Jest in Show

Jurors in a pair of ambitious group shows went for the fluff, bypassed the substance.

It's a faintly surreal, even disorienting experience to take in two of South Florida's big juried summer group shows, which run roughly concurrently. First, take the elevator to the sixth floor of the Broward County Main Library in downtown Fort Lauderdale and step out into Gallery Six for "United and Proud: A Visual Art Exhibit in Celebration of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month." Then head over to the JM Family Enterprise Gallery at ArtServe, in the same building as the Fort Lauderdale Branch of the Broward County Library, for "Hortt 45: The Best of South Florida."

"United and Proud" is one of two annual exhibitions for members of ArtsUnited (AU), a nonprofit organization with headquarters at ArtServe. The annual Hortt competition, while being displayed at ArtServe, is sponsored by the Broward Art Guild (BAG), which bills itself as the area's "oldest grass-roots visual art organization." Confused? Understandable.

To muddy the waters further, consider that at least half a dozen of the artists included in "United and Proud" are also featured in "Hortt 45." Some of them shine in both shows, which is especially gratifying. And a few of the artists even serve on the board of either AU or BAG. In the immortal, mangled words of Yogi Berra, "It's like déjà vu all over again."

Phillips' Dark Pleasure: A disorienting experience, all in all
Colby Katz
Phillips' Dark Pleasure: A disorienting experience, all in all
Dezmain's KSS3
Dezmain's KSS3


"Hortt 45" is on display through July 5 at the JM Family Enterprise Gallery, ArtServe, 1350 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale.
"United and Proud" is on display through June 29 at Gallery Six, Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Ave., Sixth Floor, Fort Lauderdale.

You could take this overlap as another indication that the local art scene is hopelessly inbred. I prefer interpreting it as, to mix metaphors, confirmation that the cream rises to the top. Of course, there's still a lot of ordinary milk to go through to get to the cream.

That said, "United and Proud" is AU's best "gay pride" show in years. Not that it seems to have occurred to the unidentified juror(s) to venture beyond the obvious in selecting the winners. Best of Show, for instance, goes to Scott Strauss' South Florida Pride, which uses half a dozen photographs of flowers to suggest the colors of the ubiquitous rainbow flag. In Second Place, we find a trio of ho-hum black-and-white photos with color accents by Dennis Dean, an exceptionally talented photographer who's capable of much better. And taking Third Place is Len Paoletti's painting Splash, which serves up seven buff male nudes frolicking in and around a pool at what is presumably one of the area's countless gay guesthouses.

As for People's Choice, well, for once the people get it right. The big acrylic canvas View From a Terrace, by Alfred Phillips, is a straightforward, largely realistic rendering of an Edenic landscape into which the artist has interjected mystery in the form of pale, near-subliminal panels that seem to float in space.

Danny Babineaux uses similar interventions to enliven his three paintings. The village landscape of Swiss Alps, an oil, is overlaid with a ghostly irregular grid, while Broken Self, an acrylic, combines such a grid with an accumulation of pointillist-style dots. And for Miss Penny, another oil, the earthy pigments are applied in a thick impasto to create a portrait of a calico cat that studiously avoids cutesiness.

The exhibition includes an overabundance of photography at two extremes: those that aren't much more than snapshots and those that have been digitally manipulated in ways that are merely clever. The one digital photo that transcends its trickery is Gerard Delaney's Prismosaic, which is a large print on canvas that amazingly re-creates the visual effects of Op painting with its shimmering, shifting bars of color.

Two other artists worth mentioning (both of whom resurface at the Hortt) are Deba Jean Gray and Keith Clark. Gray's Lovers One and Lovers Two, hung on adjacent panels, are pencil drawings on large, irregular pieces of raw canvas, ripped here and there for drama. The first features a fist connecting with a face; the second portrays a couple locked in a literal stranglehold; and for both, Gray depends on just a few spare lines to delineate the characters. For a third piece on the other side of the gallery, The Boxer Got After Eakins, she goes for much greater detail to much weaker effect.

Clark contributes three abstract oil paintings, two of which — Self-Absorbed and Seedlings III — make judicious use of big blocks of warm color offset by lots of little squiggly lines. (His Seedlings I, at the Hortt, would make this a lovely triptych.) His third piece, like Gray's, is of less interest, a small minimalist landscape called Foggy River.

Even though "United and Proud" is such an uneven exhibition overall, I'm willing to cut it some slack because it has been around only a few years (AU was founded in 1999). And although the obligatory "gay pride" theme is necessarily limiting, the show at least gives some worthy area artists much-needed exposure.

The Hortt, on the other hand, has a longer if more troubled history. Founded in the late 1950s in memory of Fort Lauderdale art supporter M. Allen Hortt, the competition, originally hosted by the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale, grew to attract as many as 1,600 submissions by more than 800 artists. When the original endowment from the Hortt family ran out, various corporations and individuals chipped in to keep the tradition alive. BAG got involved four years ago, when the Hortt seemed on the verge of going under, and this year, the number of entries was back up to more than 400, with 110 finalists appearing in the current exhibition.

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