Impeach the Judge

Second place: It's a joke without a punch line.

There's nothing like a feisty group exhibition to usher in another long, hot South Florida summer, and so the "Hollywood All-Media Juried Biennial" is as welcome as a tall, tart glass of ice-cold lemonade. The competition was established just two years ago by the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood's ever-resourceful curator of exhibitions, Samantha Salzinger, and already she's tweaking it. This year, artists working in film were eligible to compete, with awards given for Best Short Film and Best Feature Film as selected by juror Dinorah de Jesus Rodriguez, a filmmaker who's currently an artist in residence at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach.

I was off by a day to see the winning feature, director Mark Moorman's Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, which screens Saturdays at 1 p.m. (it runs an hour and a half). The winning short, Kinesis -- First Movement, repeats on a loop in the small gallery just off the museum lobby, which has been cordoned off and darkened. It's an eerie little piece of work, not quite four and a half minutes long, in which darkness is punctuated by glimpses of a slow-motion kiss and a would-be suicide. A crisp soundtrack that includes footsteps, a ringing telephone, and whispering voices adds to the dreamily surreal atmosphere. The work is a collaborative effort credited to the cleverly named Loitering Goat Productions, which includes Gonzalo Escobar, Deda Starling, William Amaya, Daniel Geoghegan, and Elisa Menendez.

Comparing the film competition with the rest of the biennial leads us into apples-and-oranges territory, since only the winning films are shown. The rest of the exhibition, which includes the works of roughly 30 artists, juxtaposes the also-rans with the handful of winners. It's a distinction worth making because it enables us to make side-by-side comparisons and question the selections of juror Nick Cindric, director of Miami's Rocket Projects Gallery -- as in: "He picked this over that?"

Which I will now proceed to do. Cindric's choice for Best in Show, for example, is a two-and-a-half-minute video on DVD called I am the smallest planet of my own (the text panel on the wall gets the preposition wrong, substituting on for of). This cheerful, whimsical work, projected onto the curved wall at the south end of the main gallery, features a variety of items -- sea horses, dolphins, scoops of ice cream -- floating in space against a changing backdrop of skewed landscapes, accompanied by simple captions such as "I am flying down the beach with ice cream UFOs."

I will forgive the maddening, singsong voice that provides the video's soundtrack. While it was set at an oppressively high volume the day I took in the show -- it was literally inescapable -- an acquaintance who has worked with artist Jiae Hwang tells me that the sound should have been much softer and subtler. I'll take her word for it, because the images are enchanting.

My big question is whether this video (and others) competed in the film category -- whether I am the smallest planet of my own went head to head with Kinesis -- First Movement, Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, and other entries in the film category. Neither the introduction posted at the beginning of the exhibition nor the sketchy brochure raises the film-vs.-video issue, which is worth addressing.

Many of Cindric's other winners strike me as downright perverse. First place goes to Xmas, a murky little oil-on-wood painting of a Christmas tree in a darkened room pierced by rays of bright light from a window. And his pick for second place is Priscilla Ferguson's untitled (and undistinguished) black-and-white photograph of a bare tree in the middle of a Clyde Butcher-style landscape of swampland and fluffy cumulus clouds, its branches adorned with blocky letters reading LOVELY DAY ISNT IT? It's like a joke without a punch line.

A stronger case could be made for William Faulkner's House, by Christina Pettersson, which took third place. It's a graphite drawing in which an oblong chunk of what looks to be solid rock floats on a 54-by-96-inch expanse of white paper. Simplicity, ambiguity, and mystery come together in a work that, like Faulkner's prose, can seem impenetrable but is worthy of scrutiny.

Cindric also handed out five honorable mentions, and as is often the case in juried group shows like this, some of the choices are a little more adventurous. Two untitled C-prints by Dana Landau and Isabele Moros-Rigau are nothing special, although the latter -- an image of a girl displaying a scuffed knee -- benefits from being displayed next to Hugo Montoya's complementary Blood on Floor, a color shot of rivulets of blood on someone's lower legs and feet. Jeffrey Calvert's Hunter-Gather, an appealingly eccentric mixed-media assemblage, includes a ratty old fox stole wrapped around an unidentifiable white form that's covered by a brown paper bag with eyeholes revealing a tiny video monitor inside. Veronica Fazzio's less-interesting Vientre is a hanging mixed-media construction, and Richard Lund's Dark Places is a moody video combining grainy black-and-white imagery and a scratchy soundtrack with voices counting.

Ultimately, however, this biennial is most notable for what gets overlooked. Maybe Carol Prusa's You Are Too Many and Blooming Voices (both rendered in silverpoint, graphite, and acrylic on plastic paper) were deemed too similar to her three submissions last year, one of which earned her Best in Show. The Boca Raton-based artist, who creates ethereal biomorphic forms, has an instantly identifiable style that some might describe as monotonous, even as others (myself included) might champion it as coherent and consistent.

Not far from Prusa's work is a similarly otherworldly piece by Iris Even called Detached from the Body. Its three rubber forms, each about three feet long, suggest giant, segmented insects like centipedes, and they're suspended on monofilament (one trails onto the floor). Their top sides are a warm brown that's uncomfortably close to the color of freshly baked bread.

I was also drawn to a couple of mixed-media works in the main gallery that are interactive, although in different ways. Matthew Cox's Why Is a Vulture Following Me? is a wall-mounted contraption with chains and wheels that whir into motion when you approach, so that a long strip of canvas blanketed with markings in charcoal or pencil advances a few inches. The bird of the title seems almost like an afterthought, a tiny form perched on a slender rod attached to an immobile wheel.

While Cox's piece reacts to the viewer on its own terms, The Illustrated Alphabet of Memory, also by Pettersson, depends on the viewer's willingness to interact. It consists of a sheeted mattress on the floor with a pair of pillows and two dozen books of various sizes arrayed across its surface. The books are open to their inside front or back covers and include such markings as the names of owners, secondhand prices, drawings, and stains, and affixed to each is a little index tab with a letter of the alphabet (u and z are missing, which I suppose is a comment on the fallibility of memory). The interactive component is a small sign on the floor that reads "You may kneel on the bed," and there's a clear space at the foot of the bed for doing so, which of course I did. You should too, because the different vantage point changes the context of the work.

Overall, this second biennial at the Art and Culture Center, narrowed down from nearly 200 entries, is much easier to get a handle on than its predecessor, which featured more than 100 works by 66 artists. This time, photography doesn't threaten to take over, and the art that's included gets enough space to keep the exhibition from feeling cluttered. Just ignore the juror's winners and choose your own and you should come away satisfied.

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