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Iberian aesthetic

An exhibition of contemporary Spanish works is diverse in both theme and art form.

LENNIE BENNETT
Published December 14, 2003

MIAMI BEACH - "Dispersions," a new exhibition of contemporary Spanish art, is a fitting theme for a show at the Bass Museum of Art. The museum, located in the Collins Park area in a growing cultural center of Miami Beach, is near the almost completed new headquarters of the Miami City Ballet and the Miami Beach Convention Center. It closed in 1998 for an expansion that was expected to take about two years. Four long years later it reopened, then had to close again because of problems with the humidifying system.

The deadline for rectifying construction problems was Dec. 4 so the big launch would coincide with Art Basel Miami Beach, a weekend-long fair that snags international crowds and publicity. Many staff members looked as if they were about to drop dead from the effort, but they did it.

Added to the historic Art Deco building is a 20,000-square-foot wing designed by renowned architect Arata Isozaki and comprised mostly of soaring gallery space. "Dispersions" has been installed in the largest gallery, subdivided by panels, to accommodate the 40-plus works selected by curator William Jeffett, who is exhibitions curator of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg and an authority on modern and contemporary Spanish art.

All the art is drawn from the Coca-Cola Foundation in Spain, the only division of the soft drink maker to have such a collection, and it's a young one at that, about a decade old. It has a bit of everything: painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, video, installations. The art shares a coherence one would expect from a single collection devoted to Iberian art created in the 1990s through 2003. But it has a fin-de-siecle drama and diversity reaching beyond that peninsula.

Spain has, of course, produced some of the world's greatest artists - Goya, Velazquez, Picasso among them - but Jeffett bristles at the term "Spanish artist."

"We don't describe Gerhard Richter as a German artist," he said. "It's too limiting. The world has gotten much more interrelated."

True enough, and, in fact, not all the artists in this show are Spanish; some simply have chosen to live and work in Spain. Some of those who are Spanish left their native country for more urbane art centers such as New York and Paris. And since Spain does not have a dominant art capital, artists who remained are spread from the Basque region in the north to the Balearic Islands.

But unlike dispersions because of civil war or government repression, today's are self-imposed, so none of this art is informed by the longing or protest often associated with an enforced exile. Still, whether you are born in a country or adopt it as an adult, you can't escape at least some provincial influences both past and present.

The use of language and written symbols as nonverbal figurative elements has been a theme for many international artists, but it's particularly relevant to those of such a fiercely polyglot nation as Spain, as are questions of identity, and you see both in much of this work. The calligraphic beauty of Jose Manuel Broto's pale swirl seems to emerge through broad black brush strokes, like speech after long silence. Ferran Garcia Sevilla's delicate lines owe a debt to Cy Twombly's "chalkboard" paintings. But they lack that frenzy, being more diagramatic, less complex, dispersed by arrows plowing around them, then contained by four bright dots like push pins at each corner of the canvas.

Body language is the subject of several photographers. Susy Gomez's large-format photograph presents us with a crouching woman at eye level. Everything but her hair, hands and feet are whited out; in the absence of facial features, her self-embrace could be protective, joyous, even homoerotic. As it is, all we know is that it's universal and ambiguous. Dora Garcia draws headphones and ear plugs onto photographs styled like fashion ads, edgy young men and women distanced by aural isolation, listening to their inner voices.

The sculpture is more difficult to quantify as a group though most of it makes strong historical references within personal visual vocabularies. Two of the best works are Francisco Leiro's Pilgrims I and II and Pepe Espaliu's The Nest, which manage to be both coolly conceptual and emotionally symbolic. Espaliu arranges eight crutches in a circle. They seem to depend on each other to maintain their tenuous balance, but they are in fact forged and painted iron, not wood, melded together. In other words, they've circled the wagons and aren't going anywhere. Leiro's work is lighter of heart and material, carved and painted wood of two pairs of feet protruding from vessels that resemble boats or elongated snail shells. Unlike The Nest, which is about a destination, or a decision, reached, Pilgrims is about movement and forward propulsion, about the journey.

Chema Alvargonzalez also explores the idea of journey and destination, though in a less successful, more heavy-handed way in an untitled work in which the artist uses an old suitcase like a light box, stuffing it with a backlit photograph of a messy bed centered with a small red light like a global tracking device or a sexual marker. It's too freighted with symbolism, unlike Sailboat, Adolfo Schlosser's unlikely elements - pig intestine, a rosebush branch, tin, lead and a rock - assembled into a lyrical essence of a boat straining against an anchor.

There are many works in the exhibition that can't be pigeonholed by recurring theme or discipline, that are meant to show an artist's relationship with a mainstream current. Among these are Ricardo Cavada's richly toned, lavishly painted abstract, so expressive and nonreductive, and Manuel Saez's Achilles, with its pop sensibility and flat, elegant color gradations.

This is an ambitious show that puts "Spanish" art into a larger context even as it tries to deny that such a motive is necessary. People can rarely have things both ways, but sometimes art can, when it is successful in its particularity and at some point transcends it. I'm not sure any of these works quite reach that apotheosis but if not, a few are darned close.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com

"Dispersions" is at the Bass Museum of Art, Collins Avenue between 21st and 22nd Streets, Miami Beach, through Feb. 22. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. $6 adults, $4 students and seniors, children younger than 6 free. (305) 673-7530.

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