News From the Edge

Call it the state of the union. Call it paranoia. But young artists have serious stuff on their minds.

In monetary terms, the "33rd Annual Student Show" at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale is very small potatoes: $125 for third place, $150 for second, $175 for first, and $250 for Best in Show. As for the ten honorable mentions, they get, well, mentioned honorably and handed a certificate, as do the two judges' choices. Then again, if you can afford to attend this pricey bastion of higher cultural education, you probably didn't enter the show for the bucks anyway.

The current exhibition includes about 160 works — a record — supposedly from all areas of study at the institute. I say "supposedly" because I don't recall seeing (or smelling) anything remotely resembling something that might have issued from the school's famed culinary department. Certainly those tables of cheese trays, cookies, and such qualified as neither culinary nor artistic.

I don't know if they even call them majors anymore, but the list of "programs of study" (the institute's term) is lengthy: from advertising and animation art to visual effects, motion graphics, and video production. Kind of makes a degree in, say, English or business administration sound downright quaint, doesn't it?

But clearly, something has struck a chord among the school's mostly young, culturally diverse student body to prompt such an outpouring of creativity. Maybe it's the state of the union, not to mention the world. Maybe it's paranoia; maybe it's sensitivity, as Joni Mitchell once gloomily intoned. At any rate, a lot of these kids have some serious stuff on their minds.

Not that the two-person jury seems to have noticed. The show was judged by Rick Boggs, who graduated in industrial design from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in 2004 and who is now a set designer with Great Southern Studios in Miami; and by Milan Devito, a vice president and managing director of creative services with the Fort Lauderdale branch of the Zimmerman ad agency. Probably the closest these two come to acknowledging art with a sociopolitical dimension is their choice of Naters Calderone's A Portrait of a Homeless Man for an honorable mention. It's a work of enormous emotional empathy — a simple ink drawing executed on cardboard and "framed" by duct tape so that content, technique, and medium all become inextricably entwined.

There is evidence elsewhere that the underrated discipline of old-fashioned draftsmanship still lives and breathes. January M. Walker's pencil drawing Ten Pairs of Shoes transforms its mundane title items, represented by a variety of styles and sizes, into everyday objects of beauty spilling out of a rudimentary cabinet with three compartments. Glass Jars, a graphite drawing by Hannah Mericle, does much the same with its subject matter. The artist judiciously places the pair of jars in the lower left corner, leaving the rest of the paper surface empty. (Mericle has two or three other pieces in the show but none that demonstrates such a keen sense of balanced composition.) And Sleeping Melody, a vine charcoal drawing by Genesis Allione, so skillfully portrays a heavy-set, minimally clad woman lounging on her side that it could almost pass for a preliminary study for a Lucian Freud painting.

A lot of the lesser works, by contrast, go gaga with excess. This is not always a bad thing, although all too often, the artists seem to have spent a little too much time with a video-game console or exploring the dizzying possibilities of Photoshop.

Busy-ness pays off for Tania Riera, whose ...and the winner is uses a triptych format to cram an evocative jumble of show-biz-related imagery into its roughly 15-inch-high panels. Liza Kessler's Media Junkies, a mixed-media work around the corner, is equally jam-packed, but ultimately its cumulative content comes across as mere clutter.

Out of the abundance of advertising panels, the only one that left a distinct impression on me was Windmills, a relatively spare digital illustration that uses a small cluster of five windmills in an expansive green landscape to suggest the evolution of that structure as an alternative energy source. The GE logo in one corner is so modestly small that at first I didn't even register that the piece is an ad.

Digital imagery so dominates the exhibition — or at least leaves the impression of doing so — that the few real paintings stand out even if they're nothing special. The third-place winner, Tina Purin's Jackalope-O-Rama, is a slight but vaguely amusing suite of four medium-sized canvases positioned around a blank white square space. The pale images of the quasimythical creature (a cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope) are created using watercolor pencils, oil paint, and markers, and while the piece is vaguely amusing, it's also very slight.

More substantial is Johana Vanessa Mazuela's acrylic Temple of Isis, which, despite its exotic title, is just a straightforwardly realistic portrait of a sitting woman, arms casually crossed, head and face concealed by a big floppy yellow hat. (Mazuela also contributes a murky, watery subterranean landscape that's like something out of Tolkien.) And for a paranoid-schizophrenic take on surrealism, the show serves up Luzalma Gonzalez's Ansiedad, in which two pallid, cadaverous figures pull and stretch each other's minimal flesh and skin; a naked light bulb in the background might be a mordant nod to that notorious painter of flesh, Francis Bacon.

Given how insistently that functional design insinuates itself into the world of fine art these days, it's surprising that the exhibition features so little of it. But the work that's included is generally first-rate. Christopher Roberts' 3 Piece Red Oak & Aluminum Set, which got an honorable mention, consists of a surprisingly pleasing boxy chair and tiny accompanying ottoman, and his Folding Chair is really more of a futuristic chaise longue fashioned from red oak and brass and acrylic rods. Both made me want to sit on them, and Marcela Corzo's nearby Stand Lamp, with pale rice paper wrapped around a wood and metal frame, rounded out the relaxing mood.

Along with all the mediocre work influenced by video games, cheesy animation, and pop culture in general, there's an abundance of hip-hop culture on view. Perhaps most amazing of all is that Best in Show was awarded to Jose Garcia's double portrait Ludacris & Scarface. Yes, it's impressive that the level of attention to detail suggests that the image was digitally created when it was actually done in colored pencil. But the snarling, in-your-face attitude projected by the cigar-smoking subjects represents hip-hop at its least engaging, especially when there are other pieces that might have made more sense as the top work in the exhibition.

Take, for instance, either the first- or second-place winner. The former, Juan-Carlos Velasquez's charcoal drawing Let's Study the Master, incorporates an homage to Dali into a richly layered composition, while the latter, a digital illustration by Christopher Maslen titled Attack of the Teddy Bears, is a sly, slick, nightmarish scene out of Spielberg's War of the Worlds by way of Walt Disney.

Better yet, consider a second Maslen digital illustration to the right of the first, this one called Censored. In it, realism and distortion join forces to create an image of a straitjacketed person of indeterminate gender in a blood-spattered padded cell. The figure's face features a pair of sunglasses stapled on, headphones locked onto ears, and lips sewn together with what look like thick black cords or bundles of wires. It's as if some unholy offspring of Orwell and Kafka, born at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, had to be locked away to keep it from spilling its secrets. Aside from its sleekly professional execution, this deeply disturbing work has social, political, and cultural relevance that extends far beyond its frame.

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