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Northern exposure

Artists from the Panhandle provide a different perspective to the Gulf Coast Museum of Art's regional exhibit, "Florida Focus."

Published September 25, 2005

LARGO - The Gulf Coast Museum of Art is in a state of transition, searching for a new director now that its longtime leader, Ken Rollins, has left to be interim director of the very troubled Tampa Museum of Art. Rollins leaves behind a worthy legacy at Gulf Coast, one that promotes Florida artists and develops vehicles to showcase them.

"Florida Focus" is one of those programs, an annual exhibition with a guest curator who selects artists from a specific region. It has been an interesting experiment though probably not sustainable over time. How many museum-quality artists can one state have? And the premise that a region shapes the nature of the art created has yielded mixed results. A generalized aesthetic can be gleaned when you consider southeast Florida artists - and it's mostly about Miami. This year's regional choice is less obvious though a consistent refrain wafts through it.

The group comes from Florida Panhandle, so we see more pine hammocks than palm groves and there is a timely reference to hurricanes. But most of the art has an elegiac quality, of times and places recalled changing even as we look. The show's curator is Rena Minar Blades, who is president and CEO of the Palm Beach Cultural Council and former director of the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee.

Mark Messersmith has a group of small, straightforward landscapes painted in unpredictable colors and one large mixed media work. Its central component is a portrait of an alligator hunter and his dead quarry in a swamp boat. The forest primeval teems with wildlife and envelops the man while in the distance a truck zooms over a bridge, everything glowing with lurid, otherworldly light. Messersmith reinforces the environmental message with a carved gator perched on top of the canvas, its teeth made of mirror shards. Its belly has been cut into a cross section to reveal a plastic skeleton it has swallowed, overpainted with flames and an artist's palette taking wing. Beneath the canvas is a series of small boxes filled with more fake skeletons and animals and a holographic photograph of a street scene, all covered with plastic bearing a schematic of a game of toss. The ball goes from one hand to another, a metaphor, perhaps, for the way issues are passed off but always return.

More landscapes from Lilian Garcia-Roig are tangles of heavily applied paint that record dense thickets of trees and undergrowth. Alexa Kleinbard creates three-dimensional versions of botanical prints greatly enlarged and painted with surreal fantasy.

The splattered colors on Paul Tamanian's metal sculptures invoke those of more forests. He shapes panels as one would carve wood or build a clay pot, with deckled edges instead of fused seams, large forms that refer to rustic craft transformed into urbane vessels.

Jim Roche's quirky diagram drawings were on view at the museum in 2004, and he returns with maps plotting favorite motorcycle runs. They are wonderful combinations of drawn-to-scale topography and idiosyncratic legends explaining them. Blue dots along the way signify gas, food and water with special recognition given to JB's BBQ ("world renowned"); arrows painted in different colors warn of speed traps (yellow: "possibly patrolled," blue: "open up with caution," green: "open up"). The series is ironic and fun.

Kris Rybka's sense of place roots itself in a stilt house constructed of twigs and bronze. If you believe that homes can tell a story, this one's is Once Upon a Time: Ivan I, which unscrolls on bronze panels etched with the hurricane's narrative told as a fairy tale: "There was a terrible, horrible storm named Hurricane Ivan. Many people lost their houses and many houses lost their people . . . we said a prayer of thanks . . . and then another prayer of thanks and then we lived happily ever after." Sure.

The we-are-one-with-the-earth theme is most pointedly made by outsider artist O.L. Samuels and photographer George Blakely. Samuels crafts statues of men and beasts from tree trunks that have the presence and heft of primitive gods, adorning them with beads and colored strings in homage. Blakely's self-portraits show him nude from the torso up, draped in detritus ranging from animal bones to dead insects like an ancient burial rite.

Cate Wyatt Magalian interprets her surroundings abstractly. VMW, a complex interlock of geometric forms, glows with modulated colors that shift from stark black and white to washes of red, brown and gray, the most beautiful work in the show.

Some of the art is unsettling. Linda Hall's Intended Family is a trio of soft sculptures modeled like stuffed animals. Their initial coziness is dispelled by the disturbing sense that they are both human and animal. Duncan Stewart's exquisite collages made by transferring images onto tape that is affixed to a mat contain suggestive juxtapositions with double-entendres. In Fructify, the photograph of a beautiful woman is overlaid with oranges and a calla lily like female body parts.

Like most exhibitions at Gulf Coast, this one will probably have poor attendance, which is a shame. Broad public interest is at this point too much to hope for, given its regional mission and its out-of-the-way location in Largo, next to the Florida Botanical Gardens. There is some talk of expanding its range to include contemporary art that isn't Florida-based. That could be great. But, as the only regional museum to give so much attention to our own artists, it has been a noble venture.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or


"Florida Focus: Northern Tropics" is at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo, through Nov. 6. 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. Free 10 a.m. to noon Saturday. (727) 518-6833.

[Last modified September 22, 2005, 11:52:04]

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