The Winner Was Huh?

The good and the so-so. The Boca Museum takes its pick.

Over the years, I've come to approach group exhibitions, especially juried group exhibitions, with a wary mixture of excitement and dread. On the one hand, there's always the possibility that such a show will yield unexpected treasures -- new artists just beginning to stake out their territory, more established artists venturing in different directions. On the other hand, there's also the chance that the show will be a baffling compendium of the juror's tastes. And as we all know, there's no accounting for taste, particularly when it differs substantially from our own.

All of the above come into play when I try to make sense of the "54th Annual All Florida Juried Competition and Exhibition," now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. There are new and familiar names among the 72 artists included, chosen from 449 entrants by juror Louis Grachos, director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York (he also worked at the Miami Art Museum back when it was called the Center for the Fine Arts).

While it's easy to sympathize with Grachos for the daunting challenge he faced -- those 449 artists submitted 1,342 works of art -- it's also tempting to wonder what on Earth he was thinking when he settled on some of the award winners. The most glaring example is his choice of Lou Anne Colodny's video Saturation as Best in Show. There are three videos by this Fort Lauderdale-based artist in the exhibition, and while Saturation (which features the artist's body becoming gradually covered by a repellent gunky substance) isn't as heavy-handed as Breath (which features the artist struggling to breathe through a barrier of transparent plastic), neither is even remotely as fascinating as her third piece, Huh?

It's a tricounty artfest. Why not call it the South Florida?  The Happy Hour by Kristen Thiele.
It's a tricounty artfest. Why not call it the South Florida? The Happy Hour by Kristen Thiele.
Airborne by Miles Laventhall.
Airborne by Miles Laventhall.

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Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton

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At a mere 53 seconds, Huh? is slightly shorter than the other two videos but also infinitely richer. In contrast to the literalness of Saturation and Breath, it's steeped in evocativeness. A text panel explains that the artist retrieved the images from an 8mm home movie from 1950. She then subjected the imagery to various manipulations, including a mirroring effect that results in a surreal symmetry that's a little unnerving. The crowning touch -- and it's a brilliant one -- is the addition of random sounds that sometimes seem eerily in synch with the visuals.

It is, in effect, the video equivalent of an abstract painting, with sights and sounds that fleetingly approach the recognizable before retreating into mystery. Colodny has combined chance and craft to create a whole that's much larger than the sum of its components. True to its title, Huh? remains enigmatic after repeated viewings, while a more appropriate reaction to Saturation and Breath might be an impatient "I get it already."

Grachos' pick of Saturation as Best in Show seems even more perverse when you consider that his statement includes this line: "I was especially interested in a number of artists who were working with abstraction, creating work in a variety of mediums and forms." Then again, I'm not wowed by most of the abstract works he includes. A notable exception is To Be Many, a mixed-media painting on an oval of wood by reliable Boca artist Carol Prusa, who continues to get amazing mileage out of her pale, ethereal, biomorphic imagery.

Here and there, however, Grachos hits on some inspired juxtapositions. Take, for example, the grouping that includes Concurrent, a jangly little sculpture by Chris Adams Johnson of Vero Beach, consisting of sticks and vine painted black, white, and gray; Fractals in Freefall, by Robert W. McGregor of Rockledge, working with computer graphics printed on photographic paper; and the textile panel Birches by Barbara Watler of Hollywood. The interplay of texture and color (or lack thereof) among these three works feels uncannily right.

The juror's statement also singles out the exhibition's photography for praise, although most of it strikes me as unexceptional. (It doesn't help that there's much more interesting work nearby in two exhibitions of the glorious black-and-white photography of Brassaï and Robert Doisneau.) An exception to the unexceptional: a shimmering underwater study of a swimming-pool ladder by Miami photographer Luciana Abait.

Instead, much of this All Florida show's most provocative work is in mixed-media sculpture. Boca artist Denise Moody-Tackley, a top winner in last year's exhibition, returns with a pair of installations that continue her exploration of gender-based issues. Haberdashery presents a conglomeration of floor mops, while Misrepresentationis a sendup of a store display featuring a wire rack of colorful silicone bras and panties. Her concerns are echoed later in the show with Sheer-Fear by Ena Marrero of Miami Beach, which combines silk and nylon stockings, charcoal briquettes, coal dust, and sawdust in an installation suspended from the ceiling.

Miami-based R.F. Buckley, a professor at Florida International University, contributes a disarmingly simple piece called The Third Gift, in which a welded aluminum package rests atop a painted wooden table. Buckley generates intrigue from the familiar, as does Miles Laventhall of Boynton Beach, whose Airborne is an alien-looking contraption combining steel, canvas, and rope.

A work that resists easy categorization is the nine-panel piece Visions of the Danceby Martin Fox of Coral Springs. It's identified as being from the "Smoke Drawing Series." The text panel only enhances the exotic quality of the work by alluding to fumage, a surrealist technique for recording traces of smoke on paper or canvas. In this case, Fox has captured the carbon residue created when he burned woven organic fibers. At any rate, the abstract wisps are mysterious and mesmerizing.

In years past, I have complained that the All Florida was too selective -- the 50th installment, for instance, included only 16 artists. That's certainly not the case with the 54th, in which breadth is a strength. But the exhibition also feels curiously crowded. Some of the wall-mounted pieces are vertically stacked, so that many works are well above eye level. Even the freestanding works could use more breathing room. And once again, the overwhelming majority of the artists are from the tricounty area, raising the question of whether the exhibition should be renamed South Florida instead of All Florida.

The choked, claustrophobic feel of the All Florida could have easily been avoided by giving the exhibition the adjacent space that instead goes to the "Florida Artist Group Juried Members Exhibition,"which includes nearly three dozen works by members of this nonprofit organization of professionals. As put together by juror Kristen Hileman, an assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., it's an innocuous little show that, except for Julia Hyman's brazenly phallic interpretation of a Bosc Pear in gray marble, is handily eclipsed by the All Florida, clutter notwithstanding.

It's not uncommon for the Boca Museum to package the All Florida with a complementary juried exhibition -- every two years, the museum's Artist Guild gets the second slot. This year, however, both shows get short shrift.

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