Group Dynamics

With a group exhibition, as with a party, so much depends on both the guest list and the host. In the case of the "58th Annual All Florida Juried Competition and Exhibition," now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, the guests are about four dozen artists from all over the state. It's a nice enough mix of people, and spending an hour or so with them is an enjoyable experience.

The host, to continue the party metaphor, is juror Roy Slade, director emeritus of the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He has assembled his guest list with such care that there aren't likely to be any revelers having too much to drink and wearing lampshades on their heads — it's not a "party gone out of bounds," as the B-52's so memorably sang. Then again, Slade hasn't thrown the kind of party that people will be talking about for weeks or even months to come. You almost wish he'd had a crasher, a wild card or two, to liven things up.

I won't pursue the metaphor any further. You get the idea. This year's "All Florida" is, if not exactly staid, a little on the safe and respectable side. Although it might have been a bit livelier, it could also have been a much greater disappointment.

In years past, I have complained when the "All Florida" belied its own name, showcasing the work of artists from a handful of localities at the expense of the rest of the state. Much to its detriment, the recent "Fourth All-Media Juried Biennial" at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood was that kind of show, limited to artists from the greater Miami area at the almost total exclusion of everyone else. This "All Florida," fortunately, lives up to its name, with artists from every area of the state included.

At first glance on entering the exhibition, I had the impression it was heavy on painting. That turned out to be a misapprehension, however — there's an almost equal emphasis on mixed media and photography, along with a handful of sculptures and a few works in such media as charcoal, engraving, and encaustic. With one notable exception, there's really nothing in the way of installation or video art, which perhaps reflects a streak of aesthetic conservatism on juror Slade's part.

The good news is that there's a high level of craftsmanship all the way around. These are artists operating in full command of their chosen media. And while you might not care for some of the work presented here — I certainly don't like all of it — you'd be hard-pressed to argue that any of it is junk, which means that Slade has at least done his job and done it well.

Although I find Slade's choice of Nadine Saitlin's acrylic and pastel Small Red Landscape as Best in Show baffling, for instance, it isn't because of any general distaste for her work. Indeed, I would happily settle for another of her paintings, Playing in a Gray Blue Space, which strikes me as a more invigorating example of her reinterpretation of surrealism.

The Judge's Merit Award winners, on the other hand, are much more adventurous. Elena De La Ville's vibrant We Are Burning combines a medium rarely seen these days, encaustic, with photography to give us an image of trees threatened by a waxy wall of orange flames. Tripod, a sculpture by Valeria Yamamoto, looks eerily like something that escaped from a visionary science fiction film — a jet-black, claw-like base from which extends a multijointed appendage that appears to be either sucking in or extruding a bulbous white ovoid form. (Yamamoto has a second, equally jarring sculpture in the show as well.)

The final merit winner is something I might have gone with for Best in Show: Karen Kuykendall's On the Road Again... Lookin' for Black Bears... Songs Along the Highway #3, a medium-sized oil whose dense, fractured, hallucinogenic imagery is painted with a glossy realism that recalls the work of the great James Rosenquist. Kuykendall also has one of the few artist statements that isn't an exercise in rampant self-indulgence, including such insights as "Painting is my way of making sense out of a chaotic world. My images are cluttered and busy and frantic and loud. I want my paintings to read like good books... novels with several layers of plot."

In general, though, Slade seems to favor abstract painting, and he has a good eye for it. The water-based imagery of Jean Blackburn is a fine example, as is her explanation that she uses "forms derived from nature without simply mimicking them." Melinda Trucks does much the same with her more figurative Florida Wetlands, which is like a heat-induced mirage come to life.

There's also a wealth of photography covering a wide range of expression, from Francie Bishop Good's witty, richly layered Halo, Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale, Florida to the no-frills, unadorned simplicity of Alan Feinberg's Two Boats to the horrifically suggestive, crime-scene starkness of Michelle Bruzzese's Supplies, Slaughter House Series, Mexico.

The show's photography, in fact, brought me back full circle to my original notion of being at a big party. When I got home, I mulled over the conversations I'd had and realized that many of the people I talked with were much more interesting than I'd recognized at the time.

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Michael Mills