Hyperreal Life

Give me a break," a friend said when I told her about one of the works in "Making Art in Miami: Travels in Hyperreality," the new show at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami. The piece is identified as an oil, but rather than oil on canvas, it's oil on ceramic.

That's a little joke: The Jason Hedges piece is not a painting at all, but an installation that takes up MoCA's Pavilion, a small, separate gallery across the plaza from the main entrance. It's called Aesthetic Experience #5 (Oil), and it consists of ten small, freestanding square tables equally spaced in two parallel rows.

Each table features an identical composition arranged on its surface: a bottle of olive oil, some of which has been poured onto a white ceramic plate; a bowl of bread torn into bite-size pieces; and a small stack of paper napkins. Museumgoers are invited to meander among the tables and sample the oils, which range in taste from overwhelmingly pungent to subtly fruity.

"That's art?" my friend scoffed. "Sounds more like a winetasting." Aside from pointing out that no wine was involved, I argued that yes, given its context, Aesthetic Experience #5 (Oil) can indeed be construed as interactive art that engages the senses on several levels. You smell the oils and bread as soon as you enter the gallery, and the tastes you'll encounter, as I indicated, are highly varied. And on a certain level, the piece can also be interpreted as something of a sophisticated prank, an aesthetic diversion to toy with your mind.

I mention this installation first because it perfectly sums up the strengths of "Making Art in Miami," which is full of other, very different installations that attempt to draw viewers in, to engage us in a dialogue about the possibilities of contemporary art. You're probably better off taking in the piece at the end of your visit, as I inadvertently did. The show will leave you with a good taste, so to speak.

Twenty-two artists are represented in the exhibition; as curator Bonnie Clearwater points out in the show's catalog, most of them have emerged within the past five years, which probably accounts for the freshness that characterizes much of the work here. She also points out that, as South Florida artists, they're keenly aware of "Disney World and theme park illusionism" and "the wizardry of filmmaking and fashion photography."

In the catalog essay, titled "Navigating the Hyperreal" (the show's subtitle, "Travels in Hyperreality," comes from an Umberto Eco essay) Clearwater writes: "For most of the artists included in this exhibition, South Florida's hyperreal constructions constitute the authentic environment of the region. Disney World, Vizcaya, the Venetian Pool are as real as Rome's ancient ruins. The focus here is [on]... how the area's fantasy environment has profoundly influenced the artists' attitudes regarding the role of art.

"Specifically, these artists have a heightened awareness of the viewer's role as an active participant with their works, and this knowledge affects their creative process."

The show's best pieces confirm these observations. Another installation early in the show has a giddy charge. Eugenia Vargas' Blizzard is a space about 20 feet wide, 10 feet high, and 10 feet deep. On the far side is a wall of mirrors, on the near side a transparent vinyl curtain. At the bottom of the left and right walls and at the top of the far one are machines that constantly blow large soap bubbles into the space.

Again, the piece engages several senses at once. It's mesmerizing to watch the bubbles as they drift dreamily through their environment. You can also hear the faint whir of the machines' blowers, and if you get close to the vinyl curtain, you catch a whiff of an unidentifiable scent (it reminded me vaguely of caramel). And because the piece is constantly changing, if you revisit it later, you'll find the bubbles are wafting through and congregating in their little world in entirely different ways.

Around the corner John Espinosa's If you lived here you'd be home already actually invites you into the piece (with shoes removed, please). Here too this artist has marked off his territory, in this case a small "room" with the floor and walls painted a cool blue. In the center of the space sits an irregularly shaped, miniature mixed-media construction, elevated a few inches off the floor, consisting of slightly raised areas covered in dark green felt and other areas painted a paler green or light blue. In the background rises a mass of pale bubbly shapes.

As you move around this odd construction, you may notice, as I did, a tiny fleck of something near the center. At first I thought it was a bit of debris accidentally deposited on the piece, only to discover on much closer inspection that it's a very small human figure, establishing this alien space as a fantasy landscape: the green areas are fields and meadows, the blue shapes lakes, the bubbly shapes clouds on the horizon.

You're also invited to "get into" Gean Moreno's Mouse House (for Yoan), a self-enclosed space accessible only if you crawl through a human-size mouse hole. Inside it brightly colored balloons of various sizes rest, along with a gigantic beach ball. The walls are painted with large, colorful circles that echo the balloons, and a sort of bench sits in one corner covered with orange felt.

In the far rear corner of the museum the most elaborate installation of all is displayed, a large piece called Hand-Held by an artist identified only as Cooper. The area is scattered with hay, both in bales and strewn on the floor, and on the far side sits a small, battered old camper of the sort you'd hitch to the back of a car. You can approach it and peer through the windows, through which you'll see a kitchenette and a little dining area, with a solitary fork resting on the table. The words Vindico terra firma adorn one side of the camper in pale blue neon.

The piece also includes a roughly six-foot-tall dummy wearing a jumpsuit and motorcycle helmet and leaning against one wall. Finally a square crate made of light-color wood hangs from the ceiling a few feet above the floor. It wasn't until a museum guard alerted me that I realized the crate is hollow, so viewers can crawl into it from below. Inside, you can stand to watch a small video screen and listen to the low, pulsating rumble emitted from a pair of tiny speakers.

A projector runs a continuously recycling video loop in which the artist, clad in the jumpsuit and helmet, is filmed in closeup, so that we see only his relatively stationary head as the background slowly shifts. It takes a moment to realize that that background, furnished with the items outside the crate -- the camper, the hay, and other items -- is a stage set, and the video is a record of Cooper's "performance" on it. (It was an "Aha!" moment for me, occurring about the time I began to feel almost hypnotized by that rumbling hum inside the crate.)

I've focused on these installations, but they're not the only things of interest in "Making Art in Miami." Elizabeth Withstandley's 15 Years of Planning (American Style), a half-dozen inkjet prints portraying people with pie on their faces, are both witty and unsettling, and some wonderfully strange pieces by Herman Bas include 18 small portraits framed and under glass and another seven life-size ones painted directly onto a stretch of museum wall, all created using different flavors of the diet product Slim-Fast, of all things.

But these mixed-media projects are easily the most provocative pieces in a pleasingly provocative show, and they mesh beautifully not only with the stated aims of this exhibition but with those of MoCA itself.

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Michael Mills