Summer of Love

A powerful male/female dynamic gives life to MoCA's latest permanent-collection show

Once again the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA)right way to do an off-season show: put it together with care and insight, rather than throw something together just to take up space. "Selections from the Permanent Collection" not only gives us a good, well-conceived sampling of MoCA's stockpile of more than 400 works (nearly double its size of two years ago), it also showcases a newly donated collection of 27 pieces from Miami collectors James S. and Marisal G. Higgins.

The exhibition could be summed up more or less like the inventory associated with a traditional wedding. It has something old: About a dozen and a half works are familiar from previous shows, most notably the summer show two years ago and the more recent "Making Art in Miami: Travels in Hyperreality." And it has something new: Along with the 27 additions courtesy of the Higginses, the exhibition includes nearly two dozen less-familiar pieces from the permanent collection.

The show doesn't have "something borrowed" because, as its title indicates, everything in the show belongs to MoCA. But it does have something blue: Early in the show, Being Blue (1986), an atmospheric biomechanical piece by Tishan Hsu in oil, alkyd, acrylic, enamel, and cement on wood, is on display in the gallery dominated by the Higgins's donations.

Is that Tom Wesselman's Smoking Cigarette #1 (1980), or are you just happy to see me?
Is that Tom Wesselman's Smoking Cigarette #1 (1980), or are you just happy to see me?

Among the familiar works are Dennis Oppenheim's noisy Attempt to Raise Hell (1974), a sort of Zen-meets-Sisyphus installation in which a mannequin meditating on a platform repeatedly bangs his head against a hanging brass bell when he tries to stand, and an ephemeral 1997 piece by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. It's untitled here, but it was identified in a previous show as Un Pé de Sonho (A Foot of Dream) and consists of an expanse of cotton and Lycra attached to ceiling beams and stretched to the floor by a pile of lead pellets. This site-specific piece was one of the highlights of the summer show two years ago, and situated as it is here in another part of the museum, it assumes a subtly different identity.

MoCA director and curator Bonnie Clearwater has stuck with a pairing that served her well in that 1999 summer show: Mark di Suvero's untitled 1965 sculpture that impales two car tires on a bent length of steel pipe is mounted on a steel platform a few feet from an uncharacteristically delicate Julian Schnabel abstract, an oil and gesso on velvet titled Lola (1989). Clearwater plays the masculine connotations of the di Suvero off the feminine aura of the Schnabel, a gender contrast she employs throughout the show.

With one notable exception, the newly acquired pieces from the Higgins collection emphasize abstract painting over sculpture and installation art, though it's painting of a distinctly unconventional sort. James Hyde's Cope (1993) imprisons a thick conglomeration of oil, axle grease, and silicone in a glass-and-steel case. Nancy Haynes uses light-sensitive pigment applied to linen for the ghostly streaks in Argument (1992) and Utterance (1993). And Melissa Kretschmer sandwiches oil, silicone, and tar between glass panels for her tiny Bandit (1993).

The most dramatic new work is the exception to which I referred: a room-size installation by Christian Haub titled Solana Float Frieze (1991). It consists of 15 panels of multicolored Acrylite mounted a few inches from the four walls of the gallery at irregular intervals. Almost all the panels use a basic grid composition reminiscent of the work of Piet Mondrian, some mostly clear with a few stripes of color, others color-intensive.

The panels have been hung far above the floor, at least 10 to 12 feet, so that they can capture the light from the small windows high on one wall of the gallery. You have to move around the gallery and look up into the panels to get their full effect, which here and there includes fluorescent edges that seem to glow with an inner light, as if tiny neon tubes were embedded in the plastic. (They're not.)

Much of the show hinges on Clearwater's uncanny knack for juxtaposition. In the gallery devoted primarily to works on paper is a striking piece by William Cordova titled Rolling (1999). Using ordinary masking tape, the Peru-born, Miami-based artist has delineated a seven-sided polygon of red fabric in the center of the image, at once suggestive of a slightly skewed coffin and an oversize hotel from the game Monopoly.

The Cordova works just fine on its own, but it's even more effective playing off a Richard Tuttle piece titled Two Red Squares (1977) on an adjacent wall. It's a simple watercolor painted on a white paper envelope that has been disassembled, with the small squares of the title receding into the distance. The red shapes in the two works seem to call out to each other from across the gallery as both Tuttle and Cordova toy with perspective and the illusion of depth.

Elsewhere Clearwater plays a pair of very different sculptures against each other. Ursula von Rydingsvard's raw, untitled piece is a gigantic craggy bowl of sorts, fashioned from rough blocks of cedar and artificially aged with graphite. Across the way from it sits the eerie Waterbaby (1989), Peter Shelton's delicate metal rendering of a fetal baby continuously bathed by water that flows from three small curved pipes.

These two pieces pick up on the feminine half of the male/female current running through the exhibition. Two pieces in another gallery emphasize the masculine. More than any Marlboro Man ever could, Smoking Cigarette #1 (1980), a wall-relief composition in oil on wood by American-pop pioneer Tom Wesselmann, makes clear the sexual iconography used to sell tobacco. And Rob Pruitt and Jack Early's Scum (c. 1990) uses a stacked case of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans affixed with stickers to generate a wry commentary on young men and their connections to sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and of course beer.

But the real kicker, a few feet from Smoking Cigarette #1and Scum, is an exceptionally provocative piece from an earlier MoCA show: Robert Chambers's Moto Shag (2000). It's an inspired contraption that consists primarily of a motorcycle and a motorized bicycle facing each other. They have been modified so that they share the same front wheel, and from time to time, a small control box nearby on the floor makes the wheel spin. When this happens, the motorcycle's headlight gradually begins to glow.

In this mechanical coupling, the two bikes -- not coincidentally, a '69 American Harley-Davidson and a '69 British Raleigh -- are metaphorically male and female, and their shared wheel represents sexual activity. When it spins, the Harley lights up with arousal. The "shag" of the title is also a double-edged pun, referring both to a dance step from the 1930s and to common British slang for sex.

Chambers was inspired, in part, by one of the most famous (and most written about) works of modern art, Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass) (1915-23), which also uses mechanical objects to generate sexual innuendo. But whereas Duchamp's "male" and "female" components are forever separated, dooming them to eternal frustration, Chambers's devices are perpetually joined, spinning with an excitement that has been reduced to mechanical repetition. It's no accident that the wheel spins and the light comes on at precisely timed intervals; it has no spontaneity, just routine action.

Moto Shag is an amazingly resonant work, one that stands on its own but also reemphasizes the ideas running through "Selections from the Permanent Collection." When it comes to this kind of show -- one that's tightly focused yet airy and expansive at the same time -- nobody around does it quite as well as the folks at MoCA.

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