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Making the Grade

Debbie Rose Myers' Judgment in the Garden mixes photos with computer effects
Melissa Jones

Last year's faculty exhibition at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale got mixed but generally promising grades. Although some of the instructors represented in the show seemed to be working at less than their full potentials, several were producing above-average work, the kind we might reasonably expect from people in charge of aspiring young artists. This year's exhibition, now on view in the school's small Mark K. Wheeler Gallery, is called "Faculty Show: The Future Is Now!" Aside from the silly subtitle, which introduces a theme with so little direct connection to the works on display that it's meaningless, the show runs the gamut from under- to overachievers.

It's a suitably eclectic group show, with a wide variety of styles and media putting in appearances. There are pastel, charcoal, and graphite drawings; paintings in oil, acrylic, and encaustic; sculptures and ceramics; mixed-media pieces; and photography both unadorned and manipulated in various ways, from simple hand-tinting to digital enhancement. Abstraction makes a strong showing, but realism also gets its due. And there's ample evidence that the spirit of surrealism is alive and well in academia.

One of my complaints last year was that, for such a relatively small exhibition, there was an overabundance of the utilitarian: panels for an ad campaign, photos illustrating a yacht's decorating scheme, logos, comics. While this may make sense from a practical point of view -- the Art Institute is in the business of preparing its students for careers in a decidedly commercial world -- it's a peculiar approach to an art exhibition. The new show includes a comparable number of works (50 or so pieces), but the focus has shifted. Some of the photographs still seem ready to be integrated into a commercial context. Nina Rizzo's untitled, hand-tinted, gelatin silver print of a mother and child, for instance, might be more at home on a greeting card, and Valan Evers' The Wave of Cliodhna, despite an appealing painterly texture that I suspect comes from computer manipulation, has the distinct feel of a soft-core illustration for a men's magazine.

Overall, however, the exhibition offers a greater emphasis on fine art. A second Valan Evers piece, End of the Innocence, is labeled "photography," but it's really a more ambitious mixed-media collage, an intentionally jarring composition that includes charred hypodermic needles, spatters of wax, a piece of canvas with burned edges, and a photograph of a couple embracing, all superimposed with medical terminology lifted from a surgical pathology report. The piece is far too ambiguous to be considered mere illustration.

The same is true of Gary Tepper's cryptically titled Yiden Partizaner #1, a long, horizontal panel of graphite on paper. At first it looks to be just a rendering of tree trunks in a tranquil snowy landscape. But then there's an unobtrusive touch in the lower-right corner that gives the image a teasing charge: Propped against one tree trunk is the top of a gun barrel, generating an air of mystery that can't be resolved by anything else in the picture.

The unsettled mood continues a few feet away with Debbie Rose Myers' Judgment in the Garden, a large mixed-media piece combining photography with computer effects to create a surreal collage. It was one of the highlights at this summer's 48th Annual All Florida Juried Competition & Exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, and while it's equally impressive here, I wish that Myers, who contributed a pair of the best pieces in last year's faculty show, had weighed in here with a new, previously unseen work.

Plenty of relatively straightforward photography is also available. Three untitled platinum/palladium prints of flowers by Neil Staples have the stark simplicity of, say, Robert Mapplethorpe's flower photographs, with a twist: The blossoms are wilted and drooping. This is hardly an innovation, but Staples uses it to good effect. Lloyd Morley also makes good use of a similarly familiar technique -- a photo capturing its subject secondhand, mirrored in a puddle of water -- for his Paris Reflects, in which the object reflected is that enduring emblem of modernism, the Eiffel Tower.

The familiar works against photographer Diane Blazy, however. Her South Beach and Art Deco Hotels are little more than pretty snapshots of material that's in desperate need of rejuvenation. It's the sort of thing that can be found on postcards all over South Florida.

Among the best abstracts on display are a couple of mixed-media paintings by Anita Drujon that use encaustic (a pigment-beeswax mixture) to achieve their seductive dreaminess. Le Chambre is a long horizontal panel, while Garden Nymphs is a long vertical one; both, however, have a luxurious flow, a serenity that comes from Drujon's deft handling of the layers of encaustic and other elements (including, in the latter piece, strips of colored paper that seem to float within the image).

As in last year's show, Janet Gold again demonstrates her delicate touch with pastels. Her Constructivism is a large panel of paper crisscrossed with a set of a few vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines to form a perfectly balanced abstract grid. Her palette here is mostly blacks and grays, although she has strategically applied a few subtle hints of blue, purple, and yellow.

Howard T. Katz also works with grids, with quite different results. His Four-Part Composition (Somewhere Over the Rainbow), a small charcoal-on-paper piece, uses a carefully modulated range of grays and blacks to create the illusion of stained glass. And his large Musicality Suite 12 (Stardust), painted in acrylic, is a dark descendant of Mondrian, with squares and rectangles of various hues arranged in a way that feels unaccountably right.

Given some of the current trends in the art world, there's surprisingly little here in the way of constructions and installations. One notable exception is Andrew Bing's Found This Box, a found object that, with minimal alterations, becomes a droll sculpture of sorts, a not-quite-readymade. Bing has taken a long, narrow cardboard box, the UPS shipping label still on its lid, and turned one of its four compartments into a miniature elevator, complete with wallpaper, a control panel, and an absurdly ornate little chandelier.

Another artist has succeeded, perhaps inadvertently, at transforming the potentially ordinary into art objects. Designer Mariella Adrian is represented here by a trio of ensembles of women's wear, displayed side by side on dressmaker dummies. Her Formal 2Piece Bolero/Shirt Ensemble With Under T-Shirt and Formal Tuxedo Overcoat With Shirt Size 6 are both made of something identified as "microfiber faille," whatever that is, while her Formal Lace Chiffon Gown consists of exactly what the title describes.

Whatever their fiber composition, the outfits form a sort of sculptural triptych, thanks to a bizarre touch. Instead of planting mannequin heads on the necks of her dummies, Adrian has inserted large, crumpled pieces of brown wrapping paper, which seem to sprout from the tops of the clothing like improbable blossoms.

Is this a technique from an inventive department store window-dresser's bag of tricks or the inspired tinkering of someone questioning where fashion ends and art begins? Was Adrian simply solving a practical problem or making an artistic statement? These questions can't be satisfactorily answered just by looking at the pieces, which is what makes Adrian's work a fascinating, oblique comment on how fluid and unstable our definitions of art have become at the end of the 20th Century.


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