He's a Back Door Man

The Best in Show winner is an even more baffling choice. It's a clay sculpture by Cheryl Tall called Festina Tarde, which consists of a two-headed figure, its faces cheek to cheek, and a bird resting on top of one head, a turtle on the other. There's enough bosom present to imply a woman, although the figure seems vaguely androgynous, and the expressions on these faces are dull and empty, with pursed lips and blankly staring eyes. To borrow Gertrude Stein's famous dismissal of Oakland, California, there's no there there -- the piece is just a 31-inch-high pile of pale, lifeless clay.

The remaining Merit Award winner is a lovely 48-inch-square oil and acrylic on linen painting called Journey by Alan Urban. Abstract patterns, painted in a rich palette of blues, blanket the surface, spreading out in thin little lines like shards of glass or ice. There's a delicately rippling energy here, as if we're watching a slow-motion crystallization or freezing taking place before our eyes.

My choice for Best in Show would have been Larry Alan Gerber's acrylic Firewatchers. It's a richly detailed, largely realistic painting of nine people arrayed in front of a building façade, watching, with varying degrees of attention, a fire raging in a building across the street, only minimally visible because it is reflected in the window of a door near the center of the image.

The picture has something of the look and feel of the great social satires Paul Cadmus did in the '30s, although Gerber stays away from caricature, and he freezes the whole scene in stasis. (Cadmus would have had everyone engaged in some frantic activity.) Nobody here seems especially engrossed in or terrified by what's happening across the street. They're passive, disengaged, unable or unwilling to rouse themselves from the ennui with which they seem to be drenched.

Gerber draws us in with his eye for color and compositional balance as well as his feel for detail. A small boy, for instance, looks to be missing his right arm, until you notice that he has, in the way of small boys, pulled it inside his shirt to scratch his chest. And as the painting's small details reveal themselves, so do the painter's melancholy observations on humanity. It's ultimately a piercingly sad piece of work.

Group shows, and especially juried competitions, are almost by definition a highly mixed bag, and this one is no exception. Still, a show that yields even one work as beautifully ruminative as Gerber's Firewatchers is a show worth seeing. Back to front.

"The 48th Annual All Florida Juried Competition & Exhibition" is on display through July 11 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 801 W. Palmetto Park Rd., Boca Raton, 561-392-2500.

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