The all-white light works of Iván Navarro at the Frost Art Museum at FIU are deceptively simple. The title of the museum’s main exhibit up for Art Basel Miami Beach even underscores this, matter-of-factly called “Iván Navarro: Fluorescent Sculptures.” But this internationally acclaimed, Chilean-born artist is anything but simple, and his sculptures transcend the clichéd neon light-art output we too often are subjected to today.
In town for just a few days to install the show, on his way to Istanbul, Turkey, for another exhibition of his work, the affable but unassuming sculptor is excited about this Miami premiere, the first time that his “Nowhere Man” series is being shown in one place in the United States (a version of it was unveiled in London in 2009).
Navarro has a dizzying array of influences, from obscure and avant-garde designers of the early 20th century, to light pioneer Dan Flavin and punk bands such as Joy Division. A child of the oppressive Pinochet regime during a turbulent and violent time, his work is political and carries subtle and serious commentary. Yet he remains fundamentally a tinkerer, someone as fascinated with electrical cords and light sockets as with intellectual art criticism. Based in New York since 1997, he intentionally rejects many of the high-tech gadgets that people employ today in favor of cheap, easily procurable fluorescent light tubes -- and his forms remain purposefully clean and basic.
These sculptures are easy to look at and complex to contemplate, a great combination.
So what are these nowhere men? They are crafted from the most common four sizes of fluorescent tubes, and are based on pictograms drawn by Otl Aicher for the 1972 Munich Olympics (that sports event is of course forever tainted because of the slaughter of Israeli athletes). Aicher’s initial drawings are simplicity at its core, black-and-white circles and lines depicting completely anonymous figures performing Olympic sports – swimming, running, jumping. Navarro took this blueprint and made similarly faceless, genderless sculptures — in his case, in all white light. Here at the Frost, some get an entire wall to themselves, others share with one or two.
While walking through the exhibit, Navarro explains how these bright bodies hanging on the wall reflects the Olympic ideal – these aren’t real bodies, they are generic and based on a Greek aesthetic that wasn’t authentic to begin with. So he took the most bland of colors – white – and the mass-produced, industrial fluorescent tube to express his nowhere men. And yes, his series is named after the Beatles song, Nowhere Man. The ultimate rudderless, anonymous persona. As John Lennon sang: “Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to. Isn’t he a bit like you and me.”
Navarro — who represented Chile in the 2009 Venice Biennale — has pursued that theme in other unrelated sculptures in the show loaned from Miami collections. One is a red fluorescent light ladder, now part of the Cricket Taplin Collection. As Navarro explains while standing in the red glow, he too didn’t know where he was going to in terms of making art, so he just started making things. A ladder can lead to somewhere, or it can go no where. He laughs when he says that some people have actually tried to climb on it; of course, if you put your body weight on a sculpture made of light tubes, it will break.
In the middle of the main gallery is a multi-colored electric chair, part of the Martin Margulies Collection in Wynwood. Electric chairs hold heavy meaning, a device of death throughout recent history. But in this case, the chair also is based on a design from Gerrit Rietfeld’s original modernist chair of 1918, when that Dutch architect and furniture designer was associated with the avant-garde De Stijl movement. The chair, reminiscent of Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair, was intended to be a functional household item made from standard lumber and easily mass-produced. Once again, in this exhibit, the glowing chair can be simply beautiful to look at. But it is also a comment on contemporary society, which is losing a sense of individual expression in a hyper-commercialized world, with ominous repercussions.
But Navarro’s art remains ambiguous on some of these points. While losing your voice like a Nowhere Man can lead to dictatorships, goods made cheaply for the Everyman — even the invention of electricity itself — helped form a modern middle class unique in time. He doesn’t employ high-tech gimmickry in his light works or talk much about art history. Instead, he stays with the basics. It’s a sound basis for a good-looking and impressive exhibit, another quality entry in the museum roster this year.
While at the Frost check out the small tribute to Mike Kelley, who died unexpectedly last February – likely a suicide, according to published reports. A native of Detroit, he became best known after his move to California, as one of the provocative boundary-pushers that thrived at CalArts in the late 1970s and 1980s. He expressed his sometimes controversial visions in an amazing array of forms — sculpture, painting, collage, video and his unique version of plush toys. The absence of his particular voice is a loss to the contemporary art world.
So it’s nice to see the Frost putting up what it can do for a memorial. Unfortunately, partially because of lawsuits swarming around the Kelley estate, it is hard to procure a variety of works at the moment. The pieces in the single room at the museum are almost all from the local Collection of Craig Robins, which isn’t a bad thing, but they are limited in scope. However, it gives the visitor a chance to study some of the more subtle (although that’s always a hard adjective to use with Kelley) art in his spectrum.
The paintings here can almost feel serene at first, and harken back to Michigan roots. The “Land O’ Lakes” blue and green rolling hill landscape is nice, and then you realize that the nipple-like cut-out image and title are a reference to the Native American girl who used to advertise Land O’ Lakes butter (a titillating image that was manipulated by young boys back in the ‘70s). But then, that’s pure Kelley. Shying away from humorous sexual innuendo was not his style.
There’s a political, text-based drawing on one wall called “Lincoln and the Pipe” that also may come as a surprise to those more familiar with Kelley’s fabric-based animal toys and rugs. But on the facing wall is one of his more famous videos, The Banana Man, from 1983. It is quintessential Kelley – quirky imagery, funny, troubling, raw, and plastered with pop commentary (it is loosely based on the old children’s program Captain Kangaroo). Kelley always dwelled in a world that straddled the light and the dark, and for some, his work can remain an acquired taste. But although there are only a few examples here, you can get a feel for that world.