He's a Back Door Man

It's best to approach the "48th Annual All Florida Juried Competition & Exhibition," now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, from the show's end. Resist the natural impulse to enter the main gallery to one's left and instead make your way through the long, narrow central gallery, past the smaller "Jerry Weiss: Landscapes" exhibition.

There's some fine work at the beginning, but by slipping in through the back door, so to speak, you'll get a better overall feel for the diversity of the show, its breadth and depth. And by working your way up to the winning entries -- three of the four are displayed close together near the entrance -- you'll be able to better gauge how well they hold up against the competition.

The show's 47 pieces, in media ranging from painting and photography to sculpture and installation, were chosen by juror Ronny Cohen from more than 250 submissions. Thirty-two of the artists represented are from Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties, with only fifteen from other regions of the state, raising the question of whether the exhibition's title is slightly misleading. That quibble aside, there's some engaging art here.

One of the first works you'll encounter by beginning at the end is Sunday Morning at Mom's: An Urbanscape by Ray Azcuy. The mixed-media piece -- a wall-mounted construction consisting of three adjacent panels -- uses a few choice elements to conjure up its cozy domestic atmosphere. A plump blue teapot is affixed to the surface of the left panel, a sleek white faucet to the panel on the right. In the middle there's a blue-and-white-striped cushion with four round buttons. That's it: pleasingly to the point and unpretentious.

Nearby is one of the exhibition's few freestanding sculptures, Cygnus, by Xenia Fortin. It's a 62-inch-high abstract structure that includes a gray rectangular base topped with a black felt cube, which is in turn topped with a couple of concentric wire-mesh cubes. One ridged, cloth-covered ball appears to float deep inside the mesh; another ball hangs in a sort of archway formed by pieces of wire mesh. There's nothing especially swanlike about this boxy piece, as its title might suggest, but it has its own strange charm.

A grouping of most of the landscapes in the show serves mainly as a reminder of how difficult it is for contemporary landscape artists to move beyond the merely pictorial. A notable exception is the Merit Award winner Serene Inlet by Michael Brandenburger. Painted on paper with alkyd (a synthetic resin), it's a fairly ordinary coastal landscape distinguished by a touch of brilliance: In the lower right corner, an eerie light seems to emanate from some uncharted depths, like a natural spring forming a portal to another world.

The works of four photographers stand out, but for quite different reasons. The straightforward Mid-Morning Zig-Zag Cloud, a 22-by-28-inch image by Claudine Laabs, is like a color translation of one of those magnificent Clyde Butcher shots, with dramatic cloud formations suspended over and reflected in a watery landscape. For the 16-by-20-inch Lizard Over Miami, Alan Deutsch juxtaposes a mottled black and pale yellow lizard against a branch of intensely red, yellow, and green foliage to create a striking study in color and texture.

With Last Dance, photographer Thomas Hager goes for weightier effects. The 22-by-28-inch silver gelatin print superimposes a skeletal figure over a male nude to make a chilling -- if somewhat obvious -- point about how inextricably life and death are entwined. William Hill reaches the same conclusion with more subtlety in Submerge, a burnished-looking 36-by-21-inch digital photograph of a man's face, eyes closed, surrounded by dirt. The image echoes a famous 1993 self-portrait by the renegade artist David Wojnarowicz, and it shares that photo's haunting ambiguity.

Judgement in the Garden, a 33-by-51-inch piece by Debbie Rose Myers, at first appears to be a photograph, but it's really a mixed-media computer collage with an aura as unsettling as that of some of the early classic surrealist paintings. The stiffly formal composition includes a quartet of standing men who seem to inhabit parallel dimensions, a fifth crouching man with his hands over his face, palm trees, and a swan and an angel, both faintly visible, in a space that seems neither indoors nor outdoors. The muted colors, including a wash of sickly yellow over much of the image, enhances its dreamy quality.

At one point I overheard a couple of museum docents grumbling that the exhibition is almost completely lacking in humor. They must have overlooked an amiably loopy mixed-media piece called Venus Sings by Lori Beth Alpern. In one of the wittiest appropriations of the Venus de Milo since Dali in the '30s plugged a set of drawers into the head and body of a plaster replica, Alpern outfits her Venus with doll arms and hands (one holding an old-fashioned microphone), earrings, lipstick, nail polish, blue eyes, even a nipple ring.

Wit is in short supply, however, with the competition's winners. Rose Ann Samuelson gets a Merit Award for her large acrylic on linen The Joker's Wild, an imposing 70-by-48-inch painting of a worn-looking woman with a kerchief on her head and work boots on her feet. Although she's painted in impressively realistic detail, her surroundings are the areas of real interest -- she sits between what appears to be two chunks of a big Louise Nevelson sculpture, conglomerations of oddly shaped pieces of wood, drawers, tools, kitchen utensils, and the like. Despite this odd juxtaposition, there's a mawkishness about the woman that sinks the piece. (She's uncomfortably similar to the old washerwoman Carol Burnett used to portray in TV skits.)

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