Déjà New

There they were at the Boca Museum, just as I had pictured them

I stepped into the "52nd Annual All Florida Juried Competition and Exhibition" and it was déjà vu all over again.

At the entrance to the show, now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, I encountered a trio of long vertical wooden panels, labeled Best in Show, by Boca-based artist and Florida Atlantic University art Professor Carol Prusa. I could have sworn I'd seen them before. I hadn't, although I'd seen three similar Prusa pieces in the just-ended All-Media Juried Biennial at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, one of which -- surprise! -- was named Best in Show in that exhibition. (I'll come back to Prusa in a moment.)

A few feet away, I came upon another work that prompted a doubletake: Sylvia Riquezes' mixed-media installation Peace Inside, which includes camouflaged netting and bowling balls "wearing" military helmets positioned on either side of a tall rectangular box. When you peer through two holes in the box, you see a mirrored reflection of your own eyes (as well as a third eye) along with an optical illusion featuring a seemingly endless series of large red balls receding into the dimly lit distance.

As it turned out, I had seen the installation in a slightly different configuration and context, when it was part of the recent one-woman Riquezes show "Blow Me a Bubble" at the Coral Springs Museum of Art. On the other hand, Hear the Chime of Life, another Riquezes piece around the corner, just seemed familiar, thanks to its use of more of the red balls that dominated the artist's work in the Coral Springs show.

The same held true of the three black-and-white photographs by an artist who calls herself simply Zuská. They only reminded me of something, specifically Zuská's three black-and-white photographs that were part of June's "United and Proud" exhibition in celebration of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month. And while I was convinced I'd seen the nearby color photograph ATM Inside, by Camilo Ramirez, I finally gave up trying to figure out exactly where.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this overlap. Maybe it's just coincidence. Maybe it's evidence of a handful of artists aggressively pursuing success in the South Florida art world. Or maybe -- and I prefer this theory -- worthy artists are getting the exposure they deserve.

The aforementioned Prusa is certainly one of those artists. (Two pieces of her work also made it into last year's Hortt 43 but, inexplicably and inexcusably, didn't receive even an honorable mention.) She has one of the most immediately identifiable styles around, at least in the pale panels that seem to be commanding attention and winning awards.

Prusa works with strange-sounding mixtures of ingredients -- silverpoint, graphite, ground sulfur, titanium white acrylic -- to create near-monochromatic compositions that seem to be some strange organic hybrid of delicate flowers and equally delicate human anatomical forms. Based on what I've seen of her work from the past couple of years, she's ripe for a major one-woman show.

Prusa, Riquezes, Zuská, and Ramirez aren't the only familiar names in this year's All Florida. Martin Schreiber, whose work was a highlight of the show three years ago, weighs in here with 3/03, a large acrylic with vibrant, brightly colored lines that imply an homage to op art until you read a quote from the artist that indicates otherwise. Janet Gold, who took first place in that same show with a drab little oil pastel, is represented by two much better pieces: Break the Rules, a wood-and-glass box vaguely reminiscent of Joseph Cornell's work, with a small abstract image mounted inside above a pile of pale silvery and golden beads; and Crevice, a mixed-media collage featuring a similarly abstract composition.

The exhibition also includes Boca M.O.A., an opaque watercolor by multiple All Florida veteran David Maxwell, who adapts pointillism to his own peculiar subject matter, typically construction sites and equipment. And there are three more untitled oils by David Stepp, whose two deceptively calm domestic tableaux were among the best pieces in last year's All Florida.

Here, the faint air of dread that Stepp is so good at conveying suffuses a portrait of a man mowing a lawn as a nearby sunbathing woman talks on a cell phone; an image of two women applying cold cream to their faces in a bathroom (again, one on a cell phone); and an especially unsettling "snapshot" of a nude male and female couple smoking cigarettes, their genitals conveniently blocked from view by a strategically placed box of Glad trash bags and a can of Pledge. The painter is adept at lighting effects, and here he puts that gift to use by casting dramatic shadows on the walls and ceiling from a mysteriously unseen light source.

Juror Joseph Jacobs, curator of American art at New Jersey's Newark Museum, groups Gold and Maxwell (although not, unfortunately, Stepp) with ten other artists in a small gallery devoted to Curator's Choice. Despite an oddity such as Jeff Whipple's If You Haven't Done Anything Wrong, Then What Are You Afraid Of?, which uses the "war on terror" to justify some heavyhanded politicizing, this little show-within-a-show is a nice touch. A standout here is Mary Lou Siefker's Images #57, a portrait of a sitting man whose face is a tangle of abstract smudges.

I've complained in the past that the All Florida has included too few artists -- two years ago, the show featured only 16 -- and has been weighted heavily in favor of South Floridians. The Boca Museum has gone a long way toward remedying that. More than three dozen cities from all over the state are represented. And a posted introduction claims that the show includes about 100 pieces by 61 artists; I counted 108 works by 73 artists; and the exhibition brochure lists 113 by 85. But forget the numbers and just check out the show.


The museum often supplements its main shows, including the All Florida, with smaller exhibitions that showcase works from local private collections. This year is no exception. "Boca Raton Collects: Modern and Contemporary Masters -- Selections from the Collection of Isadore Friedman"presents nearly four dozen pieces by 21 artists, ranging from 19th-century French lithographs to classic American photography to contemporary works.

This sampling of Friedman's collection includes a few historically interesting posters by such Frenchmen as Jules Chéret and Théophile Steinlen, as well as half a dozen lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec. There's also an impressive selection of black-and-white photographs of New York City by Berenice Abbott, Ilse Bing, Walker Evans, Andreas Feininger, Ruth Orkin, and Brett Weston.

But it's the contemporary work that's most compelling. A handful of pieces by American artist Larry Rivers, who died last year, reflects a range of influences from Eugène Delacroix to Willem de Kooning. Another handful of mixed-media constructions by Red Grooms is representative of the artist's irrepressible whimsy, and a pair of Roy Lichtensteins are a reminder of how deftly he manipulated the most basic ingredients.

But it was a single color photograph by the young American Gregory Crewdson that left the most indelible impression on me. Crewdson creates meticulously staged compositions that he then photographs, and the untitled piece here, a picture of a woman looking pensively out the window of a suburban house, is a perfect example of how he can make even the most mundane material somehow otherworldly. The image, from his well-known "Twilight" series, left me hungry for more of Friedman's collection, which, according to the show's catalog, is vast.

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