Henry's Solid State

After nearly a decade of covering the "Annual All Florida Juried Competition and Exhibition" at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, I had come to think of it a little like a dental exam — something more to be expected and endured than enjoyed. Much the same thing had happened when I regularly covered the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. I simply ran out of things to say about it.

In the case of the film festival, I had been along for the ride almost from its inception 20 years ago, and I eventually came to feel I had pretty much exhausted the angles for approaching an increasingly sprawling event that, for a time, declared itself "the world's longest film festival."

I've hardly been an "All Florida" habitué for nearly as long — this year marks the exhibition's 56th year — but I had similarly come to feel that there was little new to be said about the state's oldest annual juried competition. And so it's with great pleasure that I announce I was wrong.

This year's show is one of the strongest of at least the past decade.

Why? There are myriad possibilities. Chief among them is the juror, John B. Henry III, who is currently executive director of Michigan's Flint Institute of Arts and who previously worked at the Vero Beach Museum of Art and the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson. Although last year's show was beautifully assembled but failed to satisfy fully, Henry's version is like the work of a master chef who pre­sents a meal pleasing to both eye and palate. His "All Florida" is not only pretty to look at; it leaves you with plenty to chew on long after you've left the premises.

Henry also has the good fortune of having a great deal more space to work with than the typical "All Florida" juror. The Boca Museum's executive director, George Bolge, may be a visionary and an innovative leader, but he consistently tends to cram too much art into too little space. This time, however, instead of being forced to share the museum's central first-floor galleries with one or even two other exhibitions, the "All Florida" commands the whole space, and the effect is startling. Henry, who seems to have an unfailing eye for placement anyway, has room to give the art plenty of breathing space, and he takes advantage of the luxury.

None of this, of course, accounts for the art itself. Could it be that Henry also had an exceptional pool of talent at his disposal? Compared with last year's "All Florida," which featured 64 works by 41 artists drawn from more than a thousand submissions, Henry started with a smaller pool but ended up with a larger selection: 76 works by 71 artists, culled from 745 entries.

All of which points back to Henry's curatorial skills. It would be absurd to suggest that he went into this show with some sort of aesthetic bias for, say, abstract compositions with an emphasis on linear components. Even so, there's an exhilarating stretch early in the show with a handful of works whose sinuous lines echo off one another as you move from one work to another. Start with Miami artist Momoko Sudo's Garden #362, with its Op-style wavy lines, then move on to the more detailed vertical lines of Thought2, by Enido Michelini of Boca Raton. Before you know it you're standing before My Nuchu, with more wavy blue and green lines courtesy of another Boca artist, Mark Reichert. Even the wall-mounted acrylic, wood, and vine sculpture Black and White and Red All Over, by Chris Adams Johnson of Vero Beach, seems to advance the theme.

In past years, I've complained about "All Florida" exhibitions in which only a handful of areas of the state was represented. I have no idea whether any juror knows from whence the art he is judging comes, but it's nice to see that this year's show has works from nearly three dozen cities, including almost every major metropolitan area in the state except Jacksonville (the Keys are also mysteriously missing). With art from cities large, medium, and small, including some I've never even heard of (Fairfield, anyone?), this year's "All Florida" truly lives up to its billing as a statewide event.

Henry opens the show with two artists who, by coincidence, were also juxtaposed in last year's competition, Jeanne Lanziere of Jensen Beach and Carol Prusa of Boca Raton. Their works aren't displayed side by side as they were previously, but they still play off one another. Lanziere's Living Room is a near-monochromatic composition using oil stick and wax blends, among other media, to portray a delightfully surreal domestic scene that comprises a man sitting on a sofa and playing a clarinet, a gigantic teapot, what appears to be some sort of control room topped with helicopter blades, and a number of other elements. The whole conglomeration makes no sense on any rational level, which is a major part of its charm. Prusa's Babel, on the opposite wall a few feet away, is yet another excerpt from this artist's obsessive explorations of biomorphic imagery. It also deservedly snagged one of three Judge's Merit Awards.

At almost the literal center of the exhibition hangs Boca artist Eydi Lampasona's Made in China, a life-sized kimono made entirely of tiny clothing tags (more than 3,000 of them). Given the current doubts and ambiguities regarding our trade relationships with China, it's a strikingly prescient piece; it's also strangely beautiful. Too bad it's hung next to Miami artist Martin Casuso's Domestic Voodou Flags (Rectangle), a joke gone bad that uses reclaimed yarn to create a 16-panel mockery of the sequined voodoo flags so prominent in Haitian art. Instead of religious imagery, he presents everyday objects and animals such as men's briefs, a toilet, a squirrel, a spider, and a TV set.

Although the abundance of abstracts provides a satisfying cross section of what's going on in that segment of the art world today, there are a few exceptional examples of realistic painting as well. Self With Arrangement, by Sean Sexton of Vero Beach, is a grand oil — 72 inches by 78 inches — that conflates the classical and the contemporary. It appears to be a meticulous rendering of an agrarian workshop of some sort, with its bizarre array of objects — wrenches, extension cords, a drill — also incorporating such items as a jug of pickled eggs, a pumpkin, and an unripe coconut. And as the title implies, the artist works himself into the picture, framed in the background as either a painting of himself painting or a mirror image of himself creating the painting we're viewing. It has the feel of an Old Master painting dragged into the 21st Century.

Less flamboyant but no less extraordinary is Henry's choice for Best in Show, Naples artist Lynn Davison's ironically titled Modesty, a highly realistic female nude vainly attempting to cover herself with a swath of plastic wrap. Only a portion of her face is visible, and her fleshy, out-of-shape body is captured with some of the virtuosity and wounded majesty we might normally associate with Lucian Freud.

Like most group exhibitions I've seen lately, this one's a mixed bag when it comes to photography. There are a few good examples of straightforward, no-frills work: Susan Buzzi of Tamarac's carefully composed Ocean Watch, which gives us a glimpse of the ocean through a hole in a piece of driftwood, and Ramon I by Philip Ross Munro of Miami, whose color print captures what looks like a nude drowning in murky water. But it's appalling how many contemporary photographers seem unable to resist the temptation of computer-assisted manipulation. While there's nothing wrong with exploring a medium's full range of possibilities, at some point, gimmickry sets in.

Overall, however, there's nothing in this edition of the "All Florida" that's truly cringe-inducing, which is more than you can typically expect from a large group exhibition. Juror John B. Henry III has done his job and done it unusually well.

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Michael Mills