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At Miami’s Rubell Collection, disparate works tell a complex story

Neo Rauch Vorfuehrung, 2006 Oil on canvas 118 1/8 x 165 3/8 in. (300 x 420 cm) Rubell Family Collection, Miami June 2013.
Neo Rauch Vorfuehrung, 2006 Oil on canvas 118 1/8 x 165 3/8 in. (300 x 420 cm) Rubell Family Collection, Miami June 2013.

The Rubell Family Collection (RFC) was the first major private contemporary art collection to open a public space, back in 1993, in a two-story refurbished warehouse in Wynwood. That move would be a trend setter, as other collectors opened their own spaces, eventually leaving an imprint on the scene that has made Miami a unique art center.

But being the first isn’t really what continues to make RFC such a world-class destination when it comes to contemporary art. Every year, a new show is unveiled during Art Basel Miami Beach, which runs through the following summer and never fails to surprise us. It’s not just the quality of the works, from significant artists both famous and emerging, but the way the shows broaden our perspective – more often than not you will leave the place with a better understanding of a variety of strains in contemporary art.

The latest exhibit, Alone Together, does not disappoint. The grouping of more than three dozen artists features many disciplines, from various “schools” of art. To further the mission of educating the public about these artworks, and art in general, this year RFC offers a free audio tour in both English and Spanish, some of it narrated by the artists themselves. It was designed to be used on a smart phone, but not to worry if you don’t have one; the collection provides complimentary iPods for your tour. It would be a shame to pass up this accompaniment.

You would miss, for instance, some fun facts about the astounding, massive painted triptych from Chinese artist Zhu Jinshi – the focal point of the exhibit, in the main space just to the left of the entrance. The scale of the paintings is overwhelming, the works layered – really piled on – with oils. Stand in front of these towering paintings, and the abstracts start to take shape resembling water falls or mountainsides collapsing under landslides. With the audio, you’ll discover that each one weighs 800 pounds, and that Zhu uses entire cans of paint, rather than tubes, to create these truly monumental works. (Apparently, shipping them from China was a monumental task as well).

They are titled Power and Country, clearly tying Zhu’s work to his native land, which is undergoing such huge change while emerging as a global power.

Painting is a major player in the whole exhibit, with examples from global artists who reveal the diversity of the current form. In the adjoining room, for instance, are several large paintings from Spanish artist Secundino Hernandez. They are fresh, playful abstracts, but again some narrative can be discerned; you’ll likely see why one painting is named Wimbledon.

In the biggest space of all, still on the first floor, are more giant paintings, this time from the young Colombian Oscar Murillo. However, this area is a separate exhibit, as the works here are a product of a five-week residency in 2012, called “Oscar Murillo: work.” According to RFC director Juan Roselione-Valadez, observing Murillo’s creation process was a show in itself. He recalls the walls and floors chaotically plastered over with paint and canvas, the materials of his street-inspired pieces, which often include scribbled text such as “mango” or “chorizo.” Roselione-Valadez would come in the next day and the artist had torn everything up and started over again. The final result is the first solo show in the United States for Murillo, who is now based in London.

Upstairs, some influential German painters are given space, not the least of whom is Neo Rauch, a leader of the New Leipzig School, which emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Rauch’s work is not abstract; it is influenced by German Expressionism, Social Realism, Surrealism, in fantastic canvases that mix epochs and movements in the imagery. In one scene a figure straight out of Teutonic legend stands over a Romantic-era man, who in turn lords above some abused workers. That perpetual German angst is palpable here, but also dark humor. This room is a must-see.

While exploring this diversity of painting, make sure to stop off in another room upstairs featuring wool works on canvas from another German, Rosemarie Trockel. These couldn’t be more different from those of compatriot Rauch. But this is why the exhibition is called Alone Together. While many of these pieces seem to have little relationship to each other, they do exist within one common world, the world of contemporary art. As the collection notes explain: “Whether it is called a movement, a moment, a school, a group, or an -ism, this greater whole — defined by artists, critics, historians, museums, galleries, collectors, art institutions, and pure chance — creates a community for the artwork that often lives beyond the life of the artist.”

Moving beyond the excellent offering of paintings, several of the installations are also top-notch. Over the years the Rubell Collection has become known for these provocative, off-the-grid sculptures and installations, elevating the sophistication of what Miamians can see to world-class levels.

This year one such stand-out comes from Düsseldorf-based Paloma Varga-Weisz. This is a touching, stark portrayal of the Madonna and child: the two smooth, hairless figures carved from lime-tree wood; the mother cloaked in a green robe, sitting on a tree trunk with her toddler. While the religious reference is here, so is the harkening back to mystical tales from the Germanic Forest, and to a time before material such as plastic was used in art-making. A simple woman in a simple era.

The Charles Ray 1992 piece is what we’ve come to expect from a Rubell boundary-pusher. Eight naked figures all cast in the artist’s mold touch each other, suck each other in an explicit, yet fundamentally impossible way – you could never really do these things to yourself. It’s titled Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley.

But maybe the most powerful installation this year comes from another artist who emerged from a traumatic, challenging time in his home country of Georgia. After the Soviet Union collapsed and the Caucasus region exploded into civil war flames, Andro Wekuo made his escape and eventually transplanted to Switzerland, where he made the multi-media works that take over yet another sprawling space. In one, a sculpture of a young boy, his face erased, stands on a black box in the middle of the room, with the heart-breaking title, What Are You Called, My Child? Also displayed in the room are his intriguing paintings and collages.

These are just some of the samplings in Alone Together. Other paintings and sculptures tell their own stories, ones that you can listen to on head phones. And you have an extended period to hear them. Director Roselione-Valadez says that RFC wants to be a year-round institution, not one that shutters up for the summer, so it will remain open with some limited hours throughout the summer, although they will start to change the exhibit at some point closer to the fall to get ready for the next one.