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It's a play world, after all

photo
[Photo: Courtesy of Brent Sikkema, New York]
Arturo Herrera, Three Hundred Nights, 1998, wall painting, dimensions variable.

By MARY ANN MARGER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 6, 2001


"Never Never Land,'' a pop art exhibit at USF commenting on Disney's cultural impact, is both provocative and playful, leaving the viewer to puzzle over each work's mood and tone.

TAMPA -- First we had theme parks. Now we have theme art shows.

"Never Never Land," now at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, takes the gold standard of theme parks, Disney, as the theme of its school-year opener.

Through 25 artists, up-and-comers on the national scene, the show uses Disney as the wedge to crack open the relevant ideas that provoked these works.

You, the viewer, need to provide a substantial hammer.

Like the Venus de Milo show, closing Sunday at St. Petersburg's Salvador Dali Museum, or "Ultralounge" two seasons ago at USF CAM, "Never Never Land" uses the theme concept not only to make the work more accessible (and more fun) than it would be in a random gallery setting, but also to make a statement on the part of the curator. Omar Lopez-Chahoud organized the show for Florida Atlantic University, where it showed last year. USF CAM is its only other venue.

The works range from Gabrielle Stellbaum's washed-out C-print photos to Dara Birnbaum's Wonder Woman video, from Markus Baenziger's "solid stage" stagecoaches to Colin Keefe's Hex Node City, a modern-day Venice.

This is pop art, high art based on popular culture. But unlike the Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein images of the '60s, or the Koons appropriations of the '80s, this art often has no visual appeal. Look instead for conceptual uniqueness as the artists praise and protest the effect of Disneyfication on American life. For this game show, it's your challenge to figure out who is doing which.

In the lobby, Arturo Herrera's Three Hundred Nights is painstakingly painted directly on the lobby wall, not by Herrera, but by James Rodgers, a preparator at USF CAM, using written directions and overhead transparencies. Instructions included colors that needed to be ordered (Benjamin Moore flat latex interior paint) and the request that the lines be "crisp." The result is two monster-size creatures that, in a Disney souvenir shop, could be miniaturized and sold as cuddly fabric souvenirs.

Also in the lobby is Tommy Kenny's Mousehole #2, a fool-the-eye feat that looks, from a distance, as if it's carved right into the wall. But it's only a section of carpet mounted against it.

Such direct reference to the Mouse appears in several other works. It's hard to argue with success. Or perfection, idealism and wholesomeness, all characteristics associated with Disney.

But, like the mouse hole, is it all illusion? Jason Middlebrook sketches scenes from Disney's planned community, Celebration, then neatly piles debris against the structures. In a Mickey Mouse-shaped installation, mimicking the one at Disney World, he constructs a plot of soil with filthy flowers of uneven height, strangled by weeds. Even the sprinkled glitter is tarnished. Like Disney, it's all a fabrication.

Stephan Pascher's A California Legend is staged like a high school student's science fair project. A poster of news clips adorns one wall; on another, a time line of California history (e.g., 1923 -- Walt and Roy move to Los Angeles). In between is a large table of rooftops set in potting soil beneath special solar lights for growing plants, in this case, onions. Maybe it's a strange kind of homage to another Californian, Luther Burbank. Disney has had a longtime presence in the city of Burbank.

Some works fit the theme, even if they aren't Disneyfied, such as Melissa Marks' fluffy abstract animations in colored pencil, or Dara Birnbaum's Wonder Woman video (one of six by different artists, on continuous play in the back hall).

Bonnie Collura suspends a deliciously cream-colored figurine, upside down, from the lobby ceiling. She could be a model for Disney artists, except that the poor lady has a bolt through her side and a cleft in her head. It's a visual oxymoron.

Mary Magsamen's multifaceted Jump combines a video of a white-gowned lady in a free-form swirl, an audio of an old jump rope melody and several new ropes. The artist invites viewers to take a rope with them but expects the museum to buy new ones. If that seems thoughtless and juvenile, consider the subject.

James Angus' Puzzle (Sky) invites the viewer to peruse a jigsaw puzzle of giant pieces. But the real puzzle is that the pieces don't fit right and the image, the sky, is jumbled up. This is more than a random design with a three-dimensional effect; for all its playfulness, it is a metaphor for things that don't work out the way you expect, for instance, life.

Between the jump ropes, Herrera's paint-by-numbers piece and the onions (grown on the USF campus), this has to be the most comically interactive art show ever, for the staff if not for the viewers.

But the show is no romp in the park for wide-eyed freshmen art students just entering this month. Like solar lights on onions, it will speed the growing process. Never Never Land? It always was a myth.

- E-mail Mary Ann Marger at marger@sptimes.com.

Review

"Never Never Land" continues through Oct. 8 at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Free admission; parking is $2. Call (813) 974-4133; Web site www.usfcam.usf.edu.

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