Opening less than a year ago, the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum in downtown Miami is as multifaceted visually as the diverse metropolis in which it resides. In direct contrast to the city’s pockets of Deco buildings and clusters of corporate skyscrapers, the museum reads as a giant, permeable canopy that melds wood, concrete, and vegetation to breathe life and movement into its unique form. Yet as a self-described “young, rising art museum” designed by the esteemed duo Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, it is no wonder that the finished product would turn traditional museum typology on its head. Its architecture serves not only its programmatic purpose as a space for contemporary art but also physically alludes to the museum’s unique approach to the fluid exhibition of its two-year thematic installation titled AMERICANA. Mindful of Miami’s cultural ties to both North and South America, the museum’s curators sorted its diverse artworks into mini-collections, or “overview galleries,” that explore certain themes and contemporary issues pertaining to the Americas. All the galleries collectively exist under the veil of the title AMERICANA, with each room individually challenging the term’s true definition through the display of art and the critical perspectives it provides.
The phrase “Americana” and the idea of a uniquely American culture associated with the United States is inherently problematic. North, South and Central America do not form one amorphous body, nor does any one culture define the entirety of its peoples. The traditions of art history are equally at fault. For many people today, American art includes Thomas Cole’s landscapes and Jasper Johns’ flags and not, perhaps, the legacy of any Caribbean or South American artists. PAMM, as its brochures abbreviate its name to for clever marketing purposes (re: MoMA or LACMA), unpacks the notion of American identity to encompass all the Western Hemisphere rather than its typically Western notions. Themes such as “Formalizing Craft” and “Sources of the Self” represent new subgenres of the “Americana” trope that bring heated topics like the legacy of colonialism and environmental exploitation to the forefront of discussion.
For example, the collection of artworks that fall under the grouping “AMERICANA: Desiring Landscape” investigate the lush, tropical sceneries of Miami, the Caribbean and South America. The works speak to a history of human desire associated with American landscapes. In some cases, this desire is materialistic, referencing the colonists who scourged land in the New World in hopes of incurring extreme power and wealth. In others, such as Lorna Simpson’s work, the desire is sensual, showing the intimate interaction between humans and the landscape. At first glance, Simpson’s large photograph Still (1997), meticulously printed on thirty-six felt panels, looks like a swamp surrounded by trees. While her chosen size for the piece references the Romantic painters that preceded her, she cleverly inserts subtle pieces of text that make up conversations, some explicitly sexual, between romantic partners. In this sense, the landscape acts as the hotbed from which human interaction first occurs and flourishes. Still retains its Westernized romance but becomes more inherently interesting through text and geometric reconfiguration. It manages to challenge preconceived notions of the landscape’s conventional identity, perhaps even its historically economic value.
While most directly critical of consumerism and its perceived effect on American culture, the room titled “AMERICANA: Commodity Culture” does not have the same overarching effect as its companion collections. The intent of the space is to trace the legacies of Pop art as they existed and continue to exist in both North and South America, not just the United States. Yet the few traditionally “American” artists whose work is shown—namely Andy Warhol—clearly outshine the rest. It is difficult to appreciate Ester Hernández’s print Sun Mad (1982), which provides a tongue-in-cheek stab at poor labor conditions for Mexican workers, when Warhol’s Brillo Soap Pads Box, H.J. Heinz Tomato Ketchup Box and Del Monte Peach Halves Box (1964) dominate the central space of the gallery. With their repeated, modular shapes and gaudy logos that only a middle-class brand name could pull off, Warhol’s boxes remind the audience of the blurred line between art and product. Nothing distinguishes these boxes from their real counterparts, and the gallery could easily be the grocery shelf or warehouse where they are stored. The visual attraction of Warhol’s work furthers an important point about commodity culture that PAMM may have sought to dispel: it is nearly impossible to remove the legacy of consumerism from its conventional “American” context to include a larger, transnational America.
Nonetheless, PAMM’s AMERICANA instillation still excels in its unconventional attitude to the display of art and the creation of dialogue surrounding how best to do it. Each gallery’s specific focus forces the viewer to consider why the work was placed there and how connections can be made between artworks that may not hail from the same place and time. As an institution in the midst of globalization, the Pérez Art Museum yearns to be a more inclusive one, aware of the trans-American diaspora and its cultural presence in Miami.