Tongue on Wry?

FAU's "Delicatessen" show circles squeamishness and lurches into profundity

In her catalog introduction to the quirky group exhibition "Delicatessen," now at the Schmidt Center Gallery on Florida Atlantic University's Boca Raton campus, the show's guest curator, Latvian-born Diana Shpungin, an adjunct professor at FAU, declares the title "a peculiar word." She then goes on to ask, "How can a word that sounds and feels so elegant, is so orally and aurally enjoyable, be commonly defined as a corner store that sells lunchmeat and common staples? This exhibition returns the word to its Latin root delicatus, meaning 'to give pleasure or delight...' "

Well, maybe. For every item that's as pleasing and delightful as a good Reuben sandwich or some smoked lox with cream cheese and a bagel, there's something else that might make some of us a little squeamish, much the way we might be put off by a deli's more exotic fare. (Tongue sandwich, anyone?) Take Roxy Paine's Head Cheese (Loaf and Slices) (2004). Please! Working with pigmented cast epoxy resins, the New York artist has re-created the title substance, a conglomeration of the odds and ends left over after an animal has been slaughtered. He then encases the goods in a semitransparent sheath that lets you see the random meaty bits in all their awful, or offal, glory. The loaf sits on a pedestal, with seven cross-section slices hanging on the walls nearby.

Andrew Scott Ross' Rocks and Rocks and Dreams and Caves II and (top) Ellen Harvey's Rose Painting: Sometimes, blood is just red paint.
Andrew Scott Ross' Rocks and Rocks and Dreams and Caves II and (top) Ellen Harvey's Rose Painting: Sometimes, blood is just red paint.

Or consider the equally unappetizing A Viscous Predicament (2006) by Miami-based Cristina Lei Rodriguez. It's a freestanding tank-like construction topped with what Shpungin characterizes as "the Garden of Eden... smothered in an indiscernible gelatinous goo." The medium is identified as "plastic, epoxy, plexi, paint, and selected objects." What the whole piece brings to mind, however, is a toxic waste dump.

And then there's a pair of sculptures by Randy Wray: Dark Matter, which hangs from the ceiling near the gallery entrance, and the nearby earthbound Chapter and Verse. According to Shpungin, these assemblages "appear to be relics of mysterious origin." No, the only mystery is how these messy works — incorporating such ingredients as quartz crystals, resin, oil and acrylic paints, glass glitter, sewn canvas, and papier-mâché — ended up here.

Fortunately, most of the rest of the menu at this deli is much more appealing to the senses. The exhibition features 40 pieces by 22 artists (by a cool coincidence, 11 men and 11 women), and with these few exceptions, it's largely a bracingly eclectic body of work. True, the three acrylic canvases by Boyce Cummings aren't especially cutting-edge, but at least they demonstrate that painting can still hold its own in a show that's preoccupied with more idiosyncratic modes of expression.

Works by Diann Bauer, Chloe Piene, and William Cordova do much the same for the more traditional medium of drawing. Bauer, a New Yorker transplanted to London, takes classical-looking subject matter for her Beheading and Fluid Massacre Study (both 2007), then gives it a contemporary spin. In George Laughing (2003), Piene portrays her subject by stripping away his flesh and presenting the remaining skeletal figure in startlingly graceful charcoal strokes, generating eerie echoes of Egon Schiele's emaciated figures. And Cordova's Me Against the World (2004) impresses simply by accrual — what must be thousands of small disks (they might be record albums or game chips) accumulate in stack after stack, with enough minute variations here and there to invite closer inspection; almost as an afterthought, the drawing has been crudely stapled to the wall.

But "Delicatessen" 's most effective art pushes the envelope to one extent or another. For his "Untitled" Portrait of Dad (1991), the late Cuban-born American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres specified that about 175 pounds' worth of white mint candies be piled in a corner of the gallery. It's the sort of work that all but dares you to dismiss it, and I almost did. Then it occurred to me how subtly such an assemblage can summon up the personality that inspired it. With a disarmingly simple, single bit of information, the artist conveys something ineffable about his father.

Remove Gonzalez-Torres' white mints from their cellophane and you have the basic building blocks for another piece that works thanks to oblique suggestiveness. Luisa Caldwell's site-specific installation Color Falls III (2007) consists of nothing more than hundreds of colorful candy wrappers strung on ceiling-to-floor thread. As they react to the lighting and air currents of their environment, they resemble a magical gathering of butterflies.

Jane Benson's Naked Swan (2006) combines accumulation and subtraction by juxtaposition: a real taxidermied swan with feathers plucked is set against a two-mirrored plexiglass panel so that its image is multiplied endlessly. Even more unsettling than the countless reflected swans is the original swan itself, which comes uncomfortably close to looking like a turkey or a goose or even an oversized duck ready for the oven — appropriate for a real delicatessen, perhaps, but disturbing in a fine-art context.

Provocative creatures of an entirely different sort — paper — populate Jon Rosenbaum's contributions to the exhibition. Booth (2007) focuses on a small, fairly detailed replica of an octopus reaching for a spiky form that hangs within the title object. And the ironically titled Fallow Field (2006) features an array of amazing insects swarming over a flat landscape. Some appear to be attacking or devouring one another; others burrow into or emerge from the ground. All are intricately, beautifully rendered.

But easily the edgiest dishes in this "Delicatessen" are a handful of works that make such imaginative use of video that you might expect to see them at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. Early in the show is a sort of trilogy of related pieces, all from 1998, by Nina Katchadourian. For Mended Spiderweb #8 (Fish Patch), the artist mended a portion of a web with an artificial orange substance, then made a Cibachrome photograph of the results. She re-creates the mended web fragment using thread and glue in Fish Patch. And for the single-channel DVD Gift/Gift, she documents what happens when she places cutouts of the letters G, I, F, and T into a spider's web — the spider slowly, methodically rejects its present by cutting the letters loose and discarding them. It's a mesmerizing little performance.

Around the corner, Ellen Harvey works similar wonders with a trio of inextricably connected works for Rose Painting, which starts with a stretch of rose-patterned wallpaper mounted with a delicate, red, line painting of a rose and a video monitor. Completing the loop that links the three works is a video of the artist creating the painting we see next to the monitor — using the back of her hand as a palette and her own blood as "paint."

Jordan Wolfson's Infinite Melancholy (2003) dispenses with narrative accessories altogether and plunges us directly into pure video. While halting, solemn piano music plays on the soundtrack, the camera zooms in and out on what we come to realize are the words CHRISTOPHER REEVE, repeated endlessly in all directions. I found myself waiting anxiously to see if the words ever change (they don't) as the camera meanwhile provides a sort of roller coaster of the senses, with constantly shifting movements that from time to time yield briefly to an all-white screen.

Another darkened space forms a miniature theater screening three short films — The Sweetest Embrace of All (2004), Bliss & Heaven (2004), and A Vicious Undertow (2007) — by Danish artist Jesper Just. It takes about 25 minutes to take in all three of them, but they're worth altering your schedule to accommodate. The basics of narrative are present here, but Just is more interested in mood and atmosphere and, above all, surrealism. Each story could have been torn from someone's dream life, and A Vicious Undertow, in particular, has the feel of a miniature Ingmar Bergman movie.

There are some who would no doubt argue that a university gallery should be devoted to showcasing the work of the school's students. But the director of FAU's galleries, W. Rod Faulds, has always prided himself on bringing in independently curated exhibitions, like "Delicatessen," of work by contemporary artists both well-known and obscure, then letting students work with the curators. It's a noble, stimulating project that should be encouraged and continued.

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