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Engine Trouble

The title of one of the exhibitions currently at the Museum of Art (MoA) in Fort Lauderdale, "Surrounding Interiors: Views Inside the Car," holds out hope that the show might be as refreshingly quirky as MoA's "American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life" two years ago.

"American Lawn" was a sweeping multimedia exploration of how Americans have connected with their yards over the years; it was surprisingly unpretentious, not to mention a heck of a lot of fun. "Surrounding Interiors" has the same potential: The automobile, after all, is as central to everyday American culture as Mom and apple pie, especially in South Florida.

But the new show turns out to be something of a tease, a date who entices you into the back seat only to end up complaining of a headache. That's not to say that there aren't some winners here; it's just that the exhibition could have been so much more.

The introduction posted at the beginning of the show is part of the tease: "This exhibition is the first to explore the nature and meaning of the car interior, a space many of us inhabit daily. Like the mind, the car interior is a control center of sorts, a place of psychic and social activity that frames a focused view of the world outside, offering to the outsider occasional glimpses within. The artists selected for this exhibition examine the complex subject of the space inside the car: a place personal and anonymous, private and public, hermetic and permeable, where psychological and social dramas are played out. Like the depictions of domestic interiors over the centuries, the car interior has inspired artists to explore the mutable character of this space."

I've quoted this intro at such length to demonstrate how curator Judith Hoos Fox, of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, sets up our expectations. If only the show fully delivered on them.

Two pieces a few feet from the introduction do deliver. They're from Andrea Zittel's A-Z Escape Vehicles, a 1996 series of installations, each of which creates a highly personalized environment. They're not exactly cars, but their boxy interiors are reminiscent of the inside of an automobile.

One is lined with pale blue fabric. On the far wall sits a small glass shelf that holds a corkscrew and a glass of flowers. Above it is a built-in CD player, some CDs, and bottles of champagne and liquor. It's the sort of place where Hugh Hefner might relax in his smoking jacket.

The other is a sort of modified hot tub, full of circulating water. As Fox notes, "Meant to be placed within the owners' homes, these compartments suggest that only within the intimacy of our vehicles are we truly at ease." If you doubt this, just look around you on the road and observe the vast array of human behavior that goes on inside cars. (But hey, keep your eyes on the road too.)

Most of the rest of the show, which includes a baker's dozen of artists, features works that are no match for Zittel's vehicles. The photographs, in particular, tend to be as mundane as their titles. Take Nan Goldin's trio of oversize Cibachromes: Kathleen in the Taxi to Greer's Funeral, Chicago (1996), Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC (1991), and Smoky Car, New Hampshire (1979). Or Peter Cain's Bonneville (1993). Or Andrew Bush's Old Man in VW (1989-92) -- which apparently took three years to develop.

Even artists who ordinarily would generate excitement fall a little short. The mixed-media assemblage Sawdy (1972) is by Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, but it has none of the horrific impact of the large assemblages for which the Kienholz couple is known. This one consists merely of a car door mounted on the wall, with its window -- a mirror -- half-open, and the number 49 stenciled on it.

Of more interest is the biographical footnote about Ed Kienholz, who died in 1994. Apparently he was interred in his 1940 Packard, along with a dollar bill, a deck of cards, a bottle of 1931 Chianti, and the ashes of his dog in the back seat. We also learn that he was trained as both carpenter and mechanic, which helps explain his proficiency at creating those environmental assemblages.

The video pieces are also disappointing. Sophie Calle and Gregory Shephard's Double Blind (1992) documents a cross-country road trip, and it's as uninvolving as a stranger's home movies. Cate Snook's untitled 1998 video features the artist driving slowly around in a mall parking lot with a camcorder mounted on her shoulder.

Theophilus Nii Anum Sowah, an artist from Ghana, fares a little better with his 300 SL Mercedes (1990), a big model car made of wood, paint, and Bondo. The car has been transformed into a casket to remind us of how closely automobiles and death are linked.

But aside from Andrea Zittel's Escape Vehicles, the show's strongest piece is Dan Devine's How to Turn Your Car Inside Out (1998), for which he has literally taken a 1979 Volkswagen Rabbit apart and reassembled it inside out. The artist works similar mischief with a computer and a sneaker, both on display at the "Brooklyn!" show now winding down at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art in Lake Worth.

Devine's deconstructions are simultaneously whimsical and jarring. They force us to look at things in a different way, which is one of the specialties of contemporary art. Devine has even written a droll manual of sorts for re-creating the car piece that is reprinted at the gallery Web site www.pierogi2000.com.

Among the point-by-point instructions: "Some may want to first mark their intended cuts beforehand and others will start right in, relying on intuition. I prefer the spontaneous approach. Look out for falling or sharp objects" and "Take each individual piece and clean it. This procedure must be done with great care so you will gain a fuller understanding of where the pieces came from and where you will put them upon re-assembly."

If only "Surrounding Interiors" included more works as stimulating as Zittel's and Devine's. Instead, the exhibition has a big black hole at its center -- literally. The left and right sections of the show wrap around an empty, darkened gallery, an apt metaphor for the show's squandered potential.

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Michael Mills

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