Magnus Sigurdarson is touching up a drawing on the back wall of his studio space at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (MOCA). These black-and-white drawings, vague North African desert scenes with camels and turbaned men, were shown at the Dorsch Gallery last year, but remain unfinished works.
His “studio” is also a work in progress, part of the second Trading Places II experimental program initiated by MOCA director Bonnie Clearwater almost a decade ago. She thought artists, the museum and the broader community could benefit from watching and interacting with artists at different stages of their careers, working for the whole world to see.
Sigurdarson’s space is the most exposed, set in the middle of the museum’s main gallery, surrounded by segregated spaces for four other artists. In acknowledgement of this stage he has been given, the often-whimsical Icelandic native has also set up a chair on a rotating pedestal. When visitors arrive, he might be sitting there spinning, chin in hand, a modern-day Rodin. Or Miami’s foremost Nordic performance artist.
Not surprisingly, he has been collaborating — impromptu — with another performance and video artist, Antonia Wright, who is working in a more enclosed room behind him. She has brought a bed and couch to her studio, inviting people to sit and stay a while.
This is all as it should be, according to Clearwater. She specifically picked this diverse, small group of artists so that they could bounce ideas off of each other, and challenge themselves to break boundaries. In the process, the public can watch the journey.
On this afternoon, Wright points to the inspirational notes she has pinned to one wall and left lying on the floor. She encourages visitors to scribble their own notes and add to the installation-in-progress. Wright is a photographer, filmmaker and performance artist. In a solo show last year, the Cuban-American artist exhibited a series of photos of herself dressed in those elaborate, expensive and way over-the-top quince gowns, which are likely to turn up in her space before the exhibit is finished. On this day, several of her videos are unspooling on the back wall. Wright’s video “Job Creation in a Bad Economy,” in which she and artist Ruben Millares continually crash through stacks of books, was a MOCA Optic Nerve film festival finalist last year, and apparently is a big hit now with the kids visiting the museum.
Wright says that she and Sigurdarson have been working on some short videos since their arrival, something that surprises and delights Clearwater on this afternoon.
“I didn’t even know that — that’s exactly what’s supposed to be happening in this program.” Wright is relatively young in her career, while Sigurdarson would be considered a mid-career artist, and he has wound up being a mentor to her during this residency.
In the back, Onajide Shabaka is working on a mural on a curved wall he asked to be specifically crafted for his space. Shabaka has been a fashion designer (in San Francisco back in the 1970s); a student of African-American burial art in Florida; a photographer, a draftsman, a teacher. Some of his walls here are black, and covered in cut-outs, acrylics on paper and pieces made from silk. Clearwater first picked him for a show in 1993 that she curated for the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale.
In this space Shabaka is tweaking and forming his wall mural, and continuing to add to his explorations of the ecological and botanical world of Florida, expressed in the plant-life cut-outs and silk works.
Next to Shabaka, Dona Altemus has also been working with various materials for the artworks on her walls, but she has also left some interestingly arranged detritus on the floor. At first it can look like the remains of a long art day — lumber, paint cans, rulers, scraps of paper. But look more closely and you will see that nothing is really out of place or random. The composition of the “junk” on the floor is an installation in itself. What’s amazing is that Altemus is a 2012 BFA graduate of the New World School of the Arts; the conceptual maturity of her room seems far beyond her years.
Clearwater first encountered a well-dressed Rick Ulysse in MOCA’s museum shop, and was impressed by the young artist’s composure. She would come to like his art just as much.
The native of Port au Prince, who recently moved to Miami from Philadelphia, comes across as sober and serious when talking about how he threw small balls of cloth on colorful mats to create these floor sculptures, and about his love of the Surrealist and Dada traditions. What is of most interest to him at the moment, however, is the chance to see all of his drawings — some of which are about the father of Haiti’s republic, Toussaint Louverture — hanging together in one place. His temporary MOCA home is bigger than anything he has had so far.
While there is a communal space where videos from all of the artists are showing, the real community center seems to be Sigurdarson’s studio. “Oh yes, I am literally on display here!” laughs the artist, as he explains that nothing will be static during his tenure.
“A piece of art never stops until you say so.” His infectious spirit clearly permeates the entire program. As Clearwater joins back in the conversation, she asks Sigurdarson if he has mentioned the little clay sculptures and the big choir he has planned for his finale. More surprises seem to be in store at Trading Places.
Back when Clearwater first came up with the idea, she says it was when Miami was just forming its arts community. The first edition included Frances Trombly, who physically weaves her “ready-made” works; the complex photography of Maria Martínez Cañas, and the brilliant paintings of the elusive Salvatore La Rosa. All of those artists have left a mark on Miami, and Clearwater believes this crop will too. But rather than being formative years, Clearwater thinks that the maturing art community is in need of some cohesion, that it is splintering and losing a vision. So bringing together artists and letting the community in on the trade is something that will benefit everyone, says Clearwater. But nothing is set in stone. “It’s a mystery how it will all end, what will be on display.”
That’s the essential spirit guiding Trading Places. There are no guarantees, and the artworks may not be as good — aesthetically and in quality — as a fully formed show. That’s the point. It isn’t every day you can stop by and chat about burial art, videos involving licking floors, Haitian heroes and a rotating chair all in one Trading Place.