First show under new MOCA leadership delivers clear vision

The Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami is a favorite and familiar stop for art lovers in South Florida. Under the direction of Bonnie Clearwater, it has introduced The Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami is a favorite and familiar stop for art lovers in South Florida. Under the direction of Bonnie Clearwater, it has introduced all strains of contemporary art to a burgeoning and still growing art scene. Clearwater recently departed to take the helm at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale and has been replaced by a young New York curator and art critic, Alex Gartenfeld.

Because of the importance MOCA plays in our art community, the unveiling of Gartenfeld’s first show, the just-opened Love of Technology, carried extra weight. Would he be able to continue a well-regarded track regard, while at the same time reveal a new vision? Love of Technology suggests a resounding yes.

From the moment they enter, MOCA regulars will find a new approach — literally. The huge front desk and crowded store are gone. In its place is a sparse, open space with subdued lighting; the white ceiling panels have been removed to expose the gray grids of the roof, adding even more space. The store is still there, but it has been pared down and includes some beautiful lamps from artist Jorge Pardo hanging from the ceiling.

The first part of the exhibition is set up in the lobby. A black metal architect’s desk sits against a wall, with blueprints hanging above it. The desk is connected by a cable that snakes across the ceiling to a fishing boat shrink-wrapped in white that takes up most of the next room and resembles a model. From New York artist Ben Schumacher and Miami architect John Keenan, the installation feels very rudimentary, not “high-tech” at all. We know that most blueprints exist on computer screens these days, as do the 3-D models; they rarely are physical anymore.

In the gallery next door, a beautiful “tapestry” hangs on the wall, made out of tempura-fried flowers and Plexiglas, from New Yorker Anicka Yi. These flowers, which look like they are in a state of decay, rather than growth, were created by a group of craftspeople here in the museum in the weeks before the show opened. The technique is very modern, the overall design of the wall hanging timeless.

In the same room an older work from an Italian artist who died in 2011, Luis Fernando Benedit, stands in the middle. White Mice Labyrinth is a sculpture referencing an old-fashioned lab experiment that includes live mice in their artificial environment. The artist also created two sets of drawings that initially look like old scientific drafts and notes from a laboratory but are in fact fantastical imagery with weird bugs and mechanical contraptions.

It slowly starts to dawn on you that this is a cleverly titled exhibit. While we as a society have become obsessed with the latest technology in our computers, smartphones and iPads, we are also repelled by it. We don’t necessarily “love” technology anymore, in the way we did when man first went to the moon and even when the Internet first arrived. In fact, the love of technology can almost seem like a quaint, 20th century notion. We can’t live without it, but somehow basics haven’t changed; we are still imperfect and fundamentally organic.

Berlin-based duo Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff, however, jump right in to the “post” tech world with a series tacked onto one wall that documents the highly mobile, creative community that has arisen from our wireless, mobile capacity. They followed members of the young, mobile community of Berlin, who often need only a cafe to set up their “start-up” company, with portable devices that can be carried in a bag or even a pocket as the only office equipment.. All over Berlin, little companies set up, impromptu, in coffee shops and bars, to exist maybe for that afternoon. For the exhibit, they have printed documentation that includes the text messages that enable such a gathering — “meet on Oranienstrasse” — on metal plates that stick out from the wall. One page informs us that 1,300 Internet start-ups have been founded in Berlin since 2008 alone.

“All Berlin knows is change and disruption … there’s nobody defining what the city should be.”

That’s another thread that comes through here, a sense of disruption that “technological progress” has wrought. Online we can be anonymous but also rootless. We can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook but be completely alone.

An installation from London-Based Morag Keil expresses this melancholy sense of disassociation. Several crumpled mannequins, some without faces, appear to be suffering through a long subway ride, while an antiquated machine makes a repetitive rubbing sound. Technology just can’t change certain realities.

A literal bridge to the next room comes in the form of a “runway” from Frankfurt-based Lena Henke. The artist created this site-specific work for MOCA. Runways hint at high fashion, glamour, the latest in taste. But Henke has crafted her runway out of steel grates covered with blotches made from dirty-looking epoxy and cement. Once again, it suggests that while new technology is supposed to let us create a perfect form or system, human fallibility shows through.

Following in that line, Los-Angeles-based Andrea Zittel has made some truly lovely “imperfect” shelving hanging in another one of the cordoned gallery spaces. She is known for experimenting with functional structures and furniture, such as her Living Units, small, pod-like portable “rooms” with only the basic necessities included, that can be folded up into the size of a large trunk and transported. Here her off-white shelves look intentionally handmade, with rounded corners and uneven edges, that are meant to “evolve with use.”

In her other pieces in the exhibit, such as the billboards and the woven-cloth booths, Zittel incorporates rust, gold and brown colors that are reminiscent of 1970s color-schemes, those shag carpets and kitchen wallpapering of that era — so not 21st century. There is something so comfortable about the negation of contemporary high-technology in these works.
The next room is the weakest. While the popular New York artist Josh Smith’s large street-art mixed-media on cardboard works, often repeating his name and that here cover one wall, are all the rage these days, they don’t seem to fit. It’s also hard to follow how the large paintings of Miami-based Jason Galbut really relate to the theme of the show, as appropriately loose as it is.

But if these are a mismatch, the last room makes up for it, and then some. London-based Jack Strange has created two Frankenstein-like creatures. (Dr. Frankenstein and his experiment was, after all, one of the first fictional expressions of modern man’s unease with the possible effects of new technology). The couple are made from huge mounds of dirt, with blinking neon lights for a mouth, the only “human” attribute. The installation is called Good Haircut, Bad Haircut, and it is funny and fascinating. Dirt is the polar opposite of the materials that go into the making of satellites and smartphones and LED lighting. Until we discover the secret to mortality, we’ll all return to this most basic and organic of materials.

The other work that shares the room is a video from New-York based Ian Cheng. On its surface, it is simply gorgeous. But Thousand Islands Thousand Laws riffs on video games, and as it unspools, tells a tale of a swamp world with a lost hunter and a cast of swamp animals. It’s mesmerizing. This is a work commissioned by MOCA and Gartenfeld, now in the museum’s leading role.