Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.
Jasper Johns' famous exhortation is one of the most succinct statements of aesthetics in 20th-century art, and the artists included in "Amalgam: Multi-Media Fusions by Four Florida Artists" seem to have taken his advice to heart and then some. They've gone a step further, taking several objects and then doing several things to them. More specifically, they've taken ordinary materials and transformed them into strikingly exotic items.
As a result, most of the 35 pieces in the show, now on exhibit at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, simultaneously offer an otherworldly aura and an odd familiarity. Walking into the show is like stumbling upon a thrift store out of science fiction, a place stocked with the antique castoffs of an alien civilization.
Take for example one of Tony Shipp's three untitled pieces, the one that appears to have been assembled from a musician's paraphernalia. There's a valve from some sort of horn here and one of those little lyre-shape clips used to hold a marching musician's sheet music there. The clip holds a delicate, wood-framed transparency featuring overlapping human figures illuminated by a small light bulb inside a bell that looks, of course, like part of a brass instrument. The individual components of the piece have been ripped from their usual contexts and assembled in a way that doesn't make much sense, and yet this invented object has its own internal logic.
Shipp does the same thing with another untitled work, this one a box approximately 15 inches tall, 4 inches wide, and 4 inches deep. Inside the box and behind glass, a cigar is displayed. A skull adorns the paper ring around the cigar, which has been pierced with countless tiny straight pins (Saint Sebastian rendered in tobacco?). Affixed to the front of the box is part of the "needle" from a musician's metronome, also featuring a skull, and metal fittings and pieces of black and pale red rubber tubing snake up and down the sides and back of the box, as if supplying a life-support system.
Shipp's pieces -- five in all, arrayed in the museum's smallest gallery -- inevitably summon up Joseph Cornell's famous boxes. They also share an affinity with, say, Jasper Johns' 1955 Target With Plaster Casts, with its "reliquary" of human body parts. (Another Shipp piece, Shoeless Reliquary, includes objects associated with baseball player "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, of the disgraced 1919 Chicago White Sox team.)
In the long, narrow gallery adjacent to the Shipp room are three pieces by Lydia Friedland, whose work also draws on everyday objects but otherwise couldn't be more different. The three pieces here, as well as the four around the corner at one end of the museum's main gallery, take fashion as their starting point, but again the commonplace is made exotic.
Friedland's Bittersweet, for instance, is a sort of modified ballet tutu suspended from the ceiling on a thick metal hanger. The garment is made of cotton and satin, but dozens of buttons and pieces of costume jewelry have been sewn to almost every square inch of its surface, and a thick rope of fabric rises out of the piece and spills onto the floor below, like a long tail or umbilical cord.
The titles of some of the other Friedland pieces make the artist's feminist concerns more obvious. A Woman's Prerogative is another "dress" in which the fabric is almost completely blanketed with staples as well as small scissors and bits of metal, including buttons and spools. A sort of companion piece, A Coat For Our Time, is a man's jacket made up of steel wool, staples, and safety pins, with arms that extend, apelike, all the way to the floor.
But Friedland's most evocative piece is the one called Instar, which looks like an enormous tube dress that hangs close to the ceiling and flows onto and across the floor. It's made of aluminum screen festooned with staples, beads, and buttons, and its upper quarter or so is decorated with rhinestones attached to mesh with little bent pieces of wire. It's a piece worth lingering over. Despite its apparent simplicity of form, Instar is a resonant work in which manmade materials are used to suggest the organic. Its rippling, translucent surfaces, for instance, make it look almost like an insect's shed skin or a caterpillar, both of which are emblems of transformation. From the side the piece is even reminiscent of a Francis Bacon crucifixion, the one Bacon said was inspired by another crucifixion (by Giovanni Cimabue), in which the body resembles "a worm crawling just moving, undulating down the cross."
Sharing the main gallery with Friedland's work are eight pieces by Polly Holt, whose affinity for found objects links her to Dadaism and surrealism. Holt turns recycling into an aesthetic, working with such discarded materials as chunks of colored glass from a bottle factory, secondhand copper wire, and pieces of rusty metal. ("I love rust," she writes in a revealing artist's statement. "It's always in a state of flux disintegrating . It has a pretty color and texture.")
In putting together Gaze, the confessed junk-hound took a cradlelike structure made of rusty steel, then draped chunks of green glass wrapped in copper wire over the sides. Four guitar strings stretch from one end of the piece to another. Bundle starts with mangled bedsprings -- rusted, of course -- piled on a wooden platform. A cluster of pieces of red glass is wrapped in wire inside the bedsprings, and a small spotlight illuminates the glass. For the small piece Her Badness #3, Friedland used a roundish chunk of green glass with snaky strips of glass extending from it to suggest a sort of abstract Medusa.
Holt's best piece in the show is one that, like Friedland's work, evokes the organic by way of mechanical means. Rolling Bridge is a monumental piece, perhaps 10 feet tall and 15 feet wide, that incorporates Holt's usual conglomeration of copper wire and colored glass (in this case, blue) into a stretch of steel chainlink fence, all suspended within a six-legged wooden frame. The overall effect is distinctly surreal, as if the artist had displayed the skeleton of a gigantic fish by hanging it inside a bridge.
The one artist whose work doesn't quite fit in with the rest of "Amalgam" is Allan Maxwell, whose 15 large manipulated photographs occupy the medium-size gallery just off the museum's foyer. Maxwell typically stages a composition, often using dolls (including Barbie) as well as human figures, then projects an existing photographic image onto the staged arrangement, which he then photographs again. A positive transparency of the image is generated, and the artist etches additional images onto its surface before making a final photographic print.
The process sounds complicated, and indeed the resulting imagery is sometimes so hopelessly cluttered that it's difficult to tell what Maxwell wants these photographs to do. The whimsicality of the doll-based pictures, in particular, seems a bit forced, although he achieves a pleasing balance between photographic and illustrational elements in two similar pieces: Water Series #7 and Water Series #5.
Maxwell's work would make more sense as part of a photography exhibition, especially one emphasizing photographs that have been tinkered with in one way or another. Here, however, among the art of Shipp, Friedland, and Holt, it just seems out of place. Other than that, "Amalgam" is a sparse but appealingly prickly show.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the South Florida art and theater scene.