Lean on Me. Please.
There's a great deal to be said for an exhibition that feels as if it has been installed with just the right attention to flow and contrast and all the other intangibles that please and stimulate the senses. Juxtaposition is sometimes everything, or almost everything, especially in a group show. It's a balancing act that's much more precarious than it may seem, requiring a light but sure-handed touch.
Two exhibitions now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art the "55th Annual All Florida Juried Competition and Exhibition" and the "Boca Raton Museum Artists' Guild Biennial Exhibition" fit the bill, to varying degrees.
And in some respects, the Guild Biennial succeeds better than the All Florida, an older, much bigger, and more prestigious show. Not quite 200 entries were submitted by the guild's 250 or so members, and of those, 43 works by a total of three dozen artists were deemed worthy of inclusion.
The juror is Kara Walker-Tomé, who until last year was director of program development at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach and prior to that was education director at the late, lamented Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art in Lake Worth. Since 2002, Walker-Tomé has also been in charge of West Palm's annual Showtel, described on the handout as "a one-night exhibition of avant-garde site-specific installation art, performance, sculpture, sound pieces, and projections..."
In other words, her credentials are pretty solid when it comes to contemporary art, which is well-represented in this biennial. I can't say that I like everything Walker-Tomé has included here, but it's difficult to question some of her choices and, more specifically, juxtapositions. Her first-place winner, for instance, is a surprisingly adventurous mixed-media work by Kathleen E. Moran called Looking Out that combines acrylic, handmade, and altered papers, postcards, coffee, salt, plaster, pumice, and pencil.
Nor is she out of line in granting second place to Martin Fox for his digital collage Liquid Mercury, which imposes the silvery title substance on a grid. I might have opted for the Coral Springs-based Fox's adjacent Ascension, an ephemeral "smoke drawing" that essentially comes down to carbon residue captured on paper. I've seen several other examples from this series, which still manage to astonish me. Walker-Tomé has the good instinct to mount the two Fox works side by side, so that the mercury and smoke can play off each other.
Elsewhere, she assembles a grouping of very different works united only by the common denominator of a strategically placed red accent of some sort, drawing the eye from one work to another and another. And Joan Sonnenberg's big semi-abstract acrylic Unification Valve, which earned an honorable mention, is made all the more striking by the otherwise nondescript piece placed beside it.
On closer inspection, however, it becomes clearer that the guild show is a triumph of sleight of hand. It has been so skillfully put together that it's easy to overlook, at least initially, how much mediocre work is included. The same is true, and on a much grander scale, of this year's All Florida. Standing at one end of the show and taking an overview, it's easy to get the impression that it's a perfectly composed exhibition. Well-placed sculptures and installations dot the display space to create an eye-pleasing balance and contrast with the works on canvas and paper.
As with the guild show, this is to the credit of the juror. In this case, it's Anne Ellegood, associate curator of painting and sculpture at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. And given that the All Florida is the state's oldest annual juried competition, she had plenty to work with: 1,067 submissions, which she narrowed down to 64 works by 41 artists.
The exhibition brochure introduction by the Boca museum's senior curator, Wendy Blazier, puts Ellegood's achievement in perspective: "Behind the scenes, one of the challenges posed by the All Florida is the effective installation of so many dissimilar works of art so that each work may be seen to its advantage. And while each artist's work is installed as a singular work of art maintaining an 'isolated integrity' for each piece hopefully, the All Florida exhibition is a cohesive yet diverse selection of overlapping and interconnected ideas."
That's very well put, although that whole bit about the "isolated integrity" of each piece holds up only if the work can bear the scrutiny. Much of the art in this All Florida doesn't stand up especially well on its own. Maybe some pieces would make more sense seen within a body of work. I'm a huge fan of Boca Raton artist Carol Prusa, whose eerily beautiful biomorphic imagery is often displayed in triptychs of large panels; here, her smaller Blooming Tongues, in one of her usual mixed-media blends of silverpoint, graphite, and titanium white with acrylic binder, seems slightly lost. It's also a bit jarring to see it more elaborately framed than much of her other work.
But in the context of two adjacent works by Jeanne Lauziere of Jensen Beach one of which, Lucy, is Best in Show Prusa's piece fits in nicely. Lauziere uses media not so far removed from Prusa's, such as wax, gesso, pencil, and craypas, although her slightly smeared black-and-white imagery is in stark contrast to Prusa's meticulously detailed forms. And I doubt that Lauziere's pieces would be as powerful without Prusa's nearby.
So it goes with many other individual items, although a few hold their own quite well. Fort Lauderdale artist Luke Jenkins' Commemorative Schoolchair, for example, dramatizes the dynamic between mass-produced and customized objects by giving us the beautifully sleek chair of the title, made of Douglas fir and individualized by portions that have been sandblasted. And the seven rough-edged ceramic basins that make up The Average Person Sheds Seven Gallons of Tears in a Lifetime; A Meditation, by Barbara Balzer of Tallahassee, are suitably poignant (although seven gallons doesn't seem like all that much to me).
Photographs are rarely the standouts in group exhibitions these days. Not so here. Two crisp, untitled color digital images by Gloria Bonilla of Coral Springs one of a trailer at night, the other of a living room have the almost unnerving stillness of the celebrated Gregory Crewdson's work.
Two black-and-white shots by Michael Niemi of Boynton Beach are equally outstanding. Sparks Road is a fairly straightforward landscape that captures the fog-enshrouded atmosphere of a tree-lined lane in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. The other photo, Dew on Horsehair, is an amazingly tactile image contrasting the hardness and harshness of a strand of barbed-wire fence with the delicacy of the dewy horsehairs hanging from it, all set against a foggy backdrop. For once, an artist's statement actually adds something: "I find symbolism here the barbed wire is man, the horsehair the domestication of nature by man, and the dew and fog [are] primordial Mother Nature." The friend who accompanied me and I had no trouble concluding that this disarmingly simple photograph would have been our choice for Best in Show.
Niemi's photos, which are near the end of the All Florida, also serve as a good teaser for the show at the far end of the museum's first floor: "Bill Brandt: A Retrospective." Brandt (1904-83) was a first-rate, German-born photographer who did his most memorable work in his adopted homeland of Great Britain. This exhibition includes more than 150 gelatin silver prints, mostly from the '30s and '40s, with a few from the '50s and '60s; one shot dates to 1929, and two others are from the '70s.
As an ironic counterpoint to the two group shows down the hall, this selection of uniformly fine work suffers from its overall presentation. The prints feel crammed into the space, with far too little room for stunning individual photographs to have the breathing room they need. Don't let that stop you from giving the images the close look they deserve.
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