When it opened in January 1989, the Contemporary Art Museum at the University of South Florida had high ambitions to bring the best art of our time to the Tampa Bay region. And it has.
As a university museum with an educational mission, CAM doesn't have as much pressure to present the commercially popular exhibitions that many museums must. It has no admission fees, membership or board of directors. It isn't autonomous. As part of USF, it has plenty of oversight and performance expectations, and it also relies on grants from foundations and donations from individual supporters. Still, it has had freedom and has used it well.
"[email protected]: Social Engagement" celebrates this anniversary in a typically atypical way. Instead of a sprawling catch-all show that is the usual format such celebratory exhibitions take, this one has but three of the hundreds of artists whose work has occupied its galleries. They are Janaina Tschape, Pedro Reyes and Los Carpinteros (the last a collective working together as one entity).
Alexa Favata is deputy director of the Institute for Research in Art, the umbrella at USF under which the museum and the atelier Graphicstudio operate. Her job is primarily to be the museum director. She and Margaret Miller, who was the first museum director and now is director of the entire institute, have been with USF for decades, and they came up with the exhibition idea along with other staff who also have long institutional memories of the museum.
"We didn't want to squeeze a lot of art into an exhibition," Favata said, "and we don't have that much room here," so a comprehensive exhibition was ruled out. Instead, they wanted one that would represent the ethos of all the exhibitions, which has been, Miller writes in an exhibition brochure, "presenting new work by leading international artists who break new ground and embrace new ways of seeing and understanding the world."
We have seen two of the installations before, Ciudad Transportable by Los Carpinteros and Blood, Sea by Tschape.
Los Carpinteros became an international art sensation when Ciudad debuted at the Havana Biennial in 2000. It was first exhibited at CAM in 2005. Translated, the title means "transportable city," and it's made up of 10 tents designed to resemble streamlined versions of famous buildings in the artists' native city of Havana. It looks terrific spread across the lawn outside of the museum and it's especially lovely when the tents are lit from within at night. Ciudad is also a serious visual metaphor for issues close to Los Carpinteros: the transience of city populations, mass immigration from Cuba and the poor who live in the shadow of wealth in urban areas around the world.
Conga Irreversible (Irreversible Conga) is a newer work, from 2012, made by the two remaining artists in the collective; a third left to pursue a solo career. It has even more wit and a sharper bite than Ciudad. In the film, a traditional street procession is reversed, literally. Dancers and musicians walk, dance and play music backward. Instead of colorful costumes, they're clothed in (still elaborately constructed) black ones. They're filmed parading down a historic street in Havana as crowds gather around them. The "irreversible" in the title refers to the Cuban government's belief that the socialist order is irreversible even as capitalism is edging its way into the country.
Blood, Sea was commissioned by CAM in 2004 and its lyrical grace is still mesmerizing. This time around, the four-channel video is shown along a long gallery wall with a more expansive feel than the original womblike space. "Womb" continues to be applicable. The film cuts among three narratives with women dressed in flowing black or white robes and encapsulated in a big mesh bubble. It was shot at Weeki Wachee Springs. The performers (Weeki Wachee "mermaids") swirl, turn and cartwheel balletically through the clear water as their dresses float around them. The woman in the "womb" shares it with colorful balloons (maybe condoms?) and lots of cords that keep it tethered, and she, in contrast, floats and maneuvers ungracefully. We hear bubbles and breathing, see the blue sky, trees, even the spring's viewing auditorium, through the water.
The philosophical framework can be found in a quote by the late Italian writer Italo Calvino the artist has used:
"The conditions that obtained when life had not yet emerged from the oceans have not subsequently changed a great deal for the cells of the human body, bathed by the primordial wave which continues to flow in the arteries. Our blood in fact has a chemical composition analogous to that of the sea of our origins, from which the first living cells and the first multicellular beings derived the oxygen and the other elements necessary to life."
Tschape has created a new companion piece from scraps of paper collected while working on a project at Graphicstudio. She cut and painted them in sea blue and pinned them to a wall like swirling water. They're part Matisse, part Pollock.
Reyes was part of a 2008 group show at CAM with an audience-participation installation inviting viewers to smash plywood guitars after performing a song. Violence channeled into a creative or peaceful endeavor has been the constant signature in his varied work. Imagine, from 2012, is an "orchestra" of musical instruments made from firearms confiscated and destroyed by the Mexican government. They appear to be sculptural interpretations of wind, string and percussive pieces, not anything that would produce sound. They do, as we see and hear in videos in the gallery, along with a documentary of their crafting.
The subtitle of this show, "Social Engagement," is a vast and inclusive term. The art chosen for the show gives us many entry points for such engagement, from the simple pleasure of watching something vibrant visually to deeper ruminations about the social problems of our time.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.