A Question of Taste

Just as there's often an idiot with a cell phone on hand to disrupt your moviegoing, sooner or later some short-fingered vulgarian with a bad attitude will show up to add a sour note to your museum experience.

Case in point: A friend and I were at the Boca Raton Museum of Art for the "57th Annual All Florida Juried Competition and Exhibition." We stood admiring Mouth, a small, round wood panel painted with one of Carol Prusa's characteristically delicate, dreamy biomorphic images. The philistine in question didn't exactly say, "My 9-year-old grandson could do better than that," but he uttered words to indicate that, aesthetically speaking, he was strictly a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. He moved on to a relatively lackluster color photograph that apparently met his minimal standards — "Now that means something," he grunted approvingly — while my friend and I edged away in the other direction.

I know I just recently went on at length about Prusa's work — it's one of the highlights of the current South Florida Cultural Consortium show at the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale — but I feel compelled to pause for a few more words before moving on. Francis Bacon, who famously painted a series of papal screams, once confessed to being fascinated by the glitter and color of the human mouth, which he said he wanted to paint the way Monet painted a sunset. Prusa works with a palette that is limited to blacks, whites, and grays but is nonetheless remarkably expressive, and if a mouth can be said to blossom like a flower unfolding, it does so in her lovely little round painting.

It wasn't so much that the guy disliked Prusa's painting that bothered me. Reasonable people, after all, can reasonably disagree. It was the vehemence of his disdain that startled me, made me wonder why on Earth someone would even darken the doors of a museum if its contents were so likely to curdle his disposition, perhaps even elevate his blood pressure. We crossed paths with the man and his female companion a time or two more that afternoon, and each time, he seemed to be unloading a grudge onto one of the works before him. (Is this something she has grown accustomed to, I wondered, this venting against the arts?)

My friend and I disagreed from time to time, more amicably, as we moved through the exhibition, which we judged to be solid overall but not necessarily outstanding. Through it all, the question of taste was never far from my mind. A group show of this sort is always somewhat problematic, simply because there is no underlying theme, no unifying principle, other than the taste of the jurors. A bunch of wildly different artists submit a lot of wildly different work to be tamed only by the sensibility the institution has engaged for the task.

The jurors of this installment of the All Florida — there are two, Jan van der Marck and Jef Bourgeau — more or less acknowledge this at the outset. "No particular Florida style is being presented here," they write in their introduction. " That expectation should be left behind at the museum door. No collective response to a locale is being offered, since it is instead a question of open developments by a group of independent artists responding to the larger world."

Well put, thus freeing us to respond to individual artists and individual works without worrying about some larger context. First, a few numbers to put things in perspective. Van der Marck and Bourgeau were faced with a whopping 1,188 submissions by 382 artists that they whittled down to the 60 works by 53 artists on display. And unlike some previous years, this show more or less lives up to its All Florida designation, with artists hailing from more than 30 cities in just about every part of the state.

As usual with a large group exhibition, a few generalizations suggest themselves. Here, for instance, photography doesn't make an especially strong showing, which probably says more about the state of the medium itself than its individual practitioners. Exceptions are Michele Guarino's painterly Pine Island, whose shallow waters suggest liquid sand dunes, and Roy Quesada's witty Paparazzi, for which he stages a miniature tableau within a bromeliad and then photographs it, implicating us in layers of voyeurism.

Painting, on the other hand, fares better than might be expected. Dennis Aufiery's oil Sand Alley pulls off the considerable feat of being as much about his deft gestural handling of the medium as its defiantly mundane subject matter, which includes a pickup truck, a motorboat, and an oil drum. There's appealingly droll whimsy at work in Jack Newman's acrylic Raspberries Descending, which portrays the title items in the air above a cake. (The same artist's The Scampi Invasion fails to pull off a similar trick with shrimp.) And Roger Sherman's oil Self Portrait, a looming close-up from below, displays a feel for human fleshiness that recalls Lucian Freud.

There are only a few pieces that fit into the ever-trendy category of installation art, but a couple of them are exceptionally clever. As its title implies, Barry Freedland's Thumbprinter is a sort of computerized robotic device that uses a rubber stamp to create seemingly identical prints of the artist's thumb. The wrinkle is that its programming can be manipulated to ensure that the prints aren't quite identical. Unfortunately, the contraption is displayed at rest, not in action, although a framed example of its handiwork hangs on a nearby wall.

Duane Brant's Swet Shop is an even more ingenious installation of eight vintage sewing machines atop wood pedestals of various shapes and sizes. The endearingly quaint machines form a visually arresting array in and of themselves; better yet, they're interactive — each is live-wired and connected to a pedal you can press to prompt a whirring sound. But wait, there's more: The hollow forms on which the machines rest are calibrated to resonate in specific ways (think of the wooden bodies of string instruments) so that each generates its own distinctive "pitch."

Another installation by another Brant — Pip — occupies the opposite corner of the museum, much less successfully. (I have no idea whether the two Brants are related, although both hail from Hollywood.) Blood Veil consists of a head-shaped, red steel frame, about the size of a small gazebo, covered with what might be characterized as yarn doilies of many sizes, colors, and patterns, covering most of the frame and spilling onto the floor around it.

"...inspired by the controversy over the semiotic functions of female apparel intended to represent guarded property..." reads, in part, the artist's statement. "Give me a break," I scrawled in my notes. I alternated between wondering what the jurors, who awarded the work Best in Show, could have possibly been thinking, and wondering what the ill-tempered fellow from earlier in the exhibition might have made of this particular bit of self-indulgence. No matter, I concluded. The intricately detailed fabric of the doilies cast beautiful shadows on the walls around the work, and all the Best in Show appellation really signified was a judgment call on the part of van der Marck and Bourgeau. There really is, ultimately, no accounting for taste.

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Michael Mills