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Any Hortt in a Storm

When Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art (MoA) pulled the plug on the Hortt Competition last year, an era appeared to have ended. At 41 years old, the Hortt -- named for former Fort Lauderdale mayor, art collector, and MoA benefactor M. Allen Hortt -- was one of the region's longest-running art competitions as well as one of the most popular with artists. At its height in 1991, the Hortt attracted a record 1746 entries, and last year's Hortt 41 drew 1105.

But reports of the Hortt's demise were premature. The Broward Art Guild (BAG), a 50-year-old nonprofit collective of 300 or so artists, stepped in to save the day. Now the results are on display at "Hortt 42 Memorial Competition" -- for a few more days anyway, since the exhibition's run has shrunk from six weeks to two. And the hours vary, so be sure to call before you go.

In some ways the Hortt has grown. Although the number of submissions was down to roughly 800, according to BAG executive director Susan S. Buzzi, Hortt 42 displays 144 works, a sharp increase over Hortt 41's 40 pieces and even Hortt 40's 78. (The juror this year was Lois Riggins-Ezzell, executive director of the Tennessee State Museum, who in the show's brochure declares, "Seldom have I seen such a range of work in an open call for entries.")

Rather than try to accommodate such a large show in BAG's tiny NE 13th Street gallery, Buzzi opted for two venues: the Carone Gallery, Matthew Carone's private commercial place just off Las Olas Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale, and the ArtServe gallery, adjacent to the Fort Lauderdale branch of the Broward County Library on Sunrise Boulevard. Hortt 41 tried the two-location approach last year, in large part because the show included so many installations, with mixed results.

Perhaps as a reaction to artists who lashed out at Hortt 41 for its emphasis on installations, this year's show is installation-free, which makes it seem a bit stubbornly old-fashioned. On the other hand, it is refreshing to see so much painting. Hortt 42 is overwhelmingly tilted toward works in oil and acrylic, complemented by a nice array of mixed-media pieces. A few sculptures and a selection of photographs, mostly black and white, round out the exhibition.

As usual for a group show that comprises so many artists and styles, the quality of the works on display varies widely. That's the nature of a group show, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact there's something exhilarating about walking into a gallery (or two), seeing such dramatic diversity, and realizing it's all the product of regional artists.

At Matthew Carone's place, the initial sensory assault is almost overwhelming. The gallery consists of a sprawling main room and another much smaller one; everywhere you look there's something to vie for your attention. The top three award winners are here, and in another departure from recent Hortts, they're all paintings -- and excellent ones at that.

Best in Show went to Michelle Woolley's acrylic Omega II, a large horizontal abstract dominated by a large, bright yellow rectangle to the lower right and featuring other areas of vivid red, deep blue, and gold, all set off by stripes of various thicknesses. The stark, beautifully balanced composition also has, on closer inspection, lots of texture, with sections where the wet pigment was raked over and otherwise manipulated.

In Peter Olson's oil Tested by Fire, which took second place, the emphasis is on figurative painting of a particularly hallucinatory sort. The canvas is a lurid tempest of intense reds, anchored by a vixen in a red dress whose apparent function is to tempt the 12 apostles, who appear around the fringes of the image. Life magazine logos are scattered here and there, and on the right side of the piece is a human figure in extremis, with its skin gone and its internal organs exposed.

Across the room, the third-place winner, a mixed-media painting by Chris Linden called Koi Pond, is as soothing as Olson's picture is disturbing. The Japanese carp of the title are nebulous forms seen from above; their distinctive markings are faintly visible below the pond's mottled surface. Curvy white lines as well as small squares and rectangles of color superimposed onto the water provide an external structure.

Most of Hortt 42's photography and sculpture strike me as nothing out of the ordinary, although Susan M. Skrzycki's Tough Titties: You Gotta Get This Look, a silvery bosom that includes nipples adorned with spinning propellers, is a nifty bit of neo-Dada. And a similar whimsy is at work in Keith Bradley's Out to Pasture and Rusty, a life-size horse and dog respectively, fashioned from strips and irregular pieces of metal.

But clearly the strength of this show is painting. Several other pieces at the Carone Gallery are as strong as the top-three place winners: Russell Rand's Untitled 2, a large horizontal abstract every bit as enticing as the Best in Show; Paola Cabal's The Law of Desire, a turbulent oil in which a faintly visible body appears to struggle with an ominous red shape; and Raha Moghaddam's Where I Came From, a dark, moody mixed-media work with three vertical wooden slabs, painted matte black and affixed with thin sheets of metal and small, abstract panels.

Although the Carone has the lion's share of Hortt 42's best work, there are also some winners at ArtServe, as well as some apt juxtapositions. There's a handful of renderings of fruit, for instance, with Chris Linden's silky mixed-media Peaches the standout. Peggy Selig Gordon's dour acrylic The Fisherman's Wife and Tereza Hazelton's serene oil Fisherman Sewing Net, each executed in a very different style, face each other on adjacent panels. And Ryan Cummings' monumental oil The Dark Continent, an extreme closeup of an African elephant's head, exerts an inexorable pull from its out-of-the-way spot on one wall.

You get the picture. For sheer size and variety, this nearly orphaned Hortt rivals any group exhibition of the past few years. Which is the point, after all, of a show designed to give regional artists a showcase they might not otherwise have. With any luck, the best and brightest represented here will go on to greater things: other group shows, solo gallery shows, maybe even career retrospectives one day.

A rumor that Boca Raton Museum of Art executive director George S. Bolge, who once held that position at MoA, might take on next year's Hortt for the Boca museum turns out to be false. Bolge says his museum's annual all-Florida show would make it redundant for him to host the Hortt, although he has been and remains a supporter of the competition and the up-and-coming artists it showcases.

For her part BAG's Buzzi would like to see the Hortt evolve into a tricounty affair that travels to venues in Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade, which sounds like a logistical nightmare. My hunch is that the Hortt's best bet for survival hinges on some major institution's willingness to adopt it. In the meantime at least it has a loving foster home. Enjoy it while you can, just in case Hortt 43 doesn't come to pass.

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Michael Mills

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