This challenging yet playful exhibition at MOCA, North Miami brings together work by various international contemporary artists whose work involves interventions in, or modifications of, pre-existing cultural forms, objects, or materials. There is a deliberately oblique quality to much of the work, which can be either intriguing or off-putting depending on one's point of view. I found many of the works to be highly engaging, while others were less satisfactory. In any case, the museum's printed "Gallery Guide" booklet was helpful in terms of understanding each artist's processes and concerns.
Among the most eye-catching and technically impressive pieces is José Carlos Martinat's Superficial exercise #9, in which the artist peeled the paint off of one of the walls in the gallery, keeping the solid layers of paint intact in a single piece as they droop down to the floor.
Also striking is Anders Smebye's colorful padding wrapped around pre-existing columns in the museum, along with his barbells, dumbbells and weights made of concrete and iron bars. Together they transform part of the museum's space into what could almost be an offbeat gymnasium.
Nina Beier's installation, The Demonstrators, consists of 10 large objects – furniture, radiators, a music stand – each with a poster attached to it somewhat haphazardly. The posters each depict a single, apparently random image drawn from a stock photography collection – images such as a white owl, a luxury watch, a bicycle tire, frayed cords, and hanging off-the-hook old-fashioned telephones. The work drew me in with its dramatic pairings of object and image, yet ultimately I was disappointed by the lack of any coherent theme. Beier's other piece in the show, Portraits Mode, consists of three abstract arrangements of found garments with interesting patterns, each in its own frame, as though they were paintings. Again, I found the work to be attractive, yet it left me wanting more in the way of content.
Adriana Lara contributes a number of pieces to the exhibition, each very different from the other, yet all involving electronic technology. One of my favorites is Solitaire (Blue), which consists of a video monitor showing what appears to be a typical computer Solitaire game—except that all of the cards are jokers, thus circumventing the logic of the game and highlighting the randomness of so much of life. Another interesting and fun piece by Lara is Modifying Practice, a neon "sign"—reminiscent of Bruce Nauman—which depicts a hand flashing through three phases: an upraised middle finger, an index finger pointing straight up, and the two-fingered peace/victory symbol. This simple, yet elegant, piece packs a punch as it vacillates between the different emotionally-charged symbols of the human experience.
Lara's largest piece in the show is her installation entitled 5—from the series Numbers (Disambiguation)—in which she painted a gestural numeral 5 on a gallery wall, and then projected a PowerPoint slideshow onto that same wall, the slideshow looping through a seemingly endless array of gorgeous costumed figures dressed for the carnival in Venice, Italy. The slideshow, which is what really grabs the viewer's attention, turns out to have been from a mass email which the artist received. I felt cheated to find out that those photographs were not created by the artist, but rather were co-opted from someone else, even though that someone was apparently anonymous. Upon taking a second look at the tension between the static numeral 5 and the dynamic PowerPoint images, I was reminded of Charles Demuth's classic early Modern painting, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold. Yet it seemed I was being teased in a way that felt unoriginal and empty.
One of Darren Bader's multiple contributions consists simply of two couches facing each other in the gallery. The artist describes the materials as "couch; fake couch." However I sat on both of them and I can attest that both of them are real couches. This seems to me like another pointless exercise, although I have to admit it was nice to have a comfortable place to sit and rest my feet for a while.
More interesting was another work by Bader, Soap made of dark matter—a static digital image showing what appears to be a Caribbean beach scene with a giant bar of white soap in the foreground, looking like an incongruous "iceberg." At once humorous and ominous, the image brings to mind notions of purity and beauty, but it might also be read as a reference to the consequences of global warming.
Karl Holmqvist's video piece—installed in its own dark room—consists of a series of white text phrases against a black background, with the artist's voice speaking/reading the text aloud in a dull, droning voice. The text fragments come from various sources and range from poetic to silly to banal, recalling the work of such superior artists as Laurie Anderson and Barbara Kruger. However in this case the spoken voice comes off as pretentious and irritating, draining the life out of what purports to be poetry.
Nick Relph's works, while small in scale, are among the strongest in the show. He exhibits a series of five prints that each combine two immediately recognizable, but very different, symbols of the human body—the handicapped symbol and Henri Matisse's "blue nude" cutouts. The intertwined figures in each print are two different tones of blue, and the interplay between these two graphic images—the schematic handicapped symbol and the artsy, organic Matisse figure—emphasizes the richness and complexity of the human experience.
Nicolás Paris' contribution involves a process of collaboration between the artist, the museum's educational team, and a core group of teen students. On the day I visited the museum I had the pleasure of meeting Paris in person, as well as watching one of the workshops that he is conducting with the students. The participants sat on stools painted vibrant colors and arranged in a circle. The workshop consisted of a series of exercises designed to help the students use drawing as a means of exploration and imagination. For example, Paris held up a green colored pencil and described it as containing within itself beautiful gardens, since the pencil could be used to draw them. He then asked each student to pick out one colored pencil, and to think about what his/her pencil might contain within itself. They went around the circle and shared their answers, which ranged from feathers to rivers to skies to blood flowing through veins. For a subsequent exercise, each student received a sheet of plain white paper and was asked to design their own money, utilizing both sides of the sheet of paper, and including whatever symbols and portraits were important to them. The workshop appeared to be successful in terms of engaging the students and nourishing their creativity. What is less clear is how the process functions as a work of art in its own right. To this end, Paris intends to leave behind a diagram of the process through the use of adhesive vinyl circles, a different color for each day, placed on the floor to indicate the varied positions of the participants' stools.
All in all, I found Modify, as needed to be a stimulating exhibition. I recommend checking it out—and then modifying your own opinions, as needed.
~Eduardo Alexander Rabel
Images: Nick Relph, 1525.5 + 4, 2011, Giclee print in indigo dyed wooden frame. Courtesy of the artist, Gavin Brown’s enterprise and STANDARD (OSLO), Oslo; Installation view of Modify, as needed at Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. Photo by Steven Brooke. Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami; Adriana Lara, Solitaire (Blue), 2010 from the series Screens, HD video, 8:37 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and House of Gaga, Mexico.