Cross Street

In the catalog for "metro pictures," now at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in North Miami and the Moore Space in Miami's Design District, curator Silvia Karman Cubiña sums up the two-part show as "snapshots of the city" and says it brings together 29 artists "whose works define, interpret and/or reject the city, as well as describe how the city is navigated."

Cubiña, who's also director of the Moore Space, then goes on to say what the show isn't: "This exhibition concept is by no means a tight thematic show, nor is it meant to be interpreted literally... The character of a city is cast not only by its buildings, but by the individuals who dwell in and among them... This exhibition does not document any specific place."

It's a definition as shiny and slippery as mercury, eye-catching but impossible to pin down. That probably goes a long way toward explaining why the show feels so unfocused and scattershot. The unifying theme doesn't unify as thoroughly as it should.

The exhibition is most intriguing, if not entirely satisfying, as a study in contrasts. The two-venue concept is part of a MOCA initiative called Trading Places, which from time to time partners the museum with an alternative art space elsewhere in the area. In this case, as MOCA director Bonnie Clearwater puts it in her introduction, the MOCA/Moore pairing allows visitors to "have their own urban experience as they travel from one space to the other."

Two friends and I started with Part Two at MOCA, then headed south to the Moore Space for Part One, although I don't think our "urban experience" would have differed substantially if the order had been reversed. And indeed, as intended, the physical contrasts between the two sites are striking.

MOCA's Charles Gwathmey-designed building is a grand, glorified industrial warehouse of sorts just off a busy thoroughfare in North Miami. Outside, it's easily the most compelling architectural presence in the neighborhood, and inside, it's an almost infinitely versatile display space that can be configured to suit a curator's specifications.

The Moore Space is fairly centrally located in Miami's Design District and not far from the adjacent Wynwood Arts District, both of which are relatively deserted on weekends. Parking is on the street, and you have to get buzzed into a nondescript office building, then make your way to the second floor to the small cluster of spaces that make up the gallery.

Clearwater points out that the distinctive characters of the two venues influenced decisions about which art went where. MOCA's more abundant wall space lends itself to the presentation of paintings and photographs, while Moore's more open floor plan favors three-dimensional works. A few of the artists in the show are represented in both spaces.

All this sounds orderly enough, but it felt more arbitrary when we were actually experiencing the exhibition. For one thing, MOCA seems to have been slighted when the art was divvied up.

Much of two large expanses of wall at the museum, for instance, has been devoted to a handful of acrylic paintings by California-based artist Henry Taylor, whose style is described in the catalog as "funky and real." Make that "crude and amateurish." Nor is the original photography of interest aside from a series of more than 40 vintage gelatin silver prints of street scenes in New York and Mexico City. If they feel like artifacts from another time, that's because they are — they were taken during the late 1930s and early 1940s by Helen Levitt, a New Yorker who, at 93, is by far the oldest artist in the show (most are in their 30s, with a few in their 20s and 40s). They're lovely images that seem to have wandered into the wrong show.

MOCA is known for its innovative presentation of video and film, but with one exception the installations here aren't impressive. That one exception is the whimsical Intertextualidad, a video projection on DVD by Quisqueya Henríquez, a Cuban-born artist who now lives and works in the Dominican Republic. The video is simultaneously simple and complex: Although it portrays nothing more than a rooster weaving through a parking area and street, the images have been digitally saturated with vivid color frame by frame.

The museum has also earned its reputation for showcasing interactive installation art. There's only one such work here, at the beginning of the exhibition, by Kianga Ford, who hails from Washington, D.C., and is now based in Los Angeles and Boston. Her piece The Complex, So. Cal. Multi-4 consists of four rounded acrylic pods, each outfitted with a fabric lining, pillows, and headphones playing little narratives. Visitors are welcome to climb in and relax in the cozy little spaces.

There are a few other winners at MOCA. Near the end of the show are three large panels of newspaper photographs that make up the Mexican artist Jonathan Hernández's Vulnerabilia (water, fire, mass). They're not collages, exactly — the images are neatly arranged side by side — although they have an almost eerie cumulative effect that depends on the repetition of visual motifs, such as the smoke that's present in the photos in the "fire" panel.

The works on display at the Moore Space tend to be considerably less subtle, and some of them are downright in-your-face garish. Take, for example, one of the first pieces to greet you, California artist Richard Jackson's Dicks Deer, a large mixed-media construction on a dais that features an up-ended stag whose anatomy has been modified in various ways (including the addition of a long, thick green penis).

A couple of video installations provide a sort of soundtrack that you can pick up on as you move through the show. The Simpson Verdict, by Kota Ezawa, a German who now works in San Francisco, is a three-minute loop of vaguely South Park-style animation that relives the final moments of the O.J. Simpson trial. MGM, by New Yorker Brock Enright, endlessly plays a truncated version of the movie studio's logo (hence the "metro" in the exhibition's title). Two other videos, one by Beatriz Monteavaro, a Cuban now in Miami, another by Hank Willis Thomas of San Francisco, make humorous use of toy action figures manipulated to create miniature stories.

The only artist who successfully straddles both portions of "metro pictures" is the New York-born, Miami-based George Sánchez-Calderón, who works on a large scale to create installations that are both provocative and mysterious. At MOCA, his Niche and After Dürer are overlapping mixed-media pieces that include wood, metal, and plaster components, as well as black-and-white photo murals printed on big stretches of wall. Similarly, at Moore, his Monument/Stoop and Wishing Well feature the title objects, in wood and painted polystyrene foam, respectively, dwarfed by photo murals in which the objects also appear. My companions wondered if they "got" what the artist was getting at, while I thought the ambiguity and lack of clear resolution are the very things that make the works interesting.

But even Sánchez-Calderón's intrigue isn't enough to make "metro pictures" more than just a collection of wildly uneven works by artists who don't really seem to have much in common. Count this as one of MOCA's very rare misfires.

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Michael Mills