By Chris Joseph
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By John Thomason
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The 101 artists featured in "All Florida Juried Competition and Exhibition" seem to share an intuitive feel for things Floridian. It's there in Sonya Gaskell's Kaboom, a thrillingly gestural acrylic that portrays an imploding high-rise that will no doubt make way for another development project.
It's even there, deep down, in Virginia Fifield's Contemplations of Life, Death and Beauty, a large, exquisite charcoal rendering of tulips that are just past their prime. The drawing justifiably earned one of three judge's merit awards.
Credit for this common thread found among so many artists has to be handed to the show's juror, independent New Jersey art scholar Valerie Ann Leeds. Formerly of the Orlando Museum of Art, the Tampa Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Leeds made her way through 1,840 works from 583 artists. Submissions came from nearly 50 cities from across the state, with Boca Raton, as usual, highly represented by a dozen artists. Having lived and worked here, Leeds seems to have instilled the show with a sometimes-idealized vision of Florida past, present, and future.
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But with only Florida as the common denominator, these artists can also seem thrown together. There's no theme they share, other than being Floridians of one stripe or another.
A few generalizations usually suggest themselves on the way through an exhibition that's so potentially daunting. Leeds seemed to possess a mild bias against full-fledged abstract painting. A lot of the work she chose flirts with abstraction but rarely goes in for the kill. Likewise, with a few exceptions, she doesn't seem to be much interested in heavily conceptual art or installation art. I came away thinking, for better or worse, that she's a meat-and-potatoes kind of gal.
I was also surprised to read in her statement that Leeds has "a strong background and interest in both historical and contemporary photography." Much of the photography here looks to have been digitally manipulated to achieve its modest effects.
What Leeds has hit upon, however, is a way of suggesting that what these artists share might not be so arbitrary after all. There is an undercurrent to emphasize: that the very idea of Florida affects the artists who live and work here.
In the juror's statement, Leeds sums up the idea well enough: "So many of the works are visceral reflections of their regional origins and can be seen as a collective response to the environment and the bounty of natural resources found within Florida's borders."
Leeds' choice for Best in Show, for example, is Bonnie Wolsky's evocative Tangled Palms, a realistic watercolor whose surface is blanketed by a dense mat of dried palm fronds. The cover of the exhibition brochure features Susan Martin's acrylic In the Midst, in which layer upon layer of foliage (mangroves?) is accumulated, to dazzling effect.
These are just a few of the high points in a show that has been assembled with remarkable care. Time and again, I was struck by Leeds' knack for juxtaposition. That doesn't mean the reds are hung with the reds and the yellows with the yellows. It means Leeds knows how to put together groupings in which the individual pieces resonate with one another, which is a lot harder to do than it might sound.
Leeds' handiwork here is so subtle that you might not even realize what she's up to as you go through the exhibition. It was only in retrospect that I appreciated her accomplishments. That's only fitting for a show like the "All Florida," in which so much depends on the juror and his or her tastes. Fortunately, Leeds proves herself more than up to the challenge.