Total Immersion

What happens when you assemble teams of artists in alien surroundings and then simply leave them alone to make art? Placemaker Gallery and the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation conducted such an experiment, the fruit of which is now on display.

New York native John Bianchi lived at the Placemaker Gallery for four months. Using materials scavenged from within and around his makeshift home, he produced all the work for his installation "The Sky Is a Big Responsibility." Bianchi's (Untitled) Tornado drawings in chalk pastel are smooth, pristine depictions of azure skies split by white tornadoes and other cloud formations. Two of the artist's other drawings depict the instantly recognizable smoke trails from the doomed space shuttle Challenger. Although Bianchi's works illustrate the unpredictable and destructive force of nature, their neatly taped edges and the conventional manner in which they're hung afford the art an air of serenity.

His living/work area at the far end of the gallery is a prime example of the Home Depot aesthetic so endearing of late. Today's art world seems to romanticize craft media and simple carpentry, a trade long since considered the bread and butter for many young male artists. Bianchi's bachelor pad is crudely constructed of two-by-fours featuring a decorative canopy made from corrugated cardboard. His bed sports a coverlet quilted from two packing blankets. But the artist apparently wants us to understand that appearances are not always what they seem.

On either side of this make-do structure, accessible to viewers via two openings cut out of the drywall, is a narrow crawlspace strewn with preparatory notes, drawings, printed Web pages, and old family photos. This is the artist's attempt at unveiling a more sinister side, akin to a stock movie scene in which homicide investigators stumble upon the killer's lair housing a depraved shrine to his victim. However Bianchi's connection from the pretty drawings on exhibit to this creepy lair in the back is a stretch, in spite of the clues he has artfully scattered -- a Leatherman pocket knife, the same brand purportedly wielded by Al Qaeda hijackers, and photos linking his parents to the ominous Charles Manson. Bianchi's effort to expose the inner, darker recesses of an artist's process is admirable, but he succeeds only in showing a struggling artist's encampment.

"The Quality of Life," a multimedia installation by Dennis Palazzolo, is an ode to all things domestic, literary, and obscure. Vying for attention is a wearying array of objects, photographs, videos, hanging lanterns, collages, drawings, and constructions. A series of photos printed on silver Mylar document a couple's walk through a cemetery, but the artist replaces their torsos and heads with sharp kitchen knives. By engaging the two subjects in romantic and sexual acts, Palazzolo offers his own ham-handed comments on morbidity and sexual repression, congruent with the kitschy Victoriana infecting the installation. The exhibit is full of oddities seemingly handpicked from an elderly English lady's cottage -- discarded vine-patterned wallpaper painted by a dead woman, a lantern made from a busted cardboard box, a perfectly inscrutable tortoiseshell lamp.

In a reconstruction of a bridge tender's hut located outside the Wolfsonian Museum, neurotic and narcissistic video plays. The DVD portrays Palazzolo and Bianchi cavorting on a beach, one dressed as a snowman, the other a double-headed unicorn. The mock naiveté of this work resembles the snickering, staged humor of Pee-wee Herman rather than Jean Cocteau, whose magnificent representations of eroticism transported viewers to a more magical realm.

The most convincing aspect of this show is a wall of assorted photos, documents, drawings, objects, and ephemera, all of which pertain to an installation titled "DUMBOAT," showcased in the neighborhood of Dumbo on the Brooklyn waterfront during the summer of 2004. "DUMBOAT" offers a fairly accurate re-creation of Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa (1819). This version is staged on the East river and features half-naked young male artists disporting against a Manhattan skyline, offering a visual exploration into the creation of myth. Palazzolo is a talented stylist, an expert at the carefully cultivated randomness meant to evoke the quirky misfit, or even an art world outsider. But he's trying way too hard. Freeing the imagination shouldn't require this much work, from either the artist or the viewer. Palazzolo should trade his verbosity and cosmetic obfuscation for legibility.

"No Walls" is a collective exhibition of works by Placemaker's home team -- Daniel Arsham, Bhakti Baxter, Natalia Benedetti, Nick D. Lobo, Daniel Newman, and Tom Scicluna. This intelligent and concise show is a welcome contrast to the clutter of the previous two and offers a straightforward, back-to-basics agenda. Each artist limits his or her ways and means to a single gesture, mining the conceptual art canon, distilling potent vignettes. Lobo's Amateur Satellite Typology is a stationary mobile from which miniature aluminum and plastic satellites dangle, casting cool, spindly shadows on the wall. Employing the model-making skills of the hobbyist, Lobo's creation is a simple and elegant cosmological graph. Baxter's A Lesson in Applied Geometry is a basic demonstration of video feedback, whose endlessly looping forms have the cachet of test patterns from a science fair exhibit.

Benedetti's A Whole Would Be Something entices viewers to consider the novelty of enjoying a wall. She carves a narrow, tubular tunnel into a wall, through which a selection of dialogue from the popular children's film The Neverending Story plays, thereby investing the statis of the wall with fluidity. Benedetti is the only female in this testosterone-drenched show, and her work exudes an erotic frisson. Punning with whole and hole, she positions the downward-shaped tunnel at a deliberate height that suggests penile penetration. It's appealing to think of the Placemaker gang as a scientific club, gathering data to advance empirical knowledge of the observable universe. No doubt the future holds promise for these artists and curators.

The nearby Collins Building presents "Project Exhibition," the work of the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation's first artists-in-residence -- Brazil's Jarbas Lopes and Argentina's Tomás Saraceno. Both men were invited to live in Miami and contribute to the city's growing international art scene. The two artists tackled the landscape of Miami using ingenious formal means.

Inspired by nature's spontaneously produced sea foam, When Spheres Meet Spheres: From Miami to Cuba sees Saraceno engineering a lightweight mechanical bubble on water. He was met with some challenging construction issues as he sought to create a metaphor for brotherhood among nations in his work. Several videos shown on hanging screens depict various phases of Saraceno's project, from early sketches to the assembly of the structure on the sand and its being set afloat on Biscayne Bay. Water-tight plastic dodecahedrons are zippered together to simulate the division and joining of sea-foam bubbles. His project references radical politics surrounding the creation of inflatable structures that began with the manned balloon flights during the French Revolution. This genre finally came to fruition during the Sixties with the evolution of experimental architecture and furniture. The weightlessness of inflatable materials naturally suggests jettisoning artificial, outmoded political and social distinctions.

Jarbas Lopes also found useful artistic fodder in the local seaside. His works are made from interwoven digital images and carpet, each measuring five by seven feet in diameter. His pieces are ambitious -- contrasting dull strips of carpeting with high-tech inkjet printed strips -- and depict banal scenes in Miami Beach, including a lifeguard station and palm trees blown by hurricane-force winds. These works skewer the grandeur of traditional big painting and the glossy sheen of photographs advertising Miami as a tropical paradise. It's odd these iconic beach scenes are so fascinating, even to newcomers in Miami. Another work Lopes completed in 1998, Barraca Desgraça, is constructed from burlap posters announcing events in Brazil. The artist reattached the strips of text to create a three-dimensional run-on sentence. This piece conveys a similar material ingenuity but retains an ad hoc freshness. All the works shown demonstrate the largely unexplored potential of modular construction.

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Michelle Weinberg