Many Sundays Spent Interpreting Pictures

Kucia tells us things we never knew.

If ever an exhibition needed a map of some sort, "Craig Kucia: many sundays were spent talking of rockets," the small one-man show now at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, is it. Unfortunately, no directions are forthcoming, just a postcard handout with this meager description: "Craig Kucia creates complex, vividly colored paintings, both enigmatic and whimsical. While not easily definable, the Ohio native's work engages viewers of all ages and levels of art appreciation."

That's it — no exhibition catalog or brochure, no introduction posted at the entrance, no wall text alongside the paintings. And the Miami-based Kucia's work could sure use some commentary. Even a self-indulgent artist's statement would be welcome. But no. We're set adrift on a sea of strange imagery, left to fend for ourselves.

Not that there's anything wrong with art that's "difficult." Sometimes the best art is the most challenging. The Norton Museum's Walton Ford show is a fine example. But I left the Kucia exhibition feeling not so much challenged as cold and indifferent.

There are appealing elements to some of the 16 oil paintings that make up the show. The eight large-scale canvases in the museum's main gallery are certainly commanding, and they overflow with vividly rendered ingredients. And you quickly realize that some of these ingredients amount to obsessions for Kucia. Butterflies and other insects appear again and again, for instance. Cookies make multiple appearances. The artist also seems peculiarly fascinated with the stumps of trees cut close to the ground.

A bizarre example of the latter is the best things are made on napkins. (Kucia has a thing for cryptic, often lengthy titles, all in lowercase letters.) The image is of a field crowded with dozens of stumps, most of which have items on them that are... well, unusual given the context: a severed lion's head, a pile of cigarette butts, mushrooms, an apple, a pencil, a pile of pennies, a birthday cake with extinguished candles, a snail, a giant fly, a pail of paint, an ax. "Very strange," I scribbled in my notes, and thinking back on it, that's an extreme understatement.

In this and in other works, Kucia trades heavily on incongruously juxtaposed compositional elements. One of the most striking pieces in the show is when i begin to forget, tell me things i never knew, an 84-by-94-inch canvas dominated by a hunched-over orangutan sitting on the ground in a jungle next to a mound of chocolate-chip cookies and a pile of wooden boards. Nearby, a human-looking brain and some string lie on the ground, and in the tropical foliage above it, a disco ball hovers. Above the ape on a tree branch are a realistically painted toucan and another bird, bright pink, that definitely looks artificial.

The incongruities hold together better in this painting than in some of the others, for some reason. Maybe it's the sense of atmosphere Kucia creates by leaving much of the background pale and hazy, as if we're looking at the trees in the distance through a mist. The tropical plants around the fringes of the image, on the other hand, have been painted with great attention to detail. But my strongest hunch is that the piece works because of the loving care the artist has lavished on the orangutan, which is strongly realistic except for a haunting touch: the upper two-thirds of his face has been lightly smeared, Gerhard Richter-style.

A similarly disturbing animal gives another painting, ambitious aesthetic poetry in limited capabilities, its power. I could do without the big, colorful triangles that float pointlessly through the landscape, but it'll be awhile before I forget the image of a meticulously painted tiger nuzzling the disembodied head of another tiger stuck on a stick beneath a big tree.

Eventually, however, Kucia's technique of combining the stylized and the realistic begins to feel forced. And the show quickly runs out of steam once you round the corner from the big main gallery and enter a long, narrow gallery that contains one large painting, a medium-sized one, and four tiny ones that are just this side of cheesy. Only the largest picture, books talked to us as if seasons stayed the age of 12, which pairs a cluster of stumps with four pairs of eyes floating in the space above, has any oomph.

The center's final gallery, which lately has been used for video installations in group shows, has been declared the Project Room, and its first project is "Pepe Mar: Shock Treatment," a mini-exhibition that consists of just five mixed-media pieces, one a sculpture. If Kucia leaves you scratching your head, Mar may make you feel like you have head cooties. All five works incorporate garish-colored wigs, and for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what he's up to with them. Blue Hair Day, in fact, is just one big hairy canvas.

The thing is, when he pays attention to the collaged and painted portions of some of the other works, Mar displays a nice flair for abstraction. Flouncy Flouncy and Stripes in My Hair dispatch the wigs to the edges of the image and come close to working. And if you ignore the wigs in Please Don't Stop the Music, its exotic collaged face is pure, good old-fashioned surrealism. As a whole, however, this project gets the Project Room off to a shaky start.

By the time you read this, South Florida will have lost one of its finest resident artists: Enrique Martínez Celaya, who has returned to Los Angeles to live and work. In 2004, he made a considerable splash with his dazzling October Cycle exhibition at the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale, and the next year, he bought a house and opened a studio in Delray Beach. It cleared his head, he told me when I interviewed him for a profile, to be away from the art-world hustle and bustle of L.A.

The subtropical environment clearly agreed with the artist, whose magnificent, monumental portrait of his late mentor, Leon Golub, was one of the highlights of the Miami Art Museum's 2006 "Big Juicy Paintings (and more)" exhibition. "The decision to leave Florida was not easy," he told me in an e-mail exchange. "The setting — the water, the sky, the heat — was good for me and for my work... My children learned about lizards, crabs and the ocean currents."

But when Martínez Celaya set out to buy and renovate an abandoned warehouse in Delray and later, as he put it, "tried to create a community of artists' studios," he ran into trouble with the city's zoning department. "It was a lousy experience to travel around the world giving lectures and then come to my town to get lectured about aesthetics from someone who thinks yellow and orange condos with porticos that go nowhere make for good taste."

Such frustrations ultimately got the best of him, although he leaves, he said, "with a great feeling about and affection towards Florida." He also leaves with some good connections. He has an exhibition at the Boca Museum in the works, and on November 1, he opens his latest cycle of work, "Nomad," at the Miami Art Museum. Based on the sneak preview I've had, it promises to be another winner.

A true Renaissance man — not just a painter and sculptor but also a philosopher, photographer, physicist, and poet — Martínez Celaya will be sorely missed.

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