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Americana (Pérez Art Museum Miami: December 4, 2013 – May 1, 2014)

Cara Despain

Judith Barry, Casual Shopper, 1980-1981. Video Still. Courtesy of the artist and PAMM.

Americana brings together works from the museum’s early-stage collection and loans from area collectors in an attempt to create a legible co-history between the continental Americas, using its location in Miami as a framework. The city itself rolls together peoples and histories from the Caribbean and the Americas; here, the resulting cultural intersections and chasms are reflected in this exhibition in six parts. But rather than discussing the show as a conglomerate, here I will extract one gem from each themed section that effectively and interestingly illustrates the underlying tie. The six visual essays, scattered throughout the exhibition areas in a non-linear arrangement are “Desiring Landscape,” “Sources of the Self,” “Formalizing Craft,” “Progressive Forms,” “Commodity Cultures,” and “Corporal Violence.”

Desiring Landscape
Leandro Katz’s six photographs from the “Proyecto Catherwood” (1984-1995) series succinctly and meticulously conflate several discussions about landscape and our impressions of territories foreign to us. The photographs are part of a series Katz spent years creating where he traced the expeditions of Frederick Catherwood—a 19th-century explorer who created the drawings of the landscapes seen in or paired with the photos. Catherwood’s detailed drawings were the first published documentation of the Mayan ruins throughout Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. The differences revealed between the drawings and the reality at once uphold and destroy fantasy and show an exacting journey and staging process carried out by the second artist. It also opens a discussion about the ability of an artist to capture landscape and another culture’s monuments without the lens of their own culture imposing on the outcome. Catherwood’s perhaps slightly Eurocentric drawings seem just a little too exotic or overly tropical, and Katz—using the truth of photography and stealing the shot from the same angle—shows something more worn by tourism and time. The mind’s eye is forced to abut that of the camera; the promise abuts the delivery.

Sources of the Self
Carolee Schneemann’s best-known work “Interior Scroll” (1975) is quite literally contextualized in this tenuous subsection. During her performance, the conceptual centerpiece of the artwork seemed to propagate from her vagina, directly alluding to a core source of knowledge and artistic creation that was inherently female. Instead of the infamous black and white photographic documentation of the performance, the museum was loaned a piece of the actual scroll and a sketch of the accompanying action. The scroll—something that typically contains an old truth or wisdom—emanated from Schneemann’s own body. It was at odds with much of the Freudian, male-dominated art paradigms at the time, and though she used her the primacy of her flesh—the most interior and gendered part at that—what emerged was an internalized and regurgitated critique of her work as an essentialist female from a male contemporary. She cannibalized this critique and made it her source material. Seeing the paper scroll in a box in this context strangely makes it appear like an artifact. In this gallery, her assertion of this particular brand of feminist identity is interesting, if out of place in the company of others working within the confines of more subdued symbolism and Freudian ideas.

Formalizing Craft
Adrian Esparza “Wake and Wonder” (2013) is a deconstructed craft that has been rearranged to conform to the legacy of the grid as manifested in several different aspects: modernism, design, tourism, and borders. By deconstructing a Mexican serape—something with cultural specificity and recognition—and leaving the evidence, Esparza creates a figurative play between the identities on both sides of the border between Texas and Mexico. Every fiber is reconfigured into something that can be recognized as installation art and not as tourist shop craft. The relationship between art and craft has historically been complicated, and contrary to others who return respect to the labor of craft, Esparza to an extent undoes it. He has transformed the essence of the ubiquitous wool blanket, making the object of craft a critical discussion about formalism and conformity that can be applied to art production, culture and immigration alike.

Progressive Forms
Other works in the largest section of the exhibition engage constructivism, modernism, and the accompanying inbuilt idealism as a means by which to employ certain materials. Alexander Apostól’s “Skeleton Coast” (2005) series merely observes actual construction and applies it to some of the notions being abstracted in other works, and to economic development and the adoption of modernism in South America. The work is acutely aware of the grid and the aesthetics associated with urbanism, yet allows the stunted condo skeletons on the island of Margarita, off the coast of Venezuala, to communicate the breakdown in these utopian ideals uninterrupted. He chose something that abides by these aesthetic standards, but reveals a consequence or a truth that belies them in a direct and poignant way. The failure of the structures to be fully realized as functional dwelling spaces illustrates an inability to reach a collective standard.

Commodity Cultures
Judith Barry’s “Casual Shopper” (1980-1981) addresses the culture and economy of consumption through immersing the viewer in their mechanisms. Trained in architecture and having worked on several corporate projects, in addition to extensive video work in the music video industry, Barry offers an informed perspective with a critical and experimental spin. The result is this nearly painful piece shot on video and marinated in the distinct flavor of white corporate consumerism in 1980s America. The awkwardly edited frustrated romance—borrowing from experimental film of the 1970s and ‘80s and anticipating tropes that would return in indie film decades later—offers a strangely refreshing interpretation of consumerism that doesn’t deploy the sleek mass production of Pop art. The depressing, anti-climatic interactions between the mannequin-like man and woman convey the banal reality of middle-class Americans’ love affair with consumption and its attendant loneliness. The female character seems to be in perpetual pursuit of something undefined but vaguely dictated by her endless indoor window display indoctrination. “Are you looking for anything in particular?” she is repeatedly asked. “No,” she says, “I’m just looking.”

Corporal Violence
In Trevor Paglen’s “Seventeen Letters from the Deep State” (2011), the absence of the body leaves the insidiousness and violence up to the imagination. The routine, veiled language of formality and bureaucratic secrecy barricades viewers (here extending beyond an art audience to a citizenship) from the reality of the situation. Paglen’s practice of unearthing or decoding secrecy points to a significant difference between him and many of the artists with whom he shares this space, and that difference in turn points to a rift in the way we experience systemic violence. People in the US do not live through the daily political violence that is visualized by many of the other works in this subsection, but interpret it often through reading. In this case the once-secret documents implicate activity that was illegally carried out by the US government: transporting terror suspects to places outside the jurisdiction of the US so that enhanced interrogation techniques could be used. Because this practice of torture is exported and hidden behind layers of dubious red tape, we experience it as vague documents with inconsistent signatures. That is, paper work. This is a far cry from depictions of the brutalized body, yet represents similar actions. Interestingly, however, this is the only work that serves as real evidence and not a representation, yet can nearly be overlooked.