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Tampa Bay area artists exhibit their wit

The Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo culls a rich show from artists using various mediums and varying degrees of subtlety.

Published February 13, 2005

LARGO - The third "Florida Focus" exhibition at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art is a fine survey of artists working in the Tampa Bay area. I have seen the work of many of them in different contexts, but intentional or not, curator Mark Ormond seems to have mined some subtle vein of wit running through much of it. It's art that is also without gimmicks, straightforward and with a seriousness of technical purpose (maybe except for Ryan Berg, but I'll get to him later).

The closest the show gets to conceptual art is work by David Norr, and that's a stretch because his austere sculptures are really more like Bauhaus utilitarianism merged with pop irony. A round, white metal cylinder sprouts antennae like television rabbit ears, and two oversize objects resembling plugs painted in pastel blue and pink rest on top of a sterile metal box.

These anonymous, generic forms are juxtaposed with nearby paintings by Theo Wujcik, an artist who has lately turned his eye on consumerism with sleek, cerebral renderings of Chanel perfume bottles and ormolu table legs. Two portraits in this exhibition are more editorialized. In one, a pair of young girls pose insouciantly as if about to embark on a day of shopping. Their figures are reversed out, unpainted white silhouettes with some great details provided by well-placed paint that looks like doodles from Magic Markers. The background is military camouflage but painted in shades of pink. So they, visually, have been all but emptied of content, voids defined physically by what surrounds them. Instead of a handbag, one of the girls carries a rifle. Do I need to add that the title is Cocked and Ready?

Those works are like tart sorbet to refresh the palate, so take them in and you're ready to ponder the extravagant installation by Leslie Fry. Quercus Emancipation occupies a diagonal sweep of wall and floor space. It helps to know your classical architecture (and a little Latin) to appreciate its droll elegance. The acorn is the central symbol - quercus is Latin for an oak tree - and, as we all know, mighty oaks from little acorns, etc. Anyway, a circular plaster medallion sits high above us, a bas relief of acorns, its center spewing strands of hemp. Our eyes are led to a big - very big - plaster cast of a man's head resting on the floor. Before we see his face, we see a long trail of more hemp coming from a topknot of more acorns. His noble face, like a relic from antiquity, could be a found object. But examine his features and you see that the beard and irises of his eyes are made of dozens more tiny bas relief acorns. Further on, a village of little heads rests on a shelf, looking like - you guessed it - acorns, tinted in earthy tones. Fry is making a circular statement about those little nuts and big trees. Think, too, of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem Ozymandias, with its "shattered visage" and tale of greatness undone by time.

Those are statements about refinement of some kind or another, and between them sit Richard Beckman's frizzled steel sculptures, which seem especially nihilistic seen so soon after his death. So Much Love (Lost) is a tangle of black threads that spreads out like roots at the base and twines up and apart like smoke. Nearby is Beckman's drawing Breathing, a gasp of tiny, floating bubbles.

Other paintings and drawings have a similar passive-aggressive edge. Much of them at first lull you into complacency with their nominal representational elements and formal skill, then snap you back with their sometimes confrontational subject matter.

Neil Bender's Valentine-red painting Manifest Destiny has a tangle of shapes you think are masses of roses on a florid background. The flowers, on closer inspection, resolve into a mass of variously sized penises. The Diagrammatic Diary of Dysfunction is a flow chart of body parts and internal organs breaking down. I got no deep meaning from either work but sure admired Bender's technique and imagination.

Elizabeth Condon's landscapes are cryptic, too, but not as inscrutable. She laces her beautiful paintings with a Dr. Seuss kind of wryness and glee. The Fu' Chun Mountains of Florida invokes traditions of oriental landscape painting, as does August. The first is a mural-like panorama that turns the serenity of a Chinese scene into a Disney diorama. August is a Zen landscape of overlapping features, mountains and trees reaching for the heavens with lots of open space. But instead of the monochrome we expect from an oriental ink drawing, we get the overheated colors of high noon in Florida: baked, brown earth, yellow and orange washes above. Sky blue has been transferred, along with some gray, to the leaves on the trees, a reminder of intermittent summer thundershowers.

