Attending the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale’s “Against the Grain” exhibition is like visiting the weirdest IKEA showroom ever – a trip down a wood-furnished rabbit hole of surrealism and rough-hewn beauty. In fact, it so resembles a whacked-out furniture display that several placards reading “Please do not sit” admonish museumgoers next to a number of benches, chairs and chairlike assemblages.
And it’s not just because the sitters would be sitting on, you know … art. It’s because they could also hurt themselves on the jagged wood pieces, which conjure backwoods-rustic-chic as much as sleek, lacquer-finished art-deco. What they all have in common is that they’re all ridiculously impressive; this is an entire exhibition of singular, show-stopping centerpieces vying for your attention.
There’s a breezy freedom when walking through the sprawling exhibition, which takes up the entire ground floor of the museum. Unlike most exhibitions, in “Against the Grain” there is an absence of information and analysis about each piece – only the title, artist’s name and materials, with scannable QR codes for anyone who wants to learn more. We’re left to draw our own conclusions, marveling at the ingenuity of the craftsmanship and the creativity of the creators.
But trends do exist, connected by savvy curatorial decisions. The most unique pieces sit about halfway through the show, evoking what its introductory essay calls “whimsy (with a serious purpose).” This certainly comes across in Betye Saar’s “Herstory,” one of the artist’s many mixed-media feminist tracts incorporating the image of Aunt Jemima, this time on a washboard atop a wood table/stovetop. A selection of Pablo Reinoso’s “Shoes” collection, presented under glass, includes a pair of stylish black high heels trailing long wooden snakelike appendages, a commentary on the more outlandish side of haute couture.
Courtney Smith likewise takes a common object and transforms it into something uncommon and nonfunctional with “Santo Antonio,” a chest of drawers in which countless superfluous compartments block entry to the drawer handles. Other pieces borrow impossible structures from M.C. Escher’s playbook, such as Thomas Loeser’s “LadderbackkcabreddaL,” which, as its title suggests, is one ladder-backed chair melding into another in a mirrored, vertical formation. In Christopher Kurtz’s “A(typical) Windsor Form,” two chairs also melt into each other at the top, like conjoined twins or waltzing dancers (pictured above). Then there’s the controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose “Grapes” is a stunning and typically confrontational sculpture incorporating Qing Dynasty stools mashed together in a gravity-defying concoction – a flippant subversion of historical artistic significance (pictured below).
The show’s most amusing piece is a video, also by the indefatigable Pablo Reinoso. In the six-minute clip, a woman attempts to sit, crawl and lay on, wear and arrange a number of the artist’s wood pieces, failing at every attempt and absorbing it all with Buster Keaton-like stoicism. Eventually, she arranges a mass of chairs in an overwhelming formation, probably a reference to Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play “The Chairs.”
But sometimes, the exhibition can be downright disturbing, as with William PopeL.’s “Coffin (Flag Box),” a padlocked wooden box with hidden audio equipment inside, creating the illusion of rustling, bumping, knocking activity inside the sepulcher, like the ghost of Houdini forever trapped in wooden limbo. It’s a terrifying piece.
But the most telling work in “Against the Grain” may be one of the most unassuming pieces: Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s “Tap Left On” and “Armstrong Congoleum II,” a two-part site-specific piece that simulates moldy wallpaper, and which covers a corner of the ceiling and the floor below it. Layer upon layer of wallpaper peels away to reveal the wood core underneath at all, and it seems to resonate a message that holds true for this entire show: It prompts us to look at wood – the functional material we take for granted and cover over, the basis for everything spanning countless centuries – in a new light.
“Against the Grain” is at the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., through Jan. 20. For information, call 954/525-5500 or visit moafl.org.