Art » Art Feature

Head Games

Three new exhibits challenge common definitions of art.

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The press-release photos of Charles Juhasz-Alvarado's meticulously fashioned polychrome sculptures -- including the skeleton of a huge airplane dangling in the air -- fueled my giddy anticipation of the installation F at Rhodes College. From the pictures, one could discern qualities consistent with the Puerto Rican artist's training in architecture and the visual arts at Yale University: elegantly designed toys and environments with a multidisciplinary approach to installation, combining found and fashioned objects, text, audio, and photography. This year's Moss artist-in-residence at Rhodes, Juhasz-Alvarado even incorporates the work of students into his installations. And the artist will be included in the upcoming Sao Paulo Biennale. F, I thought, is going to knock my socks off.

My expectations were bloated. The only three-dimensional object in Rhodes' Clough-Hanson Gallery is a model jet suspended from the ceiling, occupying the center of the room in passionless repose. The airplane itself is impressive in scale and craft, its framework derived from a carefully engineered rib-and-slat construction, but the installation offers no context for this object, visual or otherwise, with its barren surroundings. It languishes like a dateless stiff at a prom or a bump on a log. The lonely behemoth shares the room with wall text lining the gallery and listing jillions of dictionary entries for words beginning with F. The biblical length of the text, nebulously swapped, scrambled, and annotated, discourages reading, doubly so since every single definition is infuriatingly lopped off on the right side.

The weakness of the installation lies in the incongruence of its two major components -- the airplane and the wall text -- and the resulting ambiguity of its message.

"Give random people the finger and see how they react" is the instruction from an attendee of "Everything Can Be Different" at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis. Carsten Höller's Games That Can Be Played Without Any Equipment or Materials and That Involve Bodily Actions, Mental Strategy, Imagination or Fantasy includes a bulletin board so that such attendees can post their own games or instructions. Höller's games are accompanied by silk-screen illustrations, as in Die Genetik der Zungen-fertigkerten (The Genetics of Tongue Tricks), in which disembodied pink mouths on silver grounds roll their tongues in every possible configuration. The continuous creation of new ideas and endless variations of Games That Can be Played and the socialization that it inspires characterize the revolutionary purpose of the exhibition.

The theme of "Everything " is to create an atmosphere of experimentation and lightheartedness, to reconsider the definition and role of art in society. Curator Maria Lind is dedicated to the transformative capacity of "art as art art that resembles research in its testing and production of ideas, art as meta-category an open platform that relates to and encompasses politics, philosophy, sociology, religion, psychology, literature, music, theater, and science." The various installations invoke a much more interactive experience for the viewer, language glitches aside, than the average art exhibit, particularly through the use of electronic media, fashion design, and the invitation to play.

Olafur Eliasson's Yet Untitled, an indoor waterfall, is crudely but confidently fabricated from simple household materials: a transparent Plexiglas basin, a water hose, a pump, metal rods, and a strobe light. But inside the dark recesses of the gallery, under the meter of the strobe, this plebeian amalgam emits a rivulet of crystal pearls. The pump continuously recycles the water through the basin, steadily bubbling, splashing, and gurgling, and the visual effect is intensified if one faces the strobe (but don't if you're prone to flashbacks). The jubilant vulgarity of Yet Untitled is certainly part of the charm, its components assembled for simple utility rather than beauty, which belies the wonder of the spectacle.

Speaking of vulgarity, Lester Merriweather's mining of the most vile and humiliating images of racist symbolism may not be for the faint of heart. In the artist statement for Everywhere, Simultaneously, Beautiful, at AMUM's Artlab, Merriweather contends that "as a black male, one has a (theoretical) obligation to objectify the existing hierarchies in society." Depicting scenes of the Middle Passage, Ku Klux Klan, lynching, and other fare that cannot be described delicately, Merriweather's stick figures adopt the generic industrial-design motif native to restroom doors and handicapped parking signs, a device that homogenizes and objectifies an otherwise horribly violent and debauched narrative. Merriweather is obviously compelled by a sense of history and an appetite for justice. Shock value alone, however, is not enough to carry the installation, and there's not much else to chew on.

Unfortunately, these installations, with a few exceptions, prove to at first push buttons but ultimately bore by virtue of allusions that are at best broadsides -- e.g., hyperbolic racial and gender stereotypes, piped-in Latin beats -- while the work's meaning or relevance remains nebulous or, for the optimist, fluid.

F showing at Rhodes through March 21st; "Everything Can Be Different" at AMUM through April 13th; Everywhere, Simultaneously, Beautiful at AMUM's Artlab through April 14th.

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