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Off the Mark in the Off-Season

Summer is the off-season in South Florida, so museums often take advantage of the lull to showcase works from their permanent collections. A few years ago, for instance, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach did a large, ambitious, but near-incoherent summer show; last year the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale did not one but two, with mixed results.

The first -- "Coming Out of the Dark" -- was a good example of what could go wrong with a summer show: It felt haphazardly thrown together, and featured a wildly uneven array of what were billed as "seldom-seen" pieces, many of which would have been better off left in the dark. The second show -- "From Abstraction to Pop" -- was the opposite: small but tightly organized.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami typically mounts a summer exhibition drawn from its small but rapidly growing permanent collection, which includes quite a few large, elaborate installations. In its relatively short lifetime, the museum probably has had the most consistent track record with off-season shows -- until now.

"Primal Screams and Songs: Selections from the Permanent Collection" is far from a bad show, but its predecessors have been so strong it seems a little off by comparison. Individual works stand out, but they're often in isolation. The natural flow and flair for juxtaposition MoCA director and curator Bonnie Clearwater achieved in previous summer shows, most notably last year and in 1999, aren't so much in evidence.

Early in the 1999 show, for example, Clearwater hit on a surprisingly winning combination that featured a freestanding Mark di Suvero sculpture, a Louise Nevelson sculpture against one wall, and an oil and gesso on velvet painting by Julian Schnabel on another wall, and the contrasts worked remarkably well. Last year's exhibition also paired the di Suvero and the Schnabel to great effect.

The Schnabel, a large abstract called Lola (1989), is all that remains in "Primal Screams and Songs." But this time there's nothing as powerful as the di Suvero or Nevelson for it to play off, and so it seems lost, out of place.

Some otherwise fine pieces suffer from overfamiliarity. Dennis Oppenheim's simple installation Attempt to Raise Hell (1974) -- in which a felt and metal mannequin modeled after the artist repeatedly attempts to lift itself from a platform, only to bang its head against a large brass bell -- is one of the best evocations of futility this side of the myth of Sisyphus, but its impact begins to fade after repeated viewings (and here it has a small gallery all to itself).

The Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto's Un pé de Sonho (A Foot of Dream) (1997), a large stretch of cotton and Lycra attached at various points to ceiling beams and anchored to the floor by a mass of tiny lead pellets, took on a subtly different character when it was moved to another area of the museum last year. Here, however, it's displayed much as it was in 1999.

Another two pieces that played well off each other last year have had their juxtaposition enhanced. At the entrance to the show sits Peter Shelton's haunting Waterbaby (1989), a wood and metal platform on which rests a detailed metal baby that is continuously bathed by water from three slender pipes. It's an oddly soothing combination of disparate elements that together summon up birth and rebirth, and once again it works well in proximity to a large wooden sculpture by the German artist Ursula von Rydingsvard.

The untitled von Rydingsvard, which is in the small gallery adjacent to the show's entrance, is a crude bowl made from irregularly shaped blocks of cedar that have been "charred" with graphite. Standing close enough to smell the sweet mustiness of the cedar, with the soft gurgling of Waterbaby in the background, one can easily think of the bowl as a womb of sorts, as emblematic of fertility, as the baby is of birth.

But this time, Clearwater has added a second untitled von Rydingsvard, also in that same small gallery, that complicates the picture. This piece is a big rectangle of cedar that has been roughly hollowed out and accented with graphite and layers of felt at each end. It could be interpreted as a crib or bed; it just as easily could be seen as a lidless coffin.

These three pieces set the stark tone for the show, which is described in the introduction posted at the beginning: "[The exhibition] focuses on work that embodies primal gestures and communicates the human condition -- we are born alone; we search for meaning to life and a sense of wholeness; and ultimately we die alone."

The whispery breath of life is present in Robert Chambers' Capes (1995), two constructions of silk, latex, Bakelite, and electrical parts that hang from the building like upside-down hot-air balloons. The two audibly inflate and deflate ever so subtly and slowly like a set of out-of-sync lungs. (Chambers contributed a similar solo piece to the 1999 show.)

The search for meaning referred to in the intro, as well as the solitude of death, could be read into Terminal Tunnel (1989), a fascinating work made of wood, plastic, mirrors, and light bulbs assembled into a box that creates the optical illusion of a curving, never-ending tunnel. It's by the young New Yorker Julian LaVerdiere, who recently helped create the Tribute in Light in memory of the World Trade Center. The wall panel next to the piece likens the illusion LaVerdiere achieves to that of the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, appropriately associating the artist with another great visionary, Stanley Kubrick.

I've no idea where two of the most unusual works here fit into the scheme of things as set out in that introduction to the show. They're both by the German artist Rolf Julius, and both are minimalist installations using sound as a key element. Four White Stones (1987) consists of four small blocks of marble, irregularly spaced in a corner of the museum. Atop each sits a tiny round audio speaker, and a tangle of thin wires connects the speakers to a portable cassette player tucked into the corner.

Visually, it's a striking-enough composition, but the soft, static-like sounds emanating from the speakers are what make the piece so intriguing. Julius, who's clearly influenced by composer John Cage, calls it "small music" -- ordinary random sounds collected and played continuously at low volumes (Cage called them "small sounds").

The other Julius piece is more of the same, only slightly more ambitious. For Seben Wiesse Musiknesser (Seven Music Nests) (1988), seven speakers larger than those in Four White Stones have been strung high on the walls in another corner of the museum, three on one wall, joined by thin wire that snakes around the corner to connect to the other four. The sounds here are even subtler and more varied: barely audible hums, buzzes, hisses, crackles.

If you follow the wall to the end, you'll find a stack of receivers and cassette players with flashing meters, generating the bizarre mixture of sounds that at first seems like something created by aliens. But listen closely, and you can detect a birdlike quality to these electronic stutterings -- I kept thinking of the Paul Klee painting The Twittering Machine, with its eerie mechanical birds.

For me, these two Julius installations, along with Terminal Tunnel and a few other works, made up for the shortcomings of "Primal Screams and Songs." If you're a MoCA regular, however, you also may agree that now is the time to take some of this art out of rotation awhile to showcase other pieces from the permanent collection.

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Michael Mills

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