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.