Contemporary art is not always a G-rated affair, but at certain moments — say, a rainy Saturday afternoon with a house full of screaming kids — it’s helpful to have museums with family-friendly art on hand.
At North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Pablo Cano, a master of an art that pleases everyone from jaded art sophisticates to bedazzled tots, is presenting Pablo Cano: The Toy Box. The Havana-born Cano is influenced by the 1920s Dadaists and their theater of the absurd: Cano creates marionettes out of coffee cups, old piano keys, seat cushions and whatever else might be handy in his Little Havana neighborhood.
Pablo Cano: The Toy Box was first presented at MOCA, which also commissioned the performance, in 2004. The marionette production is based on La Boite a Joujoux, a 1913 children’s piece for marionettes composed by Claude Debussy; the music was inspired by Debussy’s 7-year-old daughter Chouchou and her collection of dolls.
Pianist Karen Schwartz, who originally unearthed and translated the piece in 2004, is once again the pianist for The Toy Box. Katherine Kramer, who is doing her 10th collaboration with Cano, is the choreographer, with Priscilla Marrero, Jocelyn Perez, Pioneer Winter, Nina Hlava and Carlota Pradera on marionette duty.
The story of The Toy Box is a romantic entanglement involving three dolls — a ballerina; a toy soldier, and Polichinelle, a classic Punch character in the tradition of European street shows. The marionettes used in the production are on view at MOCA, as well as the expressionistic set, influenced by the 1919 film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Cano has spent some of his time in New York as part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors performance series.
In Miami, Cano has turned his home into The Red Velvet Theater, a space for alternative marionette and dance performances, and during a phone interview, he talked about marionettes as a medium to straddle the past and present.
“I use old music, like Cole Porter, but the marionettes are constructed from contemporary materials, which adds a pop element: They’re sculptural, painterly and not simply decorative,” he says.
“My shows often have satire, adult jokes and adult circumstances — love triangles, romantic betrayal and what the passage of time does to people. In The Toy Box, the ballerina and the toy soldier grow old together, become rich and overweight, but there’s a poetic sense of loss too. To me, marionettes are the perfect way to express my aesthetic as an artist, and how I think about life.”
At Miami Beach’s Wolfsonian-FIU, students, kids and grown-up and/or fed-up voters can get a little historical perspective on the political realm at the museum’s newest show, Politics on Paper: Election Posters and Ephemera from The Wolfsonian-FIU Collection. The show includes 13 political posters, done between 1918 and 1945, with all manner of arresting imagery.
Hugo Gellert’s 1924 “Vote Communist” poster is tough and strident, a gigantic worker holding aloft a hammer and sickle in the midst of the opulent Jazz Age: That year, Communist Party candidates in the United States received only a 10th of 1 percent of the vote. In contrast, Ben Shahn — a well-known, leftist artist of the early 20th century — opted to soft-sell the political message in his 1944 poster “Our Friend,” done for the National Citizens Political Action Committee. President Franklin Roosevelt is cast as a kindly Big Brother figure amid happy workers and American Federation of Labor buttons.
Display cases set in the main gallery contain harder-edged materials — pamphlets, broadsides and books — often produced by cranks with a grudge, the equivalent of modern-day bloggers. One striking 1936 image on a pamphlet has a surreal close-up photo of a baby’s face above the inscription, “Wonder if I will goose-step.”
The advent of television changed politics forever, and the Wolfsonian show has two salutes to the power of the medium. In one small room, perched like a sacred deity, is a RCA Victor TRK 12, the first consumer television, introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. An adjacent larger room — equipped with wood seating platforms and a red, white and blue motif — is a screening room for Video, Political Advertisement VII (1952-2008).
Since 1984, artists Antoni Muntadas (whose work has been featured at New York’s Museum of Modern Art) and Marshall Reese (a veteran of shows at the Cleveland Museum of Art) have compiled footage of campaign ads. The footage is screened without commentary, one continuous loop of political candidates hawking themselves like commercial products.
In one campaign ad, George W. Bush equates finance and the national horror of 9/11, “A dotcom era gone … then a day of tragedy.” In another ad, the late Elizabeth Edwards is featured as a good soldier wife to John Edwards: “I’ve been blessed to be married to the most optimistic person I’ve ever met.” For any American family, a museum that offers an appreciation of history’s ironies is always a welcome thing.