Challenging notions

Three unique exhibits at the Tampa Museum of Art force viewers to reconsider the concept of beauty.

Published May 6, 2007

TAMPA - Lots to discuss today and some of it isn't pretty. But pretty isn't what art's about. Beautiful, we hope and expect, because it's a much larger word and not just in its number of letters.

Beauty has more layers of meaning, can accommodate the unconventional. It's the reason a Francis Bacon portrait can be disturbing yet still a beautiful work of art. Same with Goya's horrifying Black Paintings. Edvard Munch's The Scream. A banal example would be Andy Warhol's soup cans or Jeff Koon's rabbit, Robert Rauschenberg's goat.

None of these artists is part of three current exhibitions at the Tampa Museum of Art. They're referenced here to illustrate a principle that informs these shows. Good art doesn't have to baffle, but sometimes it does. When it does, we tend to turn away from it because understanding its different kind of beauty takes a lot of work. In conversations with other people who enjoy looking at art, I find the medium that confuses and confounds most is video and film, usually called new media.

Use your mind

Nine new media works by seven artists comprise "Memorials of Identity," shown on continuous loop in a gallery outfitted with seating and blackout curtains. Those seeing Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba's video will have no problem responding to its visual beauty, a mesmerizing underwater journey of young Vietnamese men pushing bicycle taxis along the ocean floor toward an unknown destination. They pull and strain at these quaint modes of transportation, struggling to keep them on the ocean floor, rising to the surface for air and descending again to their Sisyphean task. The slow-motion trek through turquoise waters slashed with rays of sunlight is gorgeous and fruitless, as they abandon their vehicles and swim toward and then past an eerie group of netting assembled among rocks to resemble a fishing village.

What does it mean? The long title gives some hints: Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex - For the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards. You will find your own interpretations but I take it as a damning commentary on the plight of many Southeast Asians trapped in cycles of poverty, often stripped even of their heritage. Like I said, brutal and beautiful.

Really disturbing is Israeli artist Sigalit Landau's Barbed Hula, in which we see her first from a distance, standing naked on a beach twirling a hoop around her waist, a scene that appears to be a joyful, liberating romp. Coming closer, the toy is revealed as a circle of barbed wire mutilating her torso. Definitely painful with none of Nguyen-Hatsushiba's mitigating loveliness. Yet compositionally it is beautiful, a haunting metaphor for Middle East violence and its human cost.

William Kentridge, an acclaimed new media artist from South Africa, creates his videos from his charcoal and pastel drawings. His theme, like that of the other artists, is the destruction and diaspora, both physical and psychological, created by political upheavals. The trilogy in the exhibition range from a sharply critical examination of apartheid to a poignant meditation on individual loss after collective violence. His images are grim, and his technique of filming them, altering and refilming the drawings, creates a primitive stop-action effect that, set to music, plays like a vintage silent movie. The drawings are sometimes simple and direct, sometimes full of detail and nuance.

The point is that new media is approached in many ways like traditional art - a visual process that involves an immediate response and then, if we care, an attempt to discern multiple meanings and analyze technique. New media requires more patience - looking at all nine videos takes more than 90 minutes - but these nine are worth your time.

Range of emotions

The marquee exhibition at the museum is a collection of paintings by Eberhard Havekost, a German artist who is sometimes likened to the older, more famous Gerhard Richter for his use of photography as a starting point for his almost-photo-realist paintings. The works are slick and perfectionist in their representation of tightly edited landscapes and portraits; anyone who admires technique will love Havekost's canvases.

More than that - and here's where the idea of unlikely beauty comes in - their spareness seems an attempt to strip away particulars of personality, including his own. You could call these works soulless. I call them meticulous observations of people and objects, rendered in paint but meant to suggest the quick snapshot and the shutter that functions like our eyes, looking, recording, discarding and choosing one over another in never-ending succession.

The third exhibition at the Tampa Museum is a collection of multimedia works by Purvis Young. He has been well known in Miami for many years, a self-taught painter who learned his craft by studying old masters, then forging a style that hews closely to the folk art tradition.

His paintings have a level of sophistication that differentiates them from those of many folk artists, however. He uses salvaged materials on which he creates often threatening urban scenes softened by bright colors and blurring lines. An untitled cityscape, for example, has crowds of people, some with facial features, others receding, faceless, into anonymity. Some are mere squiggles that also resemble flames of a burning tenement.

Compare his work to Havekost's and find a shared commitment to simplicity. The difference in technique is obvious, of course, as is Young's infusion of feeling into his works. To some, Young's paintings may seem too primitive and Havekost's too cerebral to be called beautiful, as one would call a work by an Italian renaissance master beautiful. As with all art, descriptive judgments are relative. After all, Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime.

The three exhibitions are here through the generosity of the Rubell family of Miami, who own one of the finest private collections of contemporary art in the world. The new media works and Havekost paintings are on loan; those by Young are part of a gift of 91 paintings to the museum by the Rubells.

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

What is beauty?

"Memorials of Identity: New Media from the Rubell Family Collection" and "Eberhard Havekost, 1996-2006: Paintings from the Rubell Family Collection" are at the Tampa Museum of Art, 600 N Ashley Drive, through July 8. "Purvis Young: Painted Protests from the Tampa Museum of Art Collection" continues through July 22. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 adults, $6 seniors and $3 students. By donation 10 a.m. to noon Saturday. (813) 274-8130 or www.tampamuseum.com.