When the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) opened in 1996, it marked a watershed in South Florida's cultural evolution.
At the time, MOCA filled a void as the only institution of its kind in the area, both collecting and exhibiting contemporary art and helping launch the careers of local and international artists.
"At Capacity: Large-Scale Works From the Permanent Collection" and "Open Process: New Work by Miami Artists": Through June 5 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami; 305-893-6211; mocanomi.org. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday 1 to 9 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
"Fifteen years ago, when we opened this museum with the exhibition 'Defining the '90s: Consensus-Making in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles,' we were called audacious to position Miami alongside such major art centers," recalls Bonnie Clearwater, MOCA's executive director and senior curator. "Now, 15 years later, MOCA is recognized internationally, and Miami has become one of the most innovative and exciting arts scenes."
To celebrate its remarkable transition from a fledgling upstart to an internationally respected arts destination, MOCA is marking its quinceañera this Thursday night with "At Capacity: Large-Scale Works From the Permanent Collection." The exhibit features a stunning selection from the more than 600 works in MOCA's collection, many of them monumental in scale and among the museum's iconic pieces by the contemporary art world's biggest names — John Baldessari, Dara Friedman, Thomas Hirschhorn, Jene Highstein, Edward and Nancy Kienholz, Louise Nevelson, Dennis Oppenheim, Jack Pierson, and Ragnar Kjartansson.
The sprawling show offers a glimpse of the museum's holdings, culled together thanks to local and international collectors' and patrons' donations to MOCA's acquisition fund, and is slated to occupy the new 16,000-square-foot permanent collection galleries of MOCA's expansion.
"There are not many contemporary art museums that are collecting institutions," Clearwater points out. "Our new show brings a taste of what we have in our holdings and joins major artists that share a theoretical, conceptual, and formal relationship where the public can see how these different generations have inspired each other in a very dynamic and interesting exhibition."
The show also will celebrate MOCA's role in showcasing emerging artists, many of whom have produced installations and large-scale works that have been a focus of the museum's exhibits, Clearwater says.
"Some of the works on display were in our inaugural 'Defining the '90s' show," Clearwater continues. "But this is the first time they have all been exhibited together. The works represent an ongoing generational dialogue among artists and reflect the history of contemporary art in our times."
On view is Baldessari's Three Red Paintings, recently returned from a globetrotting retrospective with pit stops at London's Tate Modern Museum and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Then there is Hirschhorn's sweeping Diorama, a 60-foot multimedia opus that brings to mind a natural history museum display crammed with wildly contrasting imagery referencing everything from ancient myth to science fiction.
A local artist whose jarring work induces whiplash is Dara Friedman. Her 1999 film, Bim Bam, was included in a Whitney Biennale. It features Friedman in dueling video projections slamming doors on either side of the viewer while stuck at the threshold of some bizarre purgatory.
There is also a major installation by California's Edward and Nancy Kienholz titled Soup Course at the She-She Café, depicting a couple and a young woman dining near each other in a surreal restaurant setting. Viewers are caught in their psychological web as the husband steals furtive glances at the woman while his wife looks on unaware. The arresting tableau provides an important precedence for other narrative works in the exhibit, Clearwater says.
"The Keinholzes have been an important influence on artists like Hirschhorn, while others, like Sterling Ruby, a young artist from California, has been influenced by both of them," Clearwater explains. "We have built this exhibit around a new acquisition of a Ruby installation that climbs 14 feet up into the lights in the museum's ceiling."
Other artists, such as Baldessari, influenced Jason Rhoades, whose More Moor Morals and Morass earned him immediate acclaim, Clearwater says.
The huge installation bristles with hookahs, Iraqi bubblegum, sandals covered with sandpaper, fez hats fashioned from mop buckets, and a Persian rug made of laminated images ripped from the pages of National Geographic. Rhoades's piece riffs on social and political stereotypes, the exchange of goods, and a fusion of celebrity and culture.
"This is how you build a collection," Clearwater says. "You just don't add things. This exhibit underscores a continuing discussion between new acquisitions and older works in our collection."
MOCA's commitment to nurturing homegrown talent is evident in "Open Process: New Work by Miami Artists," showcasing Jessica Laurel Arias, Autumn Casey, Domingo Castillo, and Tatiana Vahan.
During the past four months, the quartet was given access to MOCA's archives and collection and received the museum's support to create individual projects for the exhibit, organized by Ruba Katrib, the associate curator.
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Casey has created a site-specific installation based on her experiences during a cross-country jaunt to the West Coast, guided by advice from her mother and a psychic.
Working closely with commercial artists who design department store displays, Vahan has composed a show that incorporates edited audio snagged from the QVC network and photos she had snapped of herself and Walmart shoppers in the store's photo studio.
"This exhibition provides an opportunity for us to really collaborate with a small group of artists and to concentrate on their needs," Katrib says. "Their vitality, along with that of their other peers, is what will continue to energize the Miami art scene."
Ample evidence of Miami's growing muscle on the international stage, these shows offer a clinic on building a collection of historical relevance while nurturing local talent on an enduring scale.