There's something a little unnerving about seeing a show like "Phillip Estlund: Subprime/Subtropics" so close to the beginning of tropical storm season in South Florida. For those of us who've survived a hurricane or two (or three or four), his exhibition is an uncomfortable reminder of our vulnerability, not to mention a vivid evocation of the aftermath of such meteorological phenomena.
Estlund splits his time between New York and West Palm Beach, and I'd hazard a guess that he has learned to hightail it out of here when the weather begins to shift in late spring. Then again, maybe he hangs around to draw inspiration from those rumblings that will soon gear up in the Atlantic and Caribbean.
The show, which takes up all of Hollywood's Art and Culture Center except for its Project Room, is composed of a handful of sculptures, a couple of gigantic photo murals, a trio of C-prints on aluminum, and a single collage in the main gallery, plus a dozen additional collages and two more of those mixed-media sculptures in other areas.
According to the sparse wall text, these pieces "inhabit the physical and psychological terrain left behind by man-made and natural disasters," which nails Estlund's work here pretty succinctly. Although the exhibition brochure doesn't credit her, I suspect that the center's curator, Jane Hart, assembled the show, which feels open and airy even as it summons the sense of creeping anxiety that sets in when there's a storm brewing.
Not to shortchange the collages, many of which lovingly pay tribute to the spirit of Dada, but Estlund is at his best in the sculptures, most of which look to have been slammed onto the walls from which they jut. They're unholy conglomerations of materials like wood, rubber, polyvinyl chloride, and polystyrene, all held together by glue that oozes messily from the junctures. It takes serious craftsmanship, coupled with a strong sense of irony, to assemble architecture this chaotic-looking. The brochure cites the installations of Edward Kienholz and the architectural elements of Gordon Matta-Clark's work as two of Estlund's influences.
Given the exhibition title, these pieces simultaneously suggest the detritus left behind by a big storm and the kind of slapdash construction left behind by an unscrupulous South Florida contractor. Conjoined: A Total Loss, for instance, is a horrific vision of how two distinct structures might be violently hurled together during a major hurricane. Fixer-Upper, on the other hand, is a crude building reminiscent of a log cabin, a blithe swipe at a real estate business that is sometimes disingenuous.
Towering among the sculptures are huge color photo murals of beaches and palm trees and puffy clouds that appear to capture the subtropical paradise that lures people here in the first place — except for one glaring detail. On closer inspection, you'll see that these seemingly perfect landscapes have been drizzled with some sort of brownish glaze that resembles nothing so much as dirty storm water. Paradise, Estlund seems to be saying, is an easily sullied illusion.
Estlund's achievement is that he has managed to take two superficially unrelated subjects — the weather and the construction industry — and conflate them in such a way that their underlying connections become obvious. There's an implied critique of rampant development embedded in these works: If you build here, the storms will come. Estlund eerily distills this essence of life in South Florida.