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Six years ago, during her short but influential tenure at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, then-curator Samantha Salzinger initiated a juried biennial for the center's museum space. It was one of her many innovations, and it was just what was needed at an institution that sometimes seemed on the verge of becoming inconsequential. Even so, I suspect some people were skeptical of such a group show and expected it to be short-lived.
Now in its third incarnation, the "All-Media Juried Biennial" is still in its infancy, but its development is encouraging. Although it's nowhere near as grand as the Boca Museum's annual all-Florida exhibition, which turns 56 this summer, in some ways, that's refreshing. The smaller scale of the biennial makes it easier to wrap your mind and senses around the show. It's less daunting and less pretentious as well as more intimate.
This year's juror is Claire Breukel, a veteran of Miami's Rubell Family Collection and ArtCenter/South Florida, who last fall became executive director of Locust Projects, also in Miami. She has recently done jury duty on some other area exhibitions. She culled this show's final 43 selections from more than 600 works submitted by 211 Florida-based artists, then chose a best in show, first place, second place, third place, and two honorable mentions. Her rationale behind two of the six winners utterly baffles me, but I'll get to that in a moment.
I always get a little rush of pleasure when I step into the main gallery to find an exhibition that promises to be well-thought-out and well-installed. In this regard, the third biennial doesn't disappoint. The long, spacious room, which stretches toward a big curved wall at its south end, is dotted with works in a variety of media. A video installation here and another at the other end of the show infuse the entire museum with sound effects that serve as a sort of tease to draw you through the linked spaces.
You can't help being struck by third-place winner Tom Scicluna's X, which sprawls across the floor of the entire main gallery. The giant X of the title is formed by two diagonal lanes marked off by thick lines of white gloss paint and ending in parking curbs, also painted white. It's a work that you not so much look at as experience by walking in and out of the lines.
The walls are filled mostly with more conventional work, sometimes executed with a twist. The before-and-after portraits that make up John Zoller's acrylic diptych Crew Cut, for instance, are punctuated with plastic eyes of the sort found on dolls. And despite the unnaturally bright colors used to create a crime scene in One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer, by Brad Kuhl and Monique Leyton, the piece doesn't seem especially unusual until you get close enough to see that the image is constructed with countless strips of acrylic tape.
This latter, Breukel's choice for first place, is so fascinating that it rises above its gimmick. The scene includes a handful of cops and emergency personnel standing around and kneeling over victims of what appears to be, to judge from the title, a DUI accident. The composition has the feel of classical painting, thrown off balance by the lurid pop colors of the tape.
Second place goes to one of three archival digital prints that make up Susan Lee-Chun's through-the-looking-glass triptych Façade The Figurative Kind: Stills #7, #8, and #9, which features slightly differing views of a room in which everything, including a little blond girl, is covered in brown plaid fabric. The photos are so similar and so intimately linked that Breukel's choice of #7 seems arbitrary. Why not just give the prize to the whole triptych and be done with it?
Adjacent is the honorable-mention winner that made me shake my head in bewilderment. It's a crudely calculated emotional hot-button pusher called Neighbors, by Diane Arrieta. It consists of, on the floor, a large X made of red tape and, on the wall, a box with text reading "There are 251 sexual predators living within a five mile radius of where you are standing." That might be a sobering statistic, if it were given any meaningful context. As it stands, it's the sort of alarmist fear-mongering we've come to expect from the Bush administration.
The other honorable-mention winner, fortunately, is a work of much greater subtlety and complexity. It's in graphite and gesso on a 48-inch-square piece of paper by Raul J. Méndez, and it's called The Fear. It summons up its title emotion as powerfully as Munch's The Scream and Yves Tanguy's Fear do, in their own very different ways.
The setting is a large, stark room minimally furnished: a bed with a woman who appears to be asleep and a man sitting on its edge, back to us; an electrical cord stretching across the room and out of sight next to a body visible only in the form of a pair of legs ending in sock-clad feet; and a length of string reaching up a wall to a helium-filled balloon on the ceiling that looks like it's beginning to deflate. This uncannily sinister scene is filled out by mountains of generic clutter that turns out to include specific objects such as books, photographs, pencils, bottles, glasses, and other detritus, all contributing to a pervasive atmosphere of anguish and desolation.
The rest of the exhibition includes warmed-over Dali-brand surrealism, oversized photo portraits of Barbie that are like a joke lacking a punch line, an enamel-on-aluminum portrait of a reallyunattractive man, and a creepy installation with five balls of various sizes made of human hair. Bright spots along the way: the quiet menace summoned by Stephen Lepofsky's untitled photo of a woman and girl approaching a house whose front door resembles a cloudy sky; the pleasing tangle of swirling lines that make up Barry Sparkman's Restless, the show's sole notable abstract; the amazing intricacy of Michael Antony Thomas' Future Fusion, which uses tiny wood and glass panels to create a building façade, complete with balconies, staircases, and a street café; and the deadpan whimsy of Buttplug & Lipstick, an oil painting by P.J. Mills (no relation) whose title really does say it all.
And of course, I would be remiss not to mention Thelxepeia (soothing words) by Carol Prusa, who remains one of my favorite South Florida artists. I've written many times about her delicate, otherworldly biomorphic forms, created with such media as silverpoint, graphite, and metal. She has a body of work as consistently articulated of any I can think of, here represented by an oval horizontal panel in which the imagery seems to be flowing into, or out of, a sort of central vortex.
Now back to Best in Show, an improbably plain piece called Garland, by Robert C. Flynn, in which the artist gives us... a big floral garland in graphite, charcoal, and acrylic. I stared for a long time, thinking: That's it?
Maybe Breukel got the category Best in Show confused with Most Boring in Show. Along with some minimal info on the artists (where in Florida they're based, for starters), this exhibition perhaps all juried shows, for that matter would benefit from some wall text in which the juror offers insights into the selection process, however perverse it might be. But don't hold your breath.