Have mission, need audience

The Gulf Coast Museum of Art has consistently laudable shows but has been hampered by its location.

Published March 19, 2006


I'm rooting for the Gulf Coast Museum of Art.

It has been on shaky ground since its 1999 opening, when the former art center in Clearwater reinvented itself among the slash pines and palmettos of mid Pinellas County. Under Ken Rollins, its first director, who is now interim head of the Tampa Museum of Art, it established a mission to collect and exhibit work by Florida artists. That goal has been validated by consistently good shows and an interesting permanent collection that too few people see.

The tripleheader now on display will probably be one more example of trees falling in the forest unheard. The three artists in the exhibition have no big-name recognition, though Josette Urso is well-known in bay area art circles. She grew up and studied in Tampa, now lives in New York, but shows frequently, perhaps too frequently, in regional museums and galleries.

I throw in that caveat because her small-scale abstract landscapes, lined up by the dozens, are lovely but slightly mind-numbing in their predictability and quantity. This is the fourth time I have seen her work in two years, and I confess it has become something of a blur.

Miami-based artist Bianca Pratorius offers something new. "New" can be a loaded word in art, code for difficult. Fear not. You can stretch your brain delving into her deconstructed Miami construction sites, rendered in encaustic, or simply enjoy their formal beauty.

Encaustic is a method of painting with pigment mixed into hot wax. Used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, it was pretty much a lost process resurrected in the 20th century most famously by Jasper Johns. Typically, artists exploit its thick, textural possibilities. Pratorius uses it as a baker would fondant, creating smooth surfaces that encase photographic prints of buildings in the steel-girder stage of creation.

Through filmy, shifting layers of muted color, they seem to exist as relics or ruins from a distant past instead of their reality as future structures. Her phrase, "reverse archaeology," is apt.

Accompanying them are several groups of monoprints, made with detritus the artist finds on the construction sites she visits, then inks and presses to paper. They are not groundbreaking in their conception but still thoughtful interpretations of appropriation. Who knew bathtub wrap could be interesting?

In contrast to the cerebral nature of Pratorius, Richard Currier's large portraits and still lifes hit you in the gut. He paints with old master bravura, using rich, deep colors, illuminating his subjects with dramatic lighting against dark backgrounds. Animate or inanimate, they are psychological studies.

Several portraits of a man are presented as panels using closely cropped facial details to develop a visual narrative. In Mirror Image, his profile is deeply shaded in the first vertical panel; he turns toward a harsh light and stares at the viewer; in the third he seems to scream in pain.

Was it something I said? Sorry, just kidding. The title indicates it was something he said.

With Head Above Water is both beautiful and creepy, the subject's head floating on brackish water with small sparks of light limning his jaw. Vastness is implied with a distant horizon line, but the head, taking up almost two-thirds of the canvas, throws off the perspective with claustrophobic density. Compared with the other portraits, One-Eyed Jack, studded with playing cards, is stuntish.

A triptych of peppers is an unexpected psychodrama. Currier does mottled flesh - animal or vegetable - superbly, showing it in ripeness poised to decay. So go the peppers, curled in sexy, aerobically challenging poses. Eating them would seem an act of cannibalism.

Pratorius was a last-minute addition, which probably accounts for the awkward way Currier's paintings have been arranged. Most occupy the large Rhoda Reed Newberry Gallery, but a handful are hung in a nonconnecting gallery used for the permanent collection.

Gulf Coast Museum has a new director, Michelle Turman, and a creative young curator, Kurt Piazza. He inherited most of this season's exhibitions but has injected artists such as Pratorius into the mix. In May, he brings in "Will Boys Be Boys?" It is organized by Independent Curators International and will also travel to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It includes about 20 contemporary artists and should be a draw for those interested in avant-garde art as well as a challenge to conservative museumgoers. I applaud the museum's board for funding it.

I suggested in an earlier column that the museum would benefit from a move to a more urban setting such as St. Petersburg. Its location on the grounds of the Pinewood Cultural Center, sharing space with Heritage Village, a collection of historic buildings, and the Florida Botanical Gardens, was supposed to generate a synergistic drawing power. That has not happened. But the museum's Largo location is important to the cultural landscape, a singular resource for mid Pinellas. The only other Pinellas museum north of Ulmerton Road is the Leepa-Rattner Museum in Tarpon Springs.

There is talk now of expanding its mission - the spring show is an example - with exhibitions beyond Florida's boundaries. That isn't a bad thing. It's probably a necessity, but straying too far could dilute the uniqueness of the museum. In any location, the Gulf Coast Museum is an important component in our rich and diverse collective of arts venues in west-central Florida. Let's hope the larger community discovers and embraces it for what it is.

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