Found in the Fun House

Fine-tuning an alternative art space's programming is not an easy thing to do.

Exhibitions are usually booked a year or more in advance, after curators and organizers sift through reams of proposals, combing the wheat from the chaff. Serious spaces do so hoping to deliver challenging shows that remain true their mission, and they generally afford themselves scant wiggle room.

For a place like Miami's Locust Projects, which prides itself on the kind of edgy programming rarely found in commercial galleries, filling an unexpected void in an exhibition schedule can be hell. And it happened this past month.

The nonprofit was left in a lurch, following the abrupt cancellation of Magnus Arnason's "Polymorph," which had been slated to open in the main gallery January 13. The artist, who conjures darkly atmospheric nightmare-scapes in his installations and films, took a blow to the head during a New Year's Eve brawl in his native Iceland. He was left in too grave a condition to travel here for what was to be his North American debut.

"His skull was cracked, and his brain swelled up," says Locust's executive director, Claire Breukel. "We are trying to arrange for him to reschedule later this year."

Though the table was set in Locust's Project Room with Kerry Phillips's delightfully homespun "Vacuuming Gave Me Carpal Tunnel," Breukel found herself scrambling to cook up a replacement for Arnason in less than two weeks. "It was an incredibly difficult thing to do," she understates.

Together with curatorial advisor Gean Moreno, a local artist and writer, Breukel cobbled "People Under the Stairs" in a fortnight, resulting in a show that is as much a testament to the talent of — and spirited interaction among — its participants as it is to Locust's cred.

The exhibit features four Miami-based artists who created work specifically for this show, which for the most part fires seamlessly on all cylinders.

"It was amazing how the artists came together so enthusiastically and professionally to pull this off," Breukel beams.

The Johnny-on-the-spot quartet tinkered with illusions of depth in the art space, at times tilling the field of the commonplace, the domestic, and the downright dull with snappy one-liners that linger like residue in the mind.

The show's title might have been snagged from Manny Prieres's sprawling wall mural, situated near the entrance of the space.

In the Wes Craven movie from which "People Under the Stairs" takes its name, a young boy burgles the house of his money-grubbing landlords, only to discover that freakish family members are torturing neighborhood children they kidnapped and keep caged under the stairs.

Prieres has painted two wall-gobbling phantasmagoric figures that appear to allude to incestuous developers hacking their way across the city's skyline like demented fiends from a slasher film. The rapine jalapeño-green maniacs are sandwiched between the skeletal frame of a skyscraper and boom cranes to the right and a lone swaying palm tree to the left. One figure seems to be the artist's nod to Boris Karloff's Frankenstein's monster; the other suggests Lon Chaney's grotesque gob from Phantom of the Opera. Prieres's eye-scalding mural is capped by the work I Was a Fool to Believe You Ever Gave a Shit, a stone-heartedly executed framed drawing of a .45-caliber pistol pointing at the phantom's head.

On an adjacent wall, George Sanchez-Calderon's untitled stark black-and-white wallpaper mural subverts the spectator's sense of perception. Sanchez-Calderon hired photographer Sid Hoetzel to shoot the empty gallery space, in which the artist dangled a hangman's noose from the rafters, later tweaking the image using Photoshop. Sanchez-Calderon then plastered sections of the printed image onto the wall to create the sense one is engaging with a mirrored reflection of the space, without the onlooker's image. The noose cryptically suggests the viewer is stuck in a weird transitional space with little if any means of escape.

Ali Prosch's Untitled (Beaded Doorway) forces viewers to walk across the same tightrope. The subtle DVD piece, projected on a wall immediately to the left of Sanchez-Calderon's depth-defying work, conveys the impression one is looking at an entrance to another room. It depicts a doorway curtained with beads that undulate as if they were fanned. Beyond the strings of swaying beads, a picture hanging at eye level bamboozles one into believing there's a "there" there, behind the authentically scaled projection. For anyone who has ever banged the noggin against a sliding glass door on the way to the patio, Prosch freshens the lump with witty legerdemain.

To wrap the skull around Jen Stark's A Piece of an Infinite Whole, simply imagine a tornado blasting a traffic cone headlong into a wall, its innards bleeding concentric rainbow hues.

The artist has sliced a funnel-shape sculpture into a gallery wall, using ribbons of cut colored paper to create a vortex with a pin light illuminating the expanse. As the spectator sticks an arm in the hole to gauge how far it goes, the seemingly infinite swirl extends out of reach. It's as if the colored circles are multiplying in unpredictable directions, or hinting at a space where the end point might meet the point of origin. One can imagine Stark locked in the gallery night and day, slaving to produce the stunning piece in time for the show.

In the Project Room, Kerry Phillips amplifies ordinariness via a riotous tangle of old brooms and rug remnants she must have rifled from every carpet showroom countywide.

She twangs the cord of the everyday with aplomb in "Vacuuming Gave Me Carpal Tunnel," her quasi-ironic installation riffing on notions of domesticity and the growing gulf between technology and old-fangled know-how.

The sweeping piece evokes a sense of a hinterland housewife on the verge of a nervous meltdown, obsessively toiling in the kitchen to clean her cobwebs out.

The installation is broken down into three islands of layered carpet remnants, in varied textures and tones, pocked with buried electrical appliances and the contents of kitchen cabinets preserved in glass jars.

From Phillips's kooky archipelagos, thickets of brooms of every conceivable shape sprout like cornfields, bristles pointing skyward.

Waffle irons, vacuum cleaners, blenders, and toasters are imbedded in the lumps of carpet here and there, trashing the old saw that a woman's work is never done. Baby food jars, given pride of place like a ditzy snow-globe collection, are stuffed with cookie fortunes, seashells, toy figurines, nuts and bolts, and just about everything else but the kitchen sink.

The effect is a chilling nostalgic reflection in which Phillips leads viewers to ponder growing up Stepford, but without smarming it up. Instead of slipping into the hackneyed, she dishes out the banal with plenty of guts and heart. And Locust delivers a surprising shake-and-bake main course that nicely hits the spot.

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus