If you are happy and you know it, you won’t mind putting that feeling to the test of an exhibition parking balloons, cartoons, and smiles right next to depression, trauma and loss. The subject of many onward and inward expeditions has everyone looking for universal driving directions. There’s one location we are likely to find it – at least temporarily.
The relentless pursuit of happiness is at the core of Happy!, but how emotionally charged it comes across depends entirely on the observer’s life journey; how smooth or thorny it has been. Fairly uplifting and balanced with recognizable names and fresh perspectives, the ongoing exhibition by NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale celebrates known sources of happiness, such as play, dance, and sex and acknowledges the less ideal route options paved by death, abuse, and poverty.
Running through July 5, the show deals in strength and vulnerability and prescribes a remedy for grownup anxiety. Better yet, the little ones don’t even notice the slightly darker pockets.
A rainbow and gigantic smiling clouds are among the first pieces to greet visitors and set the optimistic tone that prevails throughout the show. They are magnificent gatekeepers to a viewing experience that feels like an invigorating stroll on a sunny day – minus the green smoothie.
FriendsWithYou, an art collaborative founded in 2002 by Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III, is behind the inflatable Rainbow Gate sporting LED lights and the playful Little Cloud trio hanging from the ceiling. They radiate positive energy and embrace us right away signaling this is a judgment-free zone.
Further down this sunny path, we encounter a vibrant immersive installation that clearly rejects the notion less is more. Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic Cavern (2019) invites us to a psychedelic introspection that is no doubt the product of an artist’s ecstasy. Every inch of the colorful room is packed with found objects bathed in Day-Glo paint and fused with one another to form foreign shapes. An array of chairs is provided for those wanting to linger and twist their necks some more.
Music plays on in the background and gives voice to the visual noise regurgitated unto the walls. The bright jungle aimed to evoke the disco and club scene of the 1980s as well as Pop art tendencies quickly becomes unbearable due to sensory overload. For the first three minutes, however, this web is a glorious victory speech over high art.
Like many large and abundant art shows with room to spare, Happy! serves up a small dose of the inexplicable; a rainbow-colored pile of crocheted confetti scattered on the floor being one example. Contributions by Keith Haring, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons preserve its caliber regardless of their famous predictability or perhaps because of it. One of these titans even manages to hide and sneak up on us from among works resembling children’s art.
The Party is completely devoid of the color-blocking blurred-edge quality synonymous with Rothko’s name. Instead, he packs a small room with flattened figures of children who have gathered around a table for a celebration. Oversized heads crown the necks and shoulders and the faces are painted in yellow, green and red hues; some of which we see again in his other work Untitled (1956). Rothko taught art to children for more than 20 years. The atypical oil piece from 1938 is the result of his observations on their purely intuitive creative process.
It is in this section that the show begins to honor euphoric happiness’s grounded counterpart and checks the all-inclusive box. Sharing wall space with Rothko is an animated and colorful watercolor titled Merry Go Round by Esther Phillips. It exhibits the characteristics of a piece unburden by knowledge and cleansed of institutional impurities. The flattened, loosely painted composition breathes on its own, having been disconnected from the tube feeding it rules and principles about depth, proportion and symmetry.
It is also deceptively innocent and would manage to shield the viewer from the harsh truth were it not for the description. The poverty brought on by the Great Depression deteriorated this Russian-born artist’s mental health. The damage was significant; Phillips spent nine years in a New York state mental institution where staff supplied her with materials to continue her work. Those of us whose life journey has seen speed bumps and the happiness gauge never reach full tank can relate to the masked pain depicted here.
Art’s healing powers are broadcast even louder through a 2007 film installation titled God. The single-channel video playing against a dramatic red curtain stars its creator, Ragnar Kjartansson, dressed in a tuxedo. An orchestra joins him as he signs “sorrow conquers happiness” over and over again in the softest manner. Does he want us to believe in his upside-down reaffirmation or does he want us to confront it? Just as the melody approaches climax, the loop skips it and begins again.
Suffering is part of life, it seems to say, and the bench provided tempts the masochist in us to stay longer and bask in past memories that validate this truth. But the mere fact that we can do so is also a form of triumph.
It isn’t long before the show regains its upbeat posture via amusing pieces such as Cory Arcangel’s Totally F—ed (2003). It’s a twisted fate for the protagonist of the Super Mario Bros. video game, who finds himself stuck on a cube baring a question mark. The abyss of a square blue TV screen where death is certain is the only way forward and the most avid of gamers cannot aid him. We watch in frustration waiting for mushrooms to boost his powers or coins to pay a ransom or bricks to emerge, but even Mario’s most common enemies are missing from the fame. The clever technological failure is deliberate and torturous, but also relieves Mario of responsibility. In the absence of the most basic structure and tools, there can no longer be reasonable expectations for him to function.
Cartoonish smiling flowers pop up on the surface of a canvas titled Open Your Hands Wide, Embrace Happiness! like unwanted ads brought on by malware. The overgrown hypnotic field threatens to spill out of the frame but has benign intentions. It wants to spread the love. The precision of the shapes speaks to patience and discipline while the multitude of sizes and color combinations project compulsion. It’s not the only contradiction. A miniature crying flower partially hidden right of center serves as the underlying bitter note that balances out this delicious spell Takashi Murakami created in 2010. Stand away from the painting to spot it.
Until we can pin down the elusive creature of sustained happiness, the fleeting variety will do. For the spaces with neither, we have only to breathe and apply art band-aids along the way. Happy! just happens to be dispensing them.
Happy! runs through July 5 at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. It also is open until 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. Admission: $12, $8 for seniors, $5 for students. Call 954-525-5500 or visit nsuartmuseum.org for more information.