MIAMI — After my friend Michael Garland Clifford passed away, I missed his memorial — the celebration of his life — because I was on a plane back home to Miami, where he lived. I nearly cried the whole trip, and comforted myself with the juvenile thought that I’d be nearer to him that way, amidst the clouds and, later, the stars. I don’t know where souls go, if they exist at all, but it’s easy to associate them with the idea of floating, to imagine their ephemerality.
It was again due to air travel that I missed the opening reception for Tropical Purgatory, an installation imagined and rendered by Clifford before his passing and realized with the help of his family, Lucila Garcia de Onrubia, Mickey Pomfrey (Clifford’s gallerist at Courtney Blades), and Oliver Apte. Organized by Ricardo Mor, the exhibitions manager at Locust Projects, it is the gallery’s first posthumous exhibition, based entirely on Clifford’s own renderings with little intervention by its organizers.
For me, it’s a kind of fated coincidence that the show imagines itself in the sky, in a space painted bright blue with soft-white clouds, even on the floor. A giant pair of bright red dice sit in the center of the space, one of them functioning as a table for a bottle of Skyy vodka, which is offered to guests and constantly replenished. In the corner, a hammock, printed with one of his paintings, looks comfortable, but you can’t sit on it. Thick metal chains hang from the ceiling, swaying when the A.C. hits them: depending on your vantage point, your sense of weightlessness is tempered, briefly, by a sense of entrapment. It’s like a bar in heaven, an imposed paradise; escape to the bathroom and you’ll hear Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” — just that line — over and over, ad nauseam. The project space at Locust is small; it has never felt so sprawling and so confining at the same time.
Clifford often played with duality: the motifs in his paintings (dice and chains, flowers and leaves) allude to both unbridled joy and unseen loneliness, both the carefree follies of youth and its eventual heartaches. (Clifford himself embodied a sweet-and-sour candor, a cigarette often dangling, Humphrey Bogart-style, from his gigantic smirk.) The work, though primarily paintings, functioned three-dimensionally — the flowers he painted were so thick they came off the canvas, his methods varied enough to include smoke bombs and playing cards. Tropical Purgatory marks his first public foray into the realm of sculptural installation, but neither the symbols nor the process are totally new.
Few creative liberties were taken in the realization of Tropical Purgatory. What changes were made, Clifford might have approved of, even delighted in. In an unimaginably prophetic move, he included giant mourning candles in the initial renderings; without instruction for their placement, the organizers placed them in sand-filled beer buckets that remind me of beach pails, ashtrays, alcohol: the pleasures and banalities of life by the sea. (Visitors are invited to light the candles.) Then there’s the unpainted door to the parking lot, stark and gray — a not-subtle implication that purgatory, however repressive and repetitive, has an exit.
I’m happy I missed that opening, and visited instead when I could sit on the floor and light a mourning candle alone. Miami’s incessant heat can feel suffocating and endless. As often as Clifford referred to those feelings, Tropical Purgatory reminded me that his work — playful and explosive — could make you forget about them, too.
Michael Garland Clifford: Tropical Purgatory is on view at Locust Projects (3852 North Miami Avenue, Miami) through April 7.
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