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Come and Play

Long before I saw what turned out to be my favorite piece in "publikulture (a social experiment by eight Miami artists)" -- one of two shows now downstairs at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale -- I heard it.

The work, called Playground (for Mila), is a room-size installation consisting of, well, a children's playground. And I heard it because some rambunctious kids were doing what comes naturally: They were playing. They laughed, they yelled, and as best I could tell, they bounced balls of some sort on the museum floor, perhaps even off the walls.

Sure enough, as I rounded the corner, I saw the playground. It rests on a large patch of foam overlaid with AstroTurf, and it's surrounded by strewn toys, balloons, and plastic balls of various sizes. One very large ball is suitable for straddling and bouncing around on, as one mother confided when her two young children dragged her back to the playground for a repeat visit.

In the middle of the room -- which artist Gean Moreno specifies should be at least 30 feet by 25 feet with a 16-foot ceiling -- sits the playground equipment. It's essentially a two-level wooden fort with a ladder leading upstairs to two small "rooms." The second chamber contains a squeaky little door that provides access to a winding tubular slide made of bright yellow plastic. The mother insisted that, because of the cramped quarters, adults can go down the slide headfirst only; I proved otherwise.

In the exhibition catalog, Moreno provides "instructions" for the piece: "Parents should be allowed to move around the installation the same way they do at any playground. They should not be prevented from going in the fort or down the slide if they choose to. The children are also to use the playground as they see fit, unless they are placing themselves or others in danger. There should be as little interference from security personnel as possible." (I can just imagine the museum's security guards being trained in proper playground protocol.)

Playground, according to the artist's statement in the catalog, "is intended to raise a number of questions about the use and function of a museum -- without becoming dry critique.... It should, in the end, have more to do with the playful atmosphere it fosters than with whatever the intentions behind it are."

By now the mom and kids had departed, leaving me on my own to ponder the artist's "questions about the use and function of a museum." And when I felt myself drifting toward "dry critique," I did the obvious: I went down the slide two more times and bounced the balls again.

According to the introductory catalog essay by curator Ginger Gregg Duggan, "publikulture" is an experiment designed to raise questions: "How well does conceptual art fare when removed from the validating arena of a gallery or museum? What happens when the public is directly or indirectly involved in the creative process?"

Moreno's piece stands out because it invites continuous participation and interaction. The other works in the exhibition are at a slight remove and hence less visceral -- they are documentations of public interaction that, in most cases, has already occurred.

John and Mauricio Espinosa's Wish You Were Here, for instance, is a filmed record of an airplane skywriting the work's title in white smoke across the sky above Miami. The artists used three types of video cameras and two still cameras to catch the event from different angles, then edited the footage into one seamless piece of film, which is projected onto one wall in a darkened gallery.

Similarly Luis Gispert's Sneaking into Backyards is a photographic documentation of activities that have passed. In this case the work comprises three sets of two conjoined photos: one of the artist engaged in the title activity (taken by "an accomplice in a getaway car"), the other of something he photographed once inside the back yard.

William Cordova formulated his own interpretation of "public interaction" for his In Constant Search for Zero, a project that entailed his taking up a one-month residence at a hotel (the Extended Stay America on SE 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale, to be precise). While he was artist-in-residence at this unorthodox venue, he created roughly 100 postcards, 30 photographs, and various found-object sculptures, "based on or influenced by interactions with community," which are now displayed on one of the museum's walls.

At the end of the exhibition is the "Feedback Center," a large green chalkboard on which visitors are invited to "applaud or challenge the projects or to raise questions of the artists." When I was there, the content was mostly smudged sketches and graffiti of the "John loves Mary" variety, but a few more-pointed comments also appeared: "ABSTRACT HAS NO REAL TALENT ONLY WISHFUL THINKING," "IMAGINATION RULES," and "WRONG AGAIN."

One wag took the opportunity to make a political statement: "I HATE DUBYA," to which another writer had appended, "ME, TOO." At first I questioned the relevance of such whimsy, only to realize that "publikulture" is exactly the sort of art that's likely to test the patience of the new administration. If so, there may be more dark days ahead for the National Endowment for the Arts.

As a counterpoint to "publikulture," somewhat more traditional art is on display around the corner in "Jake Fernandez: Ethereal Journeyman," a selection of more than two dozen pieces, including pastels, oils, and photocollages of various sizes. The work of this Cuban-born artist, who was educated in South Florida and now divides his time between here and Manhattan, doesn't show much variety. He often focuses on natural landscapes populated by neither animals nor humans, and his palette is consequently limited to a range of browns, greens, and other earthy tones, although he gets sometimes surprisingly expressive effects from these muted colors.

Fernandez's landscapes are all about atmosphere, and they are indeed ethereal, as if a faint breeze might dissipate them altogether. The 1999 pastel The Bayou is as soft and dreamy as a mirage, as is another airy pastel titled Medoc Park (2000), which contains the most basic suggestions of trees and perhaps a creek.

As Allys Palladino-Craig observes in the catalog essay, "descriptive outlines, a discernible horizon and the vanishing points of linear perspective are noticeably absent" in much of Fernandez's work. "Enough visual information is contained to explicitly identify the drawings/paintings as landscapes, yet enough ambiguity remains in the image to trigger a gestalt reading."

In such large horizontal pastels as Perico Island (1995) and The Conservatory (2000), Fernandez edges ever closer to Monet's impressionism and its attempts to capture the flickering quality of light on water. In the former, which echoes Monet's water lily paintings, the artist used more than four dozen separate images as source material, combining them to form a landscape that exists only in his reinterpretation of them.

With Ethereal Composition #1 (1996), a large work on a piece of linen measuring roughly five feet by ten feet, Fernandez goes for structure and texture. Faint blue lines form a grid of squares crisscrossed by diagonals, and the muted palette of grays and creamy tones is rendered with a mixture of plaster, marble dust, and graphite. Step up to the painting, and you'll find whorls and ridges that might suggest an alien topography, a dream world that draws you into its soft, delicate swirls. I suspect that's just what Fernandez meant for his audience to discover.

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Michael Mills

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