Artbeat

Capsule reviews of current area art exhibitions.

"You come for the exhibit and you get a whole city," museum educator Brandy Brownlee told me enthusiastically on a guided tour of "The Good News Gospel Exhibit" at Spady Cultural Heritage Museum. The first floor, formerly the dining room and living room of the home of community leader and educator Solomon D. Spady, houses the traveling gospel exhibit with a modest collection of posters, promotional photos, and songbooks. Curated by Sante Fe Community College professor Sherry Sherrod Dupree, who wrote the accompanying 1992 book on the subject, the exhibit offers memorabilia that range from the 1902 poster of the Sons of Harmony of Gainesville, Florida, to the text-only rainbow-colored 1990s concert posters. The exhibit's promotional materials promise the personalities of gospel's golden era (the 1940s to the 1960s) and deliver with likenesses of such performers as Sister Rosetta Tharpe (the glamorous diva forerunner of Mahalia Jackson), Aretha Franklin, and more. The "whole city" visitors get is West Delray Beach in its early days, exhibited permanently on the second story of the 1926 mission-style home. Photographs and cultural artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries (when the African-American community was still segregated from its white counterpart east of Swinton) offer discussion prompts for the docents, who give unscheduled tours for all visitors. Photographs of structures (the first churches and homes) and people (including those of young ladies in formal gowns on the day of their piano recital and young gentlemen with their tennis racquets) demonstrate a thriving African-American community. (Through June 26 at Spady Cultural Museum, 170 NW Fifth Ave., Delray Beach. Call 561-279-8883, or visit www.spadymuseum.org.) Marya Summers

Now on Display

For evidence that great things can come in small packages, check out "Pleasure From Their Presence: Chinese Bird and Flower Paintings,"a micro-exhibition in a tiny side gallery at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. It includes only seven works, all culled from a University of Michigan Museum of Art show: fans, hanging scrolls, and album leaves with self-descriptive titles, presented with as much care and attention to detail as any larger exhibition (the space is painted a somehow-perfect brilliant red). The earliest item is The Peach Blossom Spring, a 1542 fan mounted as an album leaf; as the wall text notes, the painting is by Qiu Ying, with calligraphy by Wen Zhengming, both from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). A Ming piece from just 70 years later, Chen Zun's Cat Under Flowers, is a dramatically different image of a ghostly cat nestled among rocks, flowers, and grasses, all portrayed in swift, broad strokes that are more suggestive than illustrative. Jump forward into the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and there are two lovely mid-18th-century album leaves of a day lily and a lotus by Jin Nong, identified as one of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, whose patrons were wealthy salt merchants. From the 18th Century, Li Shan's Day Lily and Bulb is an album leaf mounted on a hanging scroll, a starkly beautiful small rectangle that seems to float on its pale-blue silk backdrop. Perhaps most exotic of all is Bird on a Bamboo Branch, a fan painting with imagery on one side and calligraphy on the reverse. It's attributed to Lang Shining, the name adopted by Giuseppe Castiglione, an 18th-century Italian Jesuit who was assigned to China and became court painter to three generations of Manchu emperors. There's a novel's worth of intrigue in that one tidbit of information. (Ongoing at the Norton Museum of Art, 1401 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, 561-832-5196.)

As the title indicates, "Georgia O'Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction," now at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, is a tightly focused look at a very specific component of its subject's output — her highly varied use of more or less circular forms in more or less abstract works. That may sound like a gimmicky premise, but curator Jonathan Stuhlman, formerly of the Norton, has put together a small but disproportionately thrilling exhibition that provides new revelations about one of America's most important 20th-century artists. It's an abbreviated retrospective, really, with apt examples from all major phases of O'Keeffe's long, prolific career. The work flows both chronologically and thematically, with text panels that illuminate the artist as well as her connections to (and contrasts with) other artists. There are nearly 50 pieces, mostly oils, supplemented by watercolors, charcoals, pastels, graphite drawings, and a pair of white-lacquered bronze sculptures. The subjects run the full O'Keeffe gamut: flowers, leaves, rocks, pieces of fruit, bones, landscapes both urban and rural, and other items that defy classification. And amazingly, the artist was no less daring at the start of her long haul — she was born in 1887 and died a year short of her centennial — than she was near the end. It's an exhibition full of high points. (Through May 6 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1401 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, 561-832-5196.)

So this is paradise? Apparently so, if you take the title and intention of Jeanne Hilary's documentary photographs, "Eden: A New Media Project," as any indication. Both video and stills document small-town America often with playful juxtapositions (like a huge print of five yellow flashlights in the foreground of a portrait of a small building topped with a giant stuffed bear) and other times with poetic narrative (like the diptych images of rodeo cowboys roping a steer fallen in the blood-red mud). The chromogenic prints are displayed in a format so ridiculously huge (some five feet by five feet) for the tiny space in which they are exhibited (squeezed behind the Marilyn Monroe exhibit) that fewer than a dozen are included, which isn't enough to encompass the scope of the project. Thankfully, the exhibit includes a small book of other images that comprise Hilary's project since, sadly, the big ones on the walls aren't the best of the lot. There's a photo of a pool diver was displayed on a nearby billboard (without any explanation or signage) next to another that advertised a gun show. That image is included in an accompanying video ("new media") on a flatscreen TV hung on the wall like a painting. Asserting that "our ground time here will be brief," the video is a composite of images from a basketball game and the landmark Dairy Queen in West Palm Beach. Hilary's goal is to have viewers consider "their place in time and see their environment as a historical place." Too bad a forgettable exhibit doesn't make our time and place feel as historic and remarkable as the artist intends. (Through June 3 at Boca Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Call 561-392-2500.)

The stuff is bizarre enough that you might expect to see it pried from the clinging fingers of a vintage shopping virtuoso on an episode of BBC America's What Not to Wear and tossed into the trash barrel by hosts Trinny and Susannah. It's feisty duck feathers, kinky Moroccan lamb fur, drawstring suede boots, drapes turned into capes, and everything common sense says shouldn't be worn together. But these are far from common — part haute couture, part flea market finds — paired by fashionista Iris Apfel. So back off fashion fascists — it's art! You can too pair chunky coconut bangles with Rorschach-patterned silk without sending an "I'm nuts" message, if you are an eccentric society type. A re-packaging of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibit "Rara Avis: Iris Apfel and the Art of Fashion," "Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel"begins with a mock runway show set-up complete with flashing cameras and the first gallery develops the theme. To the sounds of jazz, the gallery offers virtual Apfels — throughout the exhibit, presented as identical, white mannequins, often with the trademark owl glasses of the fashion maven — dressed in urban neutrals and posed as if seated in the audience or strutting down the catwalk. Offering more of an installation art experience than just a mere tour of wacky costumes, the exhibit's music and backdrop themes evolve with the fashion trends. So the gallery with the exotic tapestries and animal prints offers tunes with oriental flair and red. The mannequins in the last gallery play circus music for clownish displays of sparkly, ballooned jumpsuits and acrobatically inspired counterparts. If you're inspired to hit the vintage stores and put together your own kooky attention-getter, a video interview with Apfel offers an insight into the method behind her divine madness. Through May 27 at Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Call 561-832-5196.

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