Lottery balls bounce inside an intravenous feeding tube and among clouds on which a man floats, sustained by that tube as it weaves through him in Carlos Manuel Soto's Summertime Dream. The painting might bend toward surrealism the way Max Ernst imagined it, which was mostly weird, except for Soto's insistent narrative grounded by the tube connecting the IV and man to a complex of buildings like a wakeup call.

Like many of his peers in this exhibition, photographer Burk Uzzle loads deadpan sensibility into his sumptuously composed works. His subject is the oddments of human invasion into nature. Deer don't roam a neighborhood anymore because they have been beheaded and stuffed in a shed. Outside instead, flocks of socks and white T-shirts hang from a clothesline. Fake cows wait, with full udders that will never be milked, by a roadside. An oak canopy shades a field of discarded washing machines.

Beth Reynolds has developed a unique way to showcase the fine documentary photography she has produced for years. Instead of a static lineup of prints along a wall with explanatory text many people don't read, she gives us a talking photo album. The photographs flip along a computer screen as we wear headphones telling us a story. In Misunderstood Minds: Living With Learning Differences, she takes her camera to a school in rural Kentucky that works with dyslexic children. As the photographs flash up, teachers, parents and children tell us about the school. Shalom Cuba finds Reynolds exploring the Jewish population that has endured through Castro's persecution. She does the narration for the photos. Each, at three minutes, is long enough to convey the experience without losing the viewer. Some of the photographs are so good, you may want to go through the program twice.

Robyn Voshardt and Sven Humphrey are also superb still photographers experimenting with video. Bad Blood opens with terra cotta blobs and a percussion soundtrack that assaults you as if you're seeing the splattering of blood from a violent encounter. The music swells as the visual pace of the expanding and contracting blobs picks up. It gets a little heavy-handed at one point, but there is a majestic moment when the music reaches a crescendo and a single blob pauses and falls from view. A group of drawings on an adjacent wall, wonderfully installed, looks like illustrations for various molecular combinations.

Ryan Berg is the only ceramicist in the exhibition, and I was perplexed at first by his inclusion. Compared with the masterful use of materials by the other artists, his collages and clay sculptures seem slapdash. But Berg, like the others, is interested in the way life teems around or inside us. The collages have the mystery of a Joseph Cornell assemblage, cryptic layers making connections we don't quite get. But they have a sense of humor, too, and can be enjoyed for their mix of materials and composition. Clay lends itself to edgy whimsy, able to skirt between craft and art, preciousness and precosity. Berg's clay statuettes are little fetishes. Four sit on pedestals, each having a letter that spells out the artist's first name. They have the naivete of an elementary school kid's art project, squat and ungainly figures dolled up with fake hair, little hats, glued-on facial features. You could compare them to the four stages of man, except they're more like the four stages of an evolving personality.

The Gulf Coast Museum continues its admirable mission to exhibit living artists based in Florida. Twenty years ago, the pickings probably would have been a bit slim. Today, it's a rich harvest.

Along with "Florida Focus: Tampa Bay" is an installation in the sculpture courtyard by Linda Howard. Temples of Light is a series of aluminum structures that invokes temple ruins. Four panels made of lathelike metal strips arranged geometrically act as partial walls that lead to a curving sculpture that could be an exotic flower or a detached pediment. It has a serene stillness to it. I saw it on a cloudy day, a mistake, because part of its charm is its interplay with light.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or


"Florida Focus: Tampa Bay" is at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo, through Feb. 20. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 adults, $4 seniors, $3 students and free for children 10 and younger. (727) 518-6833.

[Last modified February 10, 2005, 12:27:03]

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