Scratch-Your-Head Mysterious

What's going on here? It's all about radical transformations and the peculiar in the everyday

As if the exhibition title isn't enticing enough, the first piece you encounter upon entering "I Feel Mysterious Today," now at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (PBICA) in downtown Lake Worth, is a brazen come-on.

The work is called Scratch Hither, the first of the show's ten single-channel video installations by Douglas Gordon. The image is nothing more than a close-up of a disembodied, hairy male hand, turned away from us, repeating the familiar gesture for "Come here," again and again and at varying speeds and with varying degrees of urgency. And as the name of the work implies, it's a double-edged signal, playfully pulling us into the show even as it suggests a second reading, as in scratching our itch for something new and mysterious. Most but not all of the exhibition lives up to the invitation.

A few generalizations and demographics: 26 artists are represented, with a total of roughly 70 works, most created since the turn of the century (of the handful of exceptions, most are by video artist Gordon). The artists are also relatively young -- 15 were born in the 1970s, with nine from the 1960s and only two from the 1950s. It's an international group as well, with nine artists from the U.S. and the rest hailing from Argentina, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, and Spain. And it's a decidedly male bunch: Men outnumber the women two to one.

Scoreboard: A splendid mess. But whodunnit?
Scoreboard: A splendid mess. But whodunnit?

There's fullness and richness to the exhibition, as we've come to expect, and usually get, from PBICA (perhaps too much fullness -- more on that later). It's easy to forget how accommodating this museum, which originated as a movie theater long ago, can be. The space is larger than it appears, and it has been strategically broken up into galleries of differing sizes, so that a guest curator -- in this case, Dominic Molon of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago -- can establish a pleasing flow.

That Gordon video installation welcoming visitors is silent, but you'll no doubt immediately notice that the first-floor portion of the show has a sort of soundtrack, in the form of the classic Roy Orbison song "Crying." I deliberately postponed investigating the source of the sound for a few minutes, the better to get a sense of how it permeates the atmosphere. The mournful song emanates, it turns out, from a darkened miniature theater that has been created in a corner. In it, the video installation No Man Is an Island II, by Jesper Just, plays on an endless loop. The setting is a shadowy bar filled with silent, somber-looking men. Without warning, one man suddenly breaks into an earnest rendition of the Orbison tune, and one by one, the others join in.

In the exhibition catalog, curator Molon says the impromptu performance creates "a moment of intense homosociality" (whatever that is) and claims that "Just's subversion of typical masculine interaction through simple performative gestures is disarming, throwing preconceived notions of expected social conduct into disarray. " As best I can tell, this translates to: The men in the piece behave in surprising ways, sort of undercutting the punch line to a one-joke piece that's otherwise fairly amusing. (To be fair, most of Molon's catalog commentary is less opaque and more to the point.)

There's also a tongue-in-cheek quality to Scoreboard, a splendid mess of a sculpture that sprawls on the floor a few feet from Just's makeshift cinema. The piece is Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg's re-creation of the title object, a real structure that collapsed in a sports facility in Buffalo, New York, in 1994, rendered here in pastel polystyrene. The question of how the scoreboard ended up like this is ripe with narrative possibilities. "I guess their team lost," I scribbled in my notes.

"How did this happen?" is also a potential query for Richard Hawkins' striking trio of large inkjet prints, Disembodied Zombie Ben Green, Disembodied Zombie George Frozen, and Disembodied Zombie George Green. In each, the head of a model-handsome man hangs in empty space, eerie but also strangely elegant. The question "What's going on here?" is more fitting for Charlie White's enigmatic Peterson-Williams Family Rally, 9:20 AM, a crisp color photograph featuring seven blond women of various ages in a sleek modern kitchen.

The introduction posted at the entrance to the show offers a generous interpretation of the term mysterious, in which the artists included are seen as "presenting us with fantastic or supernatural imagery, peculiar everyday situations, and radically transformed objects and images." Among the loveliest manifestations of the latter category are five large color photographs by Miami-born Roe Ethridge, all called Pigeon. The titles may be as generic and seemingly interchangeable as the subjects, but Ethridge has transformed these often-scorned birds into things of great beauty by photographing them up-close and in sharp focus against empty backgrounds, so that they take on some of the grandeur of dancers captured in dramatic motion.

A similarly surprising metamorphosis takes place in Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt's Enchanted Forest, an installation of hundreds of brightly colored plastic streamers, each perhaps 12 to 15 feet long, hanging from the ceiling in a dense cluster. From the outside, they form a simple space roughly ten feet square, but when you step into and move about that space, the piece suddenly becomes a multisensory environment.

Upstairs, the mysteries continue. A pair of mobiles from Mike Kelley's Repressed Spatial Relationships Rendered as Fluid series brackets the long, narrow space at the top of the stairs: No. 1: Martian School (Work Site) and No. 5: John Glenn High School with White Panther Satellite. On one level, they're just visually appealing constructions of metal and plastic emphasizing simple geometric forms. But each is accompanied by an identically titled diagram of sorts, in mixed media on butcher paper mounted on rag paper and framed, that identifies the components of the piece. The Martian School, for example, includes a gym, an entrance lobby, an incinerator, a janitor room, and a faculty toilet. That these sketched components don't correspond exactly to their three-dimensional counterparts compounds the alien aura.

Such a disconnect also characterizes the work of two photographers, Alex Morrison and Rob Fischer, that's posted on opposite walls between Kelley's mobiles. Morrison's Open Air Cinema consists of a series of four huge color images documenting the creation of a piece of graffiti art in an open, outdoor space (the setting looks to be European). The shots appear to overlap but are also taken from different vantage points and at different points in time, and the spectators and camera crews recording the event are as much a part of the focus as the artwork itself, which isn't especially interesting.

Fischer's nine color photos, mounted on Plexiglas panels and displayed as a group, are also documentary in nature, but again with a twist. In each, we see a mobile home or RV engulfed in flames, and there's a tentative quality to the imagery, as if it's glimpsed from the window of a passing vehicle. And on closer inspection, it becomes clear that the fire and smoke have been superimposed, painted onto the photographs with acrylic.

I haven't mentioned the work of more than half the artists included in "I Feel Mysterious Today," in part because some of the artists seem to embody and convey the spirit of the stated theme more compellingly than others. But I must also conclude, reluctantly, that the exhibition includes a good deal of filler. Just because PBICA has an abundance of great display space doesn't mean it has to be filled.

Even one of my favorite artists in the show ultimately overstays his welcome. The same Douglas Gordon whose Scratch Hither beckons us at the entrance has nine other single-channel video installations on display throughout the museum. All involve hands; some include arms and feet as well. One, the appropriately named Blue, features two hands stroking and caressing each other in ways so amazingly suggestive of progressively more intense sexual interplay that it's almost embarrassing to watch them -- we're put, intentionally, in the awkward position of having stumbled upon a couple in flagrante delicto.

As bookends of sorts to "I Feel Mysterious Today," Scratch Hither and Blue don't simply complement each other; they complete a narrative arc. As just two in a series, they get lost in the shuffle, so that each is somehow diminished. The crooked finger of Scratch Hither that lured us into the exhibition ends up impatiently pulling us back out.

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