles up from an original source, scribbled by an early adopter of a disenfranchised subculture like grunge or skateboarding, an alarm sounds. Soon thereafter legions of young artists rush to be anointed by that ever-mutating but absolutely required craze. In this way, the art world is not unlike a colony of ants: individuals blindly working on instinct toward the completion of a communal project, without grasping the whole or the reason each is so feverishly engaged. For a young artist amid this grinding activity that forces all motion in a single direction, it's often difficult to be heard.

"Co Operate" is a collaborative exhibition by local artists who temporarily de-emphasized their individual voices to embrace the anthill, and the result is a real find. It's like stumbling across a petri dish in a biology lab that gives a rare view into the life cycle of the latest art bacteria sample. Bhakti Baxter describes the genesis of "Co Operate" as "really organic." And it looks that way. A collective mural/installation consumes the space occupied by Bas Fisher Invitational in the Design District's Buena Vista Building, where an enormous green tarp in the middle of the floor vaguely suggests grass. Or is it maybe the Everglades? There's a distinct blue skygreen grass theme throughout this work for all the urban angst thrown in.

A few general trends from the current art fashion repertoire can be observed -- jittery doodling, graffiti-esque scrawls, obligatory dashes of spray paint, and the prevalence of collaged images and artifacts from everyday life. It's a large rambunctious drawing, and it's not difficult to imagine the scene of its creation. Music beeping and honking, beers being consumed, and a general hum of activity are palpable. Baxter, who organized the exhibition with Jason Hedges, describes it as a "field of action." Slouching and posing portraits and figures depicted in black-and-white sit among an explosive melee of signs and splats. Makeshift wood and foam-core elements add tentative three-dimensional touches, as does the casual, utilitarian presence of a fire extinguisher and a shop vac. What's notable about the "Co Operate" mural is the sense of cohesiveness and agreement. Green accents and orange shapes are practically art-directed to ensure easy digestion. There is no warring among aesthetic factions, and barely anything is painted out or over. Hence the title.

In the room adjacent to the collective piece is a more conventional group exhibition spun off the orgiastic energy of the first room. This area features more discrete creations, but the collaborative spirit prevails. Artists worked in the space during weekly scheduled meetings for a period of six weeks. The intention of each was to dip his or her individualism into a soup of undifferentiated creativity, and so the works are untitled and without a list identifying who did what, forcing the viewer to respond to raw data and discern tendencies and imprints.

Overall "Co Operate" explores many methodologies of artistic collaboration. Works displaying a certain amount of preplanning share the spotlight with utterly spontaneous, improvisational efforts.

With teamwork as the theme, some artists formed limited partnerships to create specific works. Ali Prosch and Kathleen Hudspeth made soft-sculpture, pastel-hued intestinal shapes that hang like chandeliers from the ceiling and cover the floor. It's very light yet mysterious. Muriel Olivares and Jen Stark coproduced a wall drawing of colored pencil, complete with discarded pencil shavings along the floor, and a decorative dried-leaf wall-hanging that trails a wilted vine. Jiae Hwang and Paul Gaeta created a digitally animated simulacrum of looking directly into the sun on a bright day. It is a hypnotic illusion of nature on a video monitor. The now-divorced duo of Jason Hedges and Natalia Benedetti concocted a mordant, ironic work: With a sucking and gurgling noise, an industrial drum on a timer churns oil and vinegar into a frothy white mixture and then stops, allowing the joined liquids to separate. Cooper and Martin Oppel created a writing desk with a faux-wood laptop and printouts of e-mails they exchanged -- the raw material of an artistic collaboration. A selection of earnest studentlike drawings are the product of partnered portrait-drawing sessions.

Robert Chambers displays an orb that resembles a huge broken eggshell splattered with green paint. Kevin Arrow's trove of vintage slides was altered by the group to make an unconventional slide show. David Rohn, ever the conscience of the Miami art community, turned the artists themselves into raw material and painted on their faces as if they were canvases. His documentary ink-jet prints, casually arrayed on the walls, neatly skewer identity and originality with the same fork. Even artists on summer adventures contributed by sending in digital works from their far-flung locations.

On a tabletop, the group erected a city from Styrofoam and other low-tech materials. Structures run the gamut from shacks to high-rises, complete with a bomb shelter, billboards, water towers, construction barriers, and an outhouse. Because it's ingenious and charming, its childish look is forgivable. Some works exemplify young artists blowing off steam during the summer, while others achieve more formal integration, such as four tightly composed paintings by Jacin Giordano, Bhakti Baxter, and Gean Moreno. They swirl collaged textiles, impasto paint, and beads into intense little tableaux. Phoenicia and Upahar Neiburger toy with audio; on a wall a headset's repetitive track mutters a warning about will. To commemorate the occasion of "Co Operate," Neiburger produced and distributed a mix CD of music selected by each of the artists -- truly a utopia of democracy in action.

While many of the efforts generate a charmingly carefree ambience -- a refreshing alternative to slick presentations -- others are more inspired. An exceptional example is a video by TM Sisters (actual siblings) in which artists are depicted in pantomime throwing an invisible object back and forth. The sisters float this live-action footage onto a background patterned from pink and blue bricks and a morphing abstract shape that responds to the tossing motion of each person in the lineup. This piece uniquely documents a spirited gathering of artists. TM Sisters really mined the energy of the collective and retrofitted it with the large sketchy video pores reminiscent of Seventies children's television shows like Zoom and Sesame Street.

Aside from some very welcome humility, the overall byproduct of this experiment, this hive of cellular energy, is freedom, and that is an instructive reminder to makers and viewers of art everywhere.

Artists participating in "Co Operate" include Kevin Arrow, Daniel Arsham, Hernan Bas, Bhakti Baxter, Natalia Benedetti, John Bianchi, Robert Chambers, Westen Charles, Cooper, N.B. Dash, FeCuOp, Naomi Fisher, Paul Gaeta, Jacin Giordano, Gorilla Tactiks, Adler Guerrier, Jason Hedges, Jay Hines, Kathleen Hudspeth, Jiae Hwang, Ricky Rayns Jimenez, Nick D. Lobo, Beatriz Monteavaro, Gean Moreno, Victor Muñiz, Upahar Neiburger, Daniel Newman, Muriel Olivares, Martin Oppel, Dennis Palazzolo, Gavin Perry, Phoenicia, Ali Prosch, Tao Rey, Bert Rodriguez, Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, David Rohn, Tom Scicluna, TM Sisters, Kol Solthon, and Jen Stark.

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Michelle Weinberg