Both executive director George S. Bolge and curator of exhibitions Courtney P. Curtiss of the Boca Raton Museum of Art have made something of a fuss over the "50th Annual All Florida Invitational," which marks a half-century of such group shows. And yet the exhibition itself doesn't feel like much of a landmark.
For starters only 16 artists are included, all of them veterans of previous "All Florida Invitationals" and more than half of them from South Florida. All but one are represented by anywhere from three to eight pieces. There are some fine works here, but somehow the show feels cramped, limited. I couldn't help speculating that an exhibition featuring, say, one or two works each by 50 or so different artists might be more dynamic.
You can get a sense of the show's strengths and weaknesses by looking to either side of the museum as you enter. To the right hang a pair of opaque watercolors by David Maxwell of Miramar, who works in a sort of modified pointillism, applying small, round dots of pigment to accrue images that are strikingly realistic from a distance, until you get close enough to realize how meticulously the illusion has been manipulated.
Boca Raton Museum of Art, Mizner Park, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton
On display through September 2, 561-392-2500
The kicker is that Maxwell uses this technique not for the sort of imagery we might typically associate with pointillism but in service to the industrial world. The Road Builders (1978) lovingly presents an array of heavy equipment, while the two panels that make up Not Quite Plumb (2001) show a high-rise under construction in Hollywood. (Elsewhere in the exhibition hangs a witty 1998 Maxwell triptych called T.Y. Saurus, in which an imposing piece of equipment sits in Hollywood's T.Y. Park.)
Turn from those bracing introductory Maxwells, however, and you'll find the show at its most mundane: a grouping of eight 16-by-20-inch silver gelatin prints by Cindy Seip of Coral Gables. These generically titled photos from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s -- Punks in Amsterdam, French Umbrella, The Brooklyn Bridge, 4th of July -- are linked simply because the subject of each wears swimmer's goggles. They seem gimmicky and arbitrary at the same time.
Photography, in general, isn't the show's strong suit. Later groupings of pictures by Carol Joyce Seid and Sydney Tal-Mason are only modestly interesting, and a quartet of color prints by Francie Bishop Good are just a reminder of her disappointing "Carly TV" show recently at Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art.
Aside from four pastel exercises in heavy-handed metaphysics by Linda Gershen of Niceville -- Evolution, Redemption, Metamorphosis, and The Birth -- other media fare better. Patrick Archer of Quail Ridge contributes a handful of collages with dense, evocative imagery, and John O'Connor of Gainesville, who had an impressive one-man show of similar works at Florida Atlantic University a while back, contributes four acrylic trompe l'oeil blackboard paintings.
The show includes two major installations, one that succeeds, another that doesn't. Karen Rifas's untitled one is a room-size work made up of large spools of twine equally spaced on the floor, most with wreathlike rings of leaves between them. Strands of twine run from the spools up to the ceiling, then back down to a few feet above the floor, each ending with a needle piercing a single leaf. The piece commands its space beautifully, though I could have done without the information panel that carries on about "a dialogue addressing the tenuous relationship of nature and development's exploitation of the environment."
Across the way is Richard Heipp's Cultural Strabismus: Vision/Belief/Faith (1999), a complex 9-by-16-foot wall-mounted installation combining acrylic on plastic, steel, vinyl wall appliques, neon, and fluorescent lighting. It kept catching my eye from a distance as I wandered through the exhibition, though it seemed strangely uninvolving when I finally stood directly in front of it.
The show is at its best in a handful of paintings in good old-fashioned oil. Gary Bolding's deadpan Self Portrait in Front of a Brice Marden Painting (1995-96) gives us the top half of the artist's head against a stark background, while his The Battle of the Weed Whackers (1997) presents the surreal spectacle of a pair of young men dueling in a museum.
For Interior with Lucian Freud Painting (1997), Bolding creates a sinister image of a man lurking in the shadows of a room that opens onto a terrace, from which a young girl looks over a landscape. The Freud painting of the title is only half-visible at the far left of the piece. A faint air of dread hangs over the image.
Too bad this painting wasn't juxtaposed with one that hangs on the other side of the same wall: Lynn Davison's equally haunting Boat (1999), in which a nude woman presents herself to us in a small boat that seems on the verge of tipping over. Nailed to one of the slats inside the boat is what looks to be a raw steak. The composition is unsettling, but Davison's most striking achievement here is her rendering of the color and texture of human flesh, which brings to mind the flesh tones in the work of... Lucian Freud.
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The exhibition hits its high points with Boat and another nearby Davison, a huge charcoal on paper called A Leg to Stand On (1995). At first glance it appears to be a portrait of a fleshy nude man with another figure wrapped around him. But the image gets more ambiguous upon closer inspection. Only one leg and arm of the figure in the rear are visible, although what seems to be the extended left arm of the man in front is positioned in such a way that it could also belong to the figure draped around him. Either way, the parts don't add up to two people, which gives the piece a fascinating instability.
While you're at the "All Florida Invitational," you'll probably be tempted to stroll back to the rear first-floor galleries, where you'll find "Boca Raton Collects: The Modernist Spirit Within Private Collections," featuring about 50 pieces from the collections of Gabriel Auerbach and Mr. and Mrs. Eli Plotch.
It's an oh-so-tasteful show that's also a bit bland. A straightforward, impressionist-style portrait of The Artist's Wife and Daughter (c. 1920) by William James Glackens stands out near the entrance, and a pleasing Thomas Hart Benton ink drawing of a female nude called The Apple of Discord (1947) is tucked away in back.
But the real treasure here is an uncharacteristically small 1862 oil called The Fishing Fleet by Albert Bierstadt, who was born in Germany but moved to America as a child and specialized in grandly romantic visions of his adopted country. Here he turns his eye for the nuances of sunlight to a shore at sunrise, and the results are breathtaking. It's easily the best thing in "Boca Raton Collects" and just as easily a match for the best pieces in the "50th Annual All Florida Invitational."