East-West connectors

An exhibit at USF's Contemporary Art Museum explores the artistic bridges between two cultures' painting traditions.

Published January 22, 2006

TAMPA - Multiculturalism, that great grab bag of a word, can either enrich or dilute an idea. In the case of "Dragon Veins," an exhibition at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, you get some of each.

The title refers to the term in Chinese art meaning the unseen connections within a painting. The show aims to explore the connections artists are making between Eastern and Western painting traditions and the contemporary flow of cultural exchange. It's a good premise, well-demonstrated, though we see nothing startling or especially original in the proof offered for display in the museum's galleries.

It was conceived and curated by Tampa painters Mernet Larsen and Elisabeth Condon. Larsen is a professor emeritus at the School of Art; Condon is an associate professor there. Both have studied in the Far East and, if we must use labels, would be called realist painters. Larsen digs deeper than Condon in her complex, referential works that are about as abstract as any realism can be. Condon's fantasy landscapes are both more glib and more likable.

They are both exceptional painters, and their love and mastery of the medium is clear in their choices of fellow exhibitors.

Frances Barth's calibrated landscapes are the most cerebral in the way they bridge Western technique and Eastern sensibility with nuanced, subtly applied backgrounds marked by spare calligraphic lines. Aerial ridge's fault line trails off from a surface rupture into deep middle earth, or across a stretch of sand ending in dabs of blue ocean. Like her other paintings in the show, it is contemplative while acknowledging the inevitable cataclysm, in the same way ancient Asian landscapes present a serene vista in which the potential for landslides and tsunamis is always present.

In comparison, Zhang Hongtu's landscapes seem to hew to faithful interpretations of ancient Chinese mountain and water paintings by fabled masters. But he tweaks the appropriation, rendering them in styles of other masters: Van Gogh, Cezanne and Monet. You can love them for their lush beauty alone, or appreciate the gentle irony of Zhang's question about what is truly original.

Questions about appropriation, who inspires whom and who owns what are the general subtext, transcending the more easily understood ideas of global influence and cultural hybridization.

Iona Rozeal Brown's geishas, for example, sport Afros and headphones. But their deep mahogany skin is as much an inscrutable mask as that created by the thick white makeup of a real geisha. Are they evolving from a long line or part of a new order? Maybe both.

And, this being about multiculturalism, the "high" vs. "low" culture issue is flagged, though I think good art vs. bad art has stronger conversational currency.

The high-low thing comes together as yin-yang exuberance in Chie Fueki's extravagant paintings composed on grids of washed color with craft materials like renaissance impasto (high-low, remember). Mt. Fuji explodes with a plume of flowers made with glitter and thick dots of paint, while the churned-up earth swirls like bits of wrapping paper. Born in Japan and raised in Brazil, Fueki interprets the natural disasters of her homeland as a confetti-soaked Carnivale in Rio.

Emily Cheng's decorative medallion paintings in another context would be considered baroque, but after Fueki's work, they act as refreshing sensory downloads, their pastel colors gently swept into ribboned borders and pretty flowers.

The inclusion of work by Takashi Murakami was inevitable and probably necessary to hammer home the multicultural point. Murakami's success appropriating pop culture has made him the King Kong of anime and manga art. And his collaboration with Louis Vuitton several years ago made him into a brand after women reportedly fought at high-end boutiques over limited edition handbags he designed using candy colors for the famous LV logo. And he deserves most of the credit for making cute cartoons a metaphor for moral emptiness. But, sorry, I'm getting bored with them the way I'm getting bored with Jeff Koons.

David Brody and Sang Nam Lee seem anomalous among such overt examples of the exhibition's premise. The generous vacuity of Lee's near-empty canvases is punctuated by Type-A doodles, and Brody lyrically floats a rigidly geometric cloud across a huge wall. They acknowledge a mechanical presence still under the control of the human hand and are welcome whispers of high-low, yin-yang, East-West.

As Confucius, (and, much later, Buckaroo Banzai) said, "No matter where you go, there you are."

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com

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REVIEW: "Dragon Veins" is at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa, through March 11. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Free admission. (813) 974-2849.