Variety Show

Like the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, which is currently showcasing pieces from its permanent collections in an exhibition called "Scale Matters," the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami is putting the summer lull to good use with a show called "Heads Up!: Highlights From the...
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Like the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, which is currently showcasing pieces from its permanent collections in an exhibition called "Scale Matters," the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami is putting the summer lull to good use with a show called "Heads Up!: Highlights From the Permanent Collection." Unlike the Norton, however, MoCA has gone about it the right way.

Drawing on the more than 250 works at her disposal, MoCA director and chief curator Bonnie Clearwater has assembled an exhibition of approximately 50 pieces that beautifully illustrate the museum's commitment to contemporary art in all of its sometimes jarring diversity. Included in the show are pieces by such established figures as Louise Nevelson, Mark di Suvero, Dennis Oppenheim, and Julian Schnabel, as well as works by artists whose names aren't familiar -- at least not yet. MoCA prides itself on providing early exposure for up-and-coming talent, artists who, as the exhibition's introduction puts it, "expand the definition of art and inventively use non-traditional materials and media."

The exhibition also makes excellent use of the museum's airy, 12,000-square-foot main gallery with its movable walls, concrete floors, and 21-foot, exposed-beam metal ceiling. The museum complex is the work of architect Charles Gwathmey, known for his renovation and expansion of the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, who seems to have approached the project with the notion of a museum as a vast repository, a sort of elegant warehouse for displaying art. The vaguely unfinished feel to MoCA's display spaces is altogether fitting for the kinds of art the museum favors.

It must have been daunting for Clearwater to narrow the permanent collection down to just a few dozen pieces, but she has risen to the challenge admirably. Rather than try to cram as much art as possible into the available space, she wisely elected to give the selected works room to breathe, room to play off (and sometimes against) one another. The flow to the exhibition is all the more remarkable when you consider what an eclectic selection of works it includes.

As icing on the cake, we're provided with the sort of useful supplementary information on art and artists that's all-too-often neglected these days. ID panels include titles, names, dates, and media, while secondary panels offer brief biographical sketches of the artists and more detailed information on the pieces. These succinct, unpretentious tidbits are a welcome addition to a show that shies away from the grand, sweeping generalizations that often characterize shows puffed up with their own selfimportance.

Not surprisingly for an exhibition emphasizing variety, "Heads Up!" has its modest share of clunkers. Untitled (Seated Man), a small 1997 wooden sculpture crudely carved and painted by the German artist Stephan Balkenhol, feels uncomfortably out of place among the sculptures and installations that push the envelope much more daringly. And aside from an eerie 1996 trio of Cibachrome images -- Blue Sandals, Common Dream, and Migration -- staged by Gabriel Orozco of Mexico, most of the photographs Clearwater has settled on don't contribute much to the show.

What is surprising is how well the show clicks as a whole. You don't have to be an admirer (and I'm certainly not) of the overinflated career and reputation of Julian Schnabel to concede that the piece included here makes perfect sense in context. It's a 1989 Neo-Expressionist work called Lola, painted on velvet in oil and gesso (a plaster-and-glue-based preparation), that consists of little more than a few dramatic smears of black and white on a vivid field of red, with the title scrawled across the surface of the image.

By itself the painting is unremarkable, but Clearwater has hit on a juxtaposition that seems unaccountably right. To one side of the Schnabel is a stark, untitled 1965 sculpture by Mark di Suvero in which two automobile tires are impaled by a twisted steel pipe, which in turn is mounted on a steel rod on a steel platform. The cool, hard surfaces provide a sharp contrast to the velvety red warmth of the Schnabel. And to the left of the painting, mounted on the wall across from the di Suvero, is another inspired choice: an untitled Louise Nevelson sculpture from the mid-'70s, one of her trademark constructions of wooden odds and ends (including, in this case, the back of a chair and the headboard from a bed), all painted a uniform black.

The entire exhibition is full of such juxtapositions. Dan Flavin's corner-mounted piece Puerto Rican Lights (To Jeanie Blake) #2 (1965), a trio of fluorescent light tubes that generate a soft, glowing color field, shares space with Felix Gonzalez-Torres' construction Untitled (Ross in L.A.) (1991), a stack of poster-size offset minimalist prints, each featuring a gray rectangle on white.

But the show really hits its stride with the quirkier pieces, some quite elaborate, others disarmingly simple. Two light-based works toy with the notion of what constitutes a "readymade," Marcel Duchamp's term for a found object that becomes a piece of art by virtue of its appropriation and display by the artist. Miami-based Mark Handforth's Untitled (Lovelight) (1999) appears to be nothing more than an ordinary streetlight laid on its side and turned on, just as Jorge Pardo's Round Light, Darker on the Bottom (1997) looks to be a glass-globed domestic lamp hanging from the ceiling. Is either one what it seems, or something more?

Long before you see it, you'll hear the witty but disturbing Dennis Oppenheim installation Attempt to Raise Hell (1974), in which a dummy doll seated on a wood-and-metal platform repeatedly attempts to lift himself up, only to strike his head repeatedly on a large brass bell hanging just in front of his face. The piece can be thought of as a three-dimensional rendering of the myth of Sisyphus, an embodiment of an eternal cycle of futility. Oppenheim also contributes a large, elaborate installation called Gut Birthdays (1992), a bizarre conglomeration of elongated, neon wet suits, metal clamps, electrical cord, and light bulbs that stretches across an expanse of ceiling and down a wall.

You'll also hear two video installations as you make your way through the show. The 1999 piece Bim Bam, by the Miami-based German artist Dara Friedman, is another "investigation into futility," as the information panel puts it: two endlessly repeating loops of 16 mm film, run on side-by-side projectors, of a woman slamming a door again and again. And in a small gallery at the far end of the exhibition, there are endless screenings of a short 1995 video by Tracey Emin, identified as Why I Never Became a Dancer on the placard but called Why I Didn't Become a Dancer on screen. The narration to this grainy, jittery, home-movie-style footage chronicles a young woman's sexually precocious youth in a British seaside resort, and from time to time, her loud outbursts echo through the museum.

Another striking mixed-media work makes much subtler use of sound. For Cape (1995), Robert Chambers has combined silk, latex, Bakelite, and electrical components to create a sort of inverted hot-air balloon suspended from the museum's ceiling. Stand very close to this strangely seductive piece, and you'll hear a barely audible murmur as it inflates and deflates. The whole process takes place so slowly, and the results vary so dramatically, that the piece demands repeated visits to see it at various stages of its metamorphosis.

A similarly sensuous elegance comes into play in Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto's Un Pé de Sonho (A Foot of Dream). The 1997 work consists of a large panel of cotton and Lycra fabric stretched and attached to metal beams in the museum ceiling and anchored to the floor by lead pellets, which pull the middle of the panel into a sort of elongated limb. The piece commands the space around it, creating a serene, wholly self-contained environment that serves as the centerpiece for the entire exhibition.

Although I don't normally cover shows as far south as this one, MoCA is worth the trip. Last year the venue offered a comprehensive Keith Haring retrospective and a multimedia show inspired by the films of David Cronenberg. No other museum in either Broward or Palm Beach County regularly takes comparable risks in its programming. This is art worth driving a few extra miles to see. Hats off to Bonnie Clearwater and her staff for "Heads Up!"

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