A la Modus
Strange how the cultural currents in Broward County shift. Not so long ago, Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art (MoA) went from being reliable, mainstream, even conservative -- the place you'd go to see solid if fairly predictable big shows -- to exploring quirkier waters. The museum dabbled in interactive and experiential art, and its last Hortt Competition was heavy on installations.
Then there was an exodus of top talent, and MoA began to rely increasingly on its musty Glackens and CoBrA collections. Luckily, the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood has quietly eased in to fill the void. The museum's big fall show was "Fat Painting," a bold collection of works by four artists reaffirming the continuing influence of abstract expressionism. Now the center weighs in with "Modus Operandi," an equally adventurous exhibition focusing on another small group of artists.
The Art and Culture Center too had its lull awhile back after the departure of curator Laurence Pamer (who -- coincidence? -- had once been curator at MoA). But current curator Samantha Salzinger, the woman behind both "Fat Painting" and "Modus Operandi," seems to have picked up where Pamer left off. The new show isn't quite as tightly focused as its predecessor, but Salzinger is clearly willing to take chances, and more often than not, they pay off -- in one case spectacularly.
In an introduction included in the small but well-conceived and well-designed (if typo-heavy) exhibition brochure, Salzinger writes that the show's title "refers to one's method of working or process; in this case it examines both the artist's process of creation and how we process memory." The "Fat Painting" show was also concerned with the artistic process, culminating in a room-sized installation featuring a video of Miami artist Rosaria Pugliese creating that same installation.
"Modus Operandi" ends in an even more dramatic installation (more on that later), although it begins much more modestly. The most immediately attention-grabbing works when you enter the center's big main gallery are also ultimately the show's least rewarding. Martin E. Casuso, a Miami-based artist, works largely with found objects, specifically such things as secondhand textiles, needlepoint, and hooked rugs.
Lamp (2002) consists of a towering pile of about two dozen coils of fabric that get progressively smaller until they reach a small lamp perched on top. Rug (2002), which lies on the museum floor a few feet away, suggests what might happen if the title object were removed from Lamp and the coils of fabric were flattened into a circle 75 inches in diameter.
Other pieces incorporate such items as circular saw blades with simple 1950s-style imagery on them, doorknobs, chairs, and small tables. The table in Bath & Bed Goodnite (2001) is piled with 104 booklets, each containing a week's worth of diary entries by a woman who lived in a small California town more than half a century ago.
Salzinger has an eloquent take on these recycled craft items: "Casuso uses items made with care and integrity by random hands from the past and reworks them into new objects. The layers of labor come together to show both time traversed and time whiled away, representing the ephemeral nature of our lives, reminding us of our past and our transitory sense of value." Fair enough. But I couldn't get past one thing about these pieces: To my eyes, at least, they're essentially ugly.
The large ghostly photographs of San Francisco artist Abner Nolan, on the other hand, convey the ideas Salzinger articulated much more effectively. There's a generous selection of C-prints mounted on aluminum from Nolan's Notation Series (1999-2002), which consists of old snapshots that have been rephotographed from their back sides and enlarged, so that the scribbles on the backs of the originals seem to float off the pale surfaces of the front-side images. Another piece called Linda 1963 (2001) juxtaposes half a dozen formal portraits from Linda's high school yearbook, each inscribed by its subject.
The images and the writing are mundane. One guy signs, "To a real swell gal, lots of luck wherever you go." Another writes, "To one of the fellow sufferers in GAA and a fellow fan of Hitchcock." In one photo from the Notation Series, a shot of two children riding a pony carries nothing more than the Kodak imprint and a 1977 date. And yet these banal words and pictures are also haunting evocations of a past just beyond our reach.
On the wall opposite Nolan's photographs are six of New Yorker Brian Wood's mixed-media pieces, which combine photography and ink drawings on Mylar to emphasize texture and pattern. Typically, a small inset photograph is superimposed onto an inky background. In one piece, what looks to be an extreme close-up of a turtle's flesh floats on an abstract wash of ink. In another, the close-up is of a human tongue extending from a mouth.
The show also includes some large Wood pieces that embrace abstract expressionism. Stand (1986) is a large, horizontal, mixed-media work on unmounted, unframed paper that contrasts some big, black, blotchy shapes on one side with more delicate lines suggesting Asian ideo-grams on the other.
The museum's two middle galleries house more than two dozen black-and-white photographs by Lois Conner, a New Yorker who, according to the brochure, uses a 7-by-17-inch "banquet" view camera and old-fashioned platinum palladium processing for her prints. The former provides her with images that are either unusually wide or unusually long, while the latter gives her access to a more extensive palette of tones.
Conner's photos have the most basic generic titles indicating where they were taken, and to judge from their abundance, Chinese locations are her favorite. But at its best, her work is hardly generic travelogue photography. She's drawn to images that typical tourists probably wouldn't pick up on, such as the countless tiers of terraced gardens that cascade down the hillsides in Longshan, Guangxi, China (1991), punctuated by a tiny solitary figure in the distance.
She also creates a sense of flow in Nielsen Park, Vancluse (2000), a close-up of gnarled tree trunks and intertwined branches that look as if they're melting down a rocky hillside in the Sydney, Australia, park. For other pieces, Conner generates fullness of space by piecing together multiple shots, as in the seven vertical panels of Ngo Gach Street (1994), which seem to wrap around a corner and down the street in both directions.
Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat (1993) similarly uses four vertical panels to give a seemingly multidimensional view of the famous Cambodian ruins. And in the spectacular vertical shot Le Shan, Sichuan (1986), Conner captures steep, narrow steps that snake down a lush hillside to the edge of a lake or river, with city buildings ever so faintly visible in the background.
After Conner's photographs, "Modus Operandi" changes course abruptly with Miami-based Bill Burke's installation Thin Spaces, which takes up an entire gallery. You enter the dimly illuminated space through a bamboo curtain only to find yourself walking on a layer of sand covering the floor. Sounds of gurgling water come from inside two white pedestals, upon which sit miniature buildings resembling churches.
Along the walls are displays of what look like fossils embedded in slabs of some sort of translucent material. According to the brochure, these are actual plant and animal carcasses that Burke has preserved in fired glass. Some are so badly decomposed that they're unidentifiable.
Elsewhere in the gallery are wooden boxes containing similar specimens, some so faint they become abstract studies in texture. Other boxes extending from the wall offer small windows to such contents as dried leaves, twigs, and even a tiny bird's nest. And along one wall are two "clotheslines" with nearly three dozen pieces of paper clipped to them, each with a fossil-like imprint.
Paradoxically, this room filled with reminders of death and deterioration is a strangely soothing space. Maybe that's because it presents life and death as a continuum, with even the footprints of previous visitors as traces of people who have come and gone, who have left their marks, however impermanent, on this eerie environment. All by itself, Thin Spaces makes "Modus Operandi" worth experiencing.
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