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.)

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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