Peace, love and hope are all over the walls at the Cornell Museum’s recently opened “Heart of the Square” exhibition, but so is anger, when appropriate. Susan Romaine, in the poem she wrote to accompany her painting “It Seemed Beyond Repair,” voices the latter:
“It seemed beyond repair, the old school
thirty-two years ago
Today, a partnership severed in minutes
three votes, gratitude not in their lexicon,
carelessly casting aside
those who re-built the abandoned building
and nurtured new purpose
with good heart and intention.”
And Romaine goes on—poetically, righteously, accurately—summarizing in verse how the artist-driven community has responded to the city’s decision to sever ties with Old School Square and leave its future in limbo. Seeing Romaine’s poem alongside her poignant painting of the building in its original incarnation, your heart swells, and it’s not the only time this exhibition hits you with such directness. Spurred by an existential threat to its existence, “Heart of the Square” is more than the Cornell’s best exhibition in years; it’s a reminder of the fragility of the institutions we cherish.
On display are artists and works both familiar—especially if you’re a regular visitor to the museum—and fresh. A new, two-story vertical totem by Alex Trimino, “Light-Scraper,” features the artist’s trademark juxtaposition of neon and fabric, extending treelike floor to ceiling. Jonathan Rosen’s interactive “Keep Culture,” a kind of random direction generator in which prompts cycle atop a two-way mirror in a fraction of a second, is a welcome sequel to a similar piece on display in the Cornell’s previous exhibition, “See Art and Be Happy!” Participants snap a photo of its mirrored monolith, not knowing what statement will emerge in the image. (I was told to “Keep Pushing.”)
I was especially taken with Michelle Drummond’s “Life’s Rhythm,” in which blue yarn resembles a heart monitor, ebbing, flowing and spiking—representing life’s peaks, craters and surprises, in the form of 3D appendages jutting outward.
But as is often the case, it’s the room-filling installations, a specialty of curator Melanie Johanson, that are likely to leave the most lasting impressions; most of them directly address the crisis facing Old School Square. In Freddy Jouwayed’s immersive light installation “Omen,” a model of a building very much like the Cornell is suspended several feet off the ground. The edifice is diced apart with surgical precision, like once-together puzzle pieces now separate from their whole. Rippling water and calmly swaying palm trees are video-mapped onto the surfaces, placing us in Delray Beach, but the message is clear: Our culture is being uprooted, its longtime home removed.
Giannina Coppiano’s Dwin’s “Golden” is a tender tribute to Old School Square. The artist re-created a 24-karat gold blueprint of the OSS campus and placed it as the centerpiece of an ecosystem of native plants made out of salt. Each element supports the other; remove the gold-plated central hub, and all we have is an empty canvas of sodium chloride.
Still other galleries are dedicated to Old School Square’s three-plus decades of accomplishments. One features a series of photographs curated from the venue’s rich archive—of art shows and sales, concerts and parties, classes and weddings. In another gallery, the walls are filled with a sprawling timeline of Old School Square’s signal moments and landmark events, and the people who made it happen. Quotes from local icons like Frances Bourque, Joe Gillie and Bill Branning sing the campus’ praises, interspersed among the information and vintage photos.
Unspoken in such a presentation is that it’s the sort of retrospective one expects from an institution in its twilight, one that sees the writing on the walls. For the sake of the artistic community and the vibrancy of South Florida arts, let’s hope it’s not an obituary.
“Heart of the Square” runs through Feb. 5 at Cornell Art Museum, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Suggested admission is $10. Call 561/243-7922 or visit oldschoolsquare.org.