Violence in the Art Projects

Locust Projects is located between the Design District and the so-called Media-Production-Entertainment District. It's a project to house creativity, not people. A trio of young local artists formed LP, as they refer to it, and turned a crackhouse in a dilapidated Miami neighborhood into an arthouse. They set it (along with a Website) up as an alternative space in which to produce and show contemporary installation, media projects, and video and performance art. The place caters to an underground and dissatisfied experimental crowd of Miamians who prefer more substance and less glitter. LP encourages local and national talent to come and work in -- and with -- the space. Good idea: Artists can do site-specific works instead of rearranging truckloads of canvas and metal a day before the opening.

With LP you can sense something in the making, a more vibrant, idealistic, even legitimate form of expression, art for art's sake, not for sale. The mission of the group is to show and publicize what they call "powerful and often underrepresented projects ... dismissed by traditional galleries and museums." Indeed Miami has few museums and galleries, and most are not committed to this kind of proposition. I welcome the effort and hope they can stick to it.

The latest show at Locust Projects, Elizabeth Withstandley's "Candy Coated," is an exercise in the paradoxical nature of postmodern, late-century America. We say we want the truth, but we coat it so it won't hurt. An indictment against complacency and deceit, the exhibition of digital images does not deliver the dogmatic zeal found in some militant quarters of today's art world. The two series on display, Candy Coated and Microwave Memories, are a kind of cynical yet funny sampling of Americana.

In Microwave Memories we get a dissection of the lower middle class. Three rows of six carefully mounted prints hang over a rectangular plastic blue sheet. This "microwaveable" motley inventory of frozen brands at your favorite supermarket is a treat, though the sequence may prove arduous for the nonminimalist who eschews minutely mutated tidbits. Withstandley takes us through an unusual food expedition. Each box presented contains a caption, through which we witness this narrator, now a young woman, growing up. The character, in words and pictures, shares her food geist with us: overcooked Salisbury steaks, much-anticipated turkey potpies, difficult-to-clean-up meat sauce at a family gathering, those overstuffed tacos.

Withstandley incorporates the visual presentation of the food with what I would call the meaningfully banal moments of life. I laughed at her caption on Healthy Choice: "She ate gourmet while listening to the Cure, thinking it was cool." She dwells on two of our nation's obsessions -- food and TV. We watch not only our own eating behaviors, but the ancillary results. Each food type works around a life phase: family functions, diet discipline, health asceticism, adolescent self-discovery.

Candy Coated is a series of fourteen large digital photographs, also with captions. On first inspection you might think the sequence is about wife abuse, but there's more to it. Aggression can go both ways. A bloodstained man's white shirt floats on celestial-blue water with a creepy inscription: "He forgot their anniversary for the last time." There's another image of a stiff woman's body on a carpeted floor, partially blocked by her ominous husband's back, her legs covered by a pink dress and red shoes. It reads, "He was sick of hearing her nagging voice." Titles bespeak a vicious and ubiquitous cycle of violence. "She ripped up his girly magazines," opposite "He burned her romance novels." Perhaps the most dramatic photograph in the show, bearing the caption "She bought froot loops, he wanted lucky charms," is a cut-off frontal view of a woman from the nose down, her lips bloody and a blue-knit blouse dramatically torn over her chest.

Withstandley handles all this with a surreal method. Some of the photos seem posed. None of the images shows the characters' full faces, only limbs, pools of blood, and evidence set against carpeted floors and wooden fences. It all plays like a black comedy of rural America, where the sequence of events -- while telling a story -- does not follow a chronological order.

The viewer needs to discover the truth behind the apparent, and put the pieces together, as in a crime novel. But we don't know what causes what, so we begin to wonder how absurdly frivolous life is behind the calamity. Withstandley suggests violence can happen for the stupidest reasons, as in "He was sick of having shake and bake for dinner." Yet in these tales, TV dinners are all she knows how to make. Thus one cause of this violence can be found in Microwave Memories, where people eat "shake and bake" most of the time. Do TV dinners produce monsters? I won't reveal the end of this modern drama for obvious reasons. Suffice to say we already may have seen it on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

Elizabeth Withstandley is director of both the New Gallery and the Visitor Artist Program at the University of Miami, where she also works as a photography instructor. She has exhibited in Florida, New York, and Alabama and is a member of Locust Projects (along with Westen Charles and Brian Cooper). Although she is the chief subject of her own work, Candy Coated is not autobiographical. "We are beat over the head with violence," she says with a relaxed air at Locust Projects' office. "So I'm kind of making fun of it. It seems funny, and it makes the images bearable."