Flower Power

The owners of a new gallery want to turn a few sheets of colorful blotter acid paper into a full-fledged exhibition. Are they hallucinating?

When I heard that a new gallery called Moonflowers was exhibiting blotter acid paper art, I decided to investigate. I'd heard about such art and seen it in reproduction but never firsthand; I was also curious to see what Moonflowers was all about.

It turns out that the exotic-sounding Moonflowers, which opened in early April, is a tiny gallery in a nondescript strip mall just off Dixie Highway in Oakland Park. The space actually looks more like a head shop than a gallery, which makes sense for an exhibition of art in a medium that has been used to launch millions of psychedelic adventures.

But things at Moonflowers are not what they seem. Even though the air is heavy with the aroma of incense, candles, and essential oils, and shelves are filled with various kinds of devices for burning these items, this is no head shop. There is no drug paraphernalia; the aromatic stuff, according to Michael Cantley, who owns and runs the shop with partner Jay Colwell, is a carryover from the pair's wholesale fragrance business.

Even the "exhibit" of blotter acid paper art turns out to be something of a misnomer. It comprises fewer than a dozen pieces, and they're not on display. You have to ask to see them, and then they'll be brought out and spread before you on one of the glass counters.

Some of this heady art, however, is impressive on its own terms. The most notable works are a pair by none other than Timothy Leary, each signed by the guru of psychedelia and framed under glass. One is an ornate decorative design mingling a repeating pattern of red and blue roses with shiny blue balls of various sizes floating among the flowers. In the lower right corner is a tiny panel that looks to be a self-portrait of the doctor-artist.

The other piece is a surprisingly formal, old-fashioned-looking illustration of a woman reading a book, executed in the style of a Japanese print. It's elegant and highly stylized, hardly the kind of thing one might expect from the man who advised people to "turn on, tune in, drop out."

The real psychedelic art is two pieces by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey, he of the notorious LSD-gobbling, bus-touring Merry Pranksters chronicled in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. One is a sort of modified fractal pattern in deliriously bright colors that radiates in a spiral from the center with Kesey's signature superimposed in relief on the surface in black and purple glitter.

The second is a more explosive composition in even more intense neon colors that seem to emanate from what looks like a small golden canister in the center. Kesey's name appears in simple block letters below, all but obscured by the shooting plumes of color. This is standard-issue hallucinatory imagery, especially when compared with Leary's subtler, more tranquil pieces.

The Leary and Kesey works are painted directly onto the scored blotter paper, which is about 10 or 12 inches square. The other pieces are prints, two of them fairly straightforward illustrations of Asian and East Indian scenes. The rest are a little quirkier, more playful. A repeating pattern of 36 Beavises and Butt-heads adorns one, along with the phrase "The Beavis and Butt-head Psychedelic Experience." Another features small, brightly colored squares with anthropomorphic condoms dancing, playing bongos, waving umbrellas, dragging balls and chains. And a third has similar colored squares with weird creatures that look like escapees from a sci-fi cartoon.

Two of these sheets are imprinted in blue on the reverse side in a drastically different style of illustration. The condom piece is backed by an intricate, largely realistic underwater scene that includes a blowfish, some jellyfish, and a swordfish skewering another fish. And the back side of the print of the cartoony creatures has a similarly violent jungle scene with a tiger attacking an elephant and a crocodile and a huge snake confronting each other.

A final piece is a dramatic red-and-black print. It's dominated by four large central squares, each with a stylized, pared-to-the-basics head that appears to portray the Darth Maul character from Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace. Smaller panels of the same image surround the main ones, creating a pleasingly symmetrical composition.

Cantley hopes to accumulate enough blotter acid paper art to put together a more traditional show, with the pieces framed and mounted on the walls. That brings us to the real promise of Moonflowers. Behind the room with the incense and candles, another room is in the process of being turned into a small gallery to showcase local artists. (Cantley himself creates wonderfully whimsical mixed-media clocks using such found objects as vinyl records and saw blades.)

The shop already features some pieces of decorative art in the main room: painted glass bottles and cigar-style boxes decoupaged with Dalí reproductions by a woman identified simply as Noëlle and original silver jewelry by Ron. An unidentified artist is represented by jagged slabs of ancient slate from the Deep South that have been transformed into oil lamps called Fire Rocks, with glass reservoirs concealed below and fiberglass wicks extending from small holes drilled through the stone.

But the back room, which was in a state of disarray when I visited, is shaping up to be a space devoted to work that more closely fits the description "fine art." Some of Cantley's older works on canvas are on display here, along with a few drawings by the widely exhibited gay South Florida artist Alexander, including portraits of South Florida's late but still well known female impersonator Dana Manchester. Among a handful of pieces by local photographer Steve Shires, I spied a cheeky 1998 sepia print titled 'Scuse Me, in which a longhaired fellow looks back over his shoulder toward us, his pants dropped as he presumably takes a leak.

At the moment Moonflowers has a little bit of everything and not much of anything, which is understandable for a gallery that has had its doors open for only a few months. But Cantley is enthusiastic and supportive of local artists, and as one of the many whose work has been rejected by some big-name area exhibitions, including the Hortt Competition, he's determined to provide display space for art that might otherwise go unseen. Stop by Moonflowers to check out its current small inventory, especially the two pieces of blotter acid paper art by Leary, and then keep an eye on the gallery to see what direction it takes.

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