Over the Top
The show's title sounds slightly reckless, as if the artists had knocked back a few or taken a couple of hits to jump-start the creative juices. And sure enough, some of the best work in "Under the Influence: An Exhibition by 2 + 3," now at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, is a little edgy, a bit out there.
Take Cherie L. Saleeby's sprawling mixed-media installation Dynamism, which at first seems like several different pieces. On the wall is a large canvas perhaps eight feet tall by six feet wide, set in a wide frame made of pale, unfinished wood. The composition is sparse, with a few thick smears of dark, dull pigment set off by a black leather glove that has been affixed to the lower left corner.
A few feet away on the floor are several odd jet-black forms that faintly echo the forms on the canvas. One is more or less a roundish blob, another is a rough-edged shape rising from a wooden platform, and a third is a stylized fragment of a female torso mounted on a black pedestal.
A set of headphones rests on another pedestal, from which you can hear traces of jangly, dissonant music as you make your way through the installation. Put on the headphones and you'll hear a loop that includes a couple of compositions (Stephen Coxe's "Les Illuminations" and Hideko Kawamoto's "Around the Corner") performed by an octet of violin, trombone, piano, and percussion, along with Jon Peske's reading of his disturbing poem "Transformation."
There's a sort of fact sheet with some cryptic background information on the work, which has an extended title that reads Dynamism: Carrie Aude, the Lady and the Faery of Tar. The text of "Transformation" is included, along with a brief artist's statement from Saleeby, in which she reveals that her inspiration for this collaborative effort is the medium of tar: "I have explored its fragileness, sensuality and skinlike texture."
Peske, by contrast, provides an explanation of how the work came about through a casual conversation he and Saleeby had about "the sensitivity, the vulnerability of the heart, how easy it was to be hurt -- and how painful -- if one has thick skin, and that sometimes a thicker skin, more protection, might be desirable."
These teasing bits of information help pull the many parts of the installation, which according to the sheet "has never been presented in its entirety," together. They also simultaneously create an air of mystery that gives the work its elusive energy.
This quirky project seems to me to embody the idea behind "Under the Influence" as articulated by curator Dorit Arad in a handout: "The term... was broadly interpreted by the artists. Some looked to the influence of other artists and styles in the development of their work, others mentioned the influence of distant lands or regions, and still others looked to social and ethical issues relevant to humanity at the dawn of a new millennium."
Dynamism, with its jumble of these and other influences, including the influences of its own components on one another, is just one of more than two dozen pieces in this exhibition, which showcases the works of some of the members of 2 + 3: The Artists' Organization, a 13-year-old South Florida group founded with the support of sculptor Duane Hanson. More than 50 artists are involved in 2 + 3 (which alludes to working in both two and three dimensions), about half of whom are represented in this show.
A very specific influence is at work in the tellingly titled Homage, a lovely mixed-media sculpture by Tobey Archer that combines neon, Lucite, and sculpture paper. Archer places neon rods and rectangles behind the layers of torn paper that seem suspended in midair inside the Lucite box; the softly glowing pinks and oranges suggest the grand color-field canvases of Mark Rothko, with their serene, muted colors and blurred edges. Call it Switched-On Rothko.
Mimi Shapiro's mixed-media installation Under the Influence starts from an older source, the 1425 painting Expulsion From Eden by the Italian Masaccio. She spells out her influences: "There is so much that we can be influenced by in this world, but all of the myths and stories seem to be based on that original Adam and Eve story. We all know the ending to that... and maybe, just maybe, we all need to be rewriting our own finish to that myth."
I'm not convinced that all myths and stories are descendants of the Garden of Eden story, but what Shapiro has done with that simplistic idea is quite provocative. Her piece is a triptych of sorts, starting with two wall-mounted panels, the first a stark collage depicting Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden, the second a more elaborate collage in which several half-nude men are building a structure of some sort outdoors, while a couple, presumably Adam and Eve, cling to each other in the lower right corner.
The piece concludes with a modified reliquary box, with its etched-glass surface partially open and adorned with a cutout of a female nude. Inside are such oddities as champagne corks, tiny Christmas light bulbs, a fragment of a car's taillight, colored beads, a small goblet holding a rose, a tiny vase holding another rose, and several other paper roses strewn throughout. (Shapiro doesn't specify, but I suspect Joseph Cornell's famous boxes are also an influence.)
One of the exhibition's most striking pieces blatantly departs from the stated theme. It's called Portrait With Mask, and Kathelin McCauley describes it as "my attempt at being non-derivative." The artist has mounted a cage made of welded wire on a wooden panel, and portions of the wire have been broken off or burned, giving access to the interior at several points.
There's a ghostly image of a face painted in dark acrylic on the wood, partially obscured by a jagged chunk of wood that's the "mask" of the title. An unidentifiable object of rusty metal hangs from the bottom right of the wire cage, completing this strange portrait.
A few of the other pieces here make a strong impression -- the fiery acrylic rendering of Australia's Ayers Rock in the middle panel of Betty Usdan Zwickler's triptych Uluru and the Dreamings, the gestural ferocity in Mary Lou Siefker's dark abstract acrylic portrait Image #43 -- but there's also a lot that's more or less run-of-the-mill, the stuff of so many group shows.
Come to think of it, some of this work has already appeared in such exhibitions: Beth Ravitz's Who Am I? installation, which was a highlight of the Portraits show last year at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, and pastelist Janet Gold's Constructivism, a big geometric grid that similarly livened up a faculty show at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale a while back.
Modest as it is, Under the Influence offers a welcome contrast to the Museum of Art's current high-profile show, "Palace of Gold & Light: Treasures From the Topkapi, Istanbul," which has taken over the museum's entire second floor. If you join the large crowds flocking to see these admittedly magnificent Ottoman Empire artifacts, don't neglect the small pleasures downstairs. Be aware, however: You'll have to seek out the show, which is tucked away in the far rear of the museum. But it's worth the search.
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