Jest in Show

It's a faintly surreal, even disorienting experience to take in two of South Florida's big juried summer group shows, which run roughly concurrently. First, take the elevator to the sixth floor of the Broward County Main Library in downtown Fort Lauderdale and step out into Gallery Six for "United and Proud: A Visual Art Exhibit in Celebration of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month." Then head over to the JM Family Enterprise Gallery at ArtServe, in the same building as the Fort Lauderdale Branch of the Broward County Library, for "Hortt 45: The Best of South Florida."

"United and Proud" is one of two annual exhibitions for members of ArtsUnited (AU), a nonprofit organization with headquarters at ArtServe. The annual Hortt competition, while being displayed at ArtServe, is sponsored by the Broward Art Guild (BAG), which bills itself as the area's "oldest grass-roots visual art organization." Confused? Understandable.

To muddy the waters further, consider that at least half a dozen of the artists included in "United and Proud" are also featured in "Hortt 45." Some of them shine in both shows, which is especially gratifying. And a few of the artists even serve on the board of either AU or BAG. In the immortal, mangled words of Yogi Berra, "It's like déjà vu all over again."

You could take this overlap as another indication that the local art scene is hopelessly inbred. I prefer interpreting it as, to mix metaphors, confirmation that the cream rises to the top. Of course, there's still a lot of ordinary milk to go through to get to the cream.

That said, "United and Proud" is AU's best "gay pride" show in years. Not that it seems to have occurred to the unidentified juror(s) to venture beyond the obvious in selecting the winners. Best of Show, for instance, goes to Scott Strauss' South Florida Pride, which uses half a dozen photographs of flowers to suggest the colors of the ubiquitous rainbow flag. In Second Place, we find a trio of ho-hum black-and-white photos with color accents by Dennis Dean, an exceptionally talented photographer who's capable of much better. And taking Third Place is Len Paoletti's painting Splash, which serves up seven buff male nudes frolicking in and around a pool at what is presumably one of the area's countless gay guesthouses.

As for People's Choice, well, for once the people get it right. The big acrylic canvas View From a Terrace, by Alfred Phillips, is a straightforward, largely realistic rendering of an Edenic landscape into which the artist has interjected mystery in the form of pale, near-subliminal panels that seem to float in space.

Danny Babineaux uses similar interventions to enliven his three paintings. The village landscape of Swiss Alps, an oil, is overlaid with a ghostly irregular grid, while Broken Self, an acrylic, combines such a grid with an accumulation of pointillist-style dots. And for Miss Penny, another oil, the earthy pigments are applied in a thick impasto to create a portrait of a calico cat that studiously avoids cutesiness.

The exhibition includes an overabundance of photography at two extremes: those that aren't much more than snapshots and those that have been digitally manipulated in ways that are merely clever. The one digital photo that transcends its trickery is Gerard Delaney's Prismosaic, which is a large print on canvas that amazingly re-creates the visual effects of Op painting with its shimmering, shifting bars of color.

Two other artists worth mentioning (both of whom resurface at the Hortt) are Deba Jean Gray and Keith Clark. Gray's Lovers One and Lovers Two, hung on adjacent panels, are pencil drawings on large, irregular pieces of raw canvas, ripped here and there for drama. The first features a fist connecting with a face; the second portrays a couple locked in a literal stranglehold; and for both, Gray depends on just a few spare lines to delineate the characters. For a third piece on the other side of the gallery, The Boxer Got After Eakins, she goes for much greater detail to much weaker effect.

Clark contributes three abstract oil paintings, two of which — Self-Absorbed and Seedlings III — make judicious use of big blocks of warm color offset by lots of little squiggly lines. (His Seedlings I, at the Hortt, would make this a lovely triptych.) His third piece, like Gray's, is of less interest, a small minimalist landscape called Foggy River.

Even though "United and Proud" is such an uneven exhibition overall, I'm willing to cut it some slack because it has been around only a few years (AU was founded in 1999). And although the obligatory "gay pride" theme is necessarily limiting, the show at least gives some worthy area artists much-needed exposure.

The Hortt, on the other hand, has a longer if more troubled history. Founded in the late 1950s in memory of Fort Lauderdale art supporter M. Allen Hortt, the competition, originally hosted by the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale, grew to attract as many as 1,600 submissions by more than 800 artists. When the original endowment from the Hortt family ran out, various corporations and individuals chipped in to keep the tradition alive. BAG got involved four years ago, when the Hortt seemed on the verge of going under, and this year, the number of entries was back up to more than 400, with 110 finalists appearing in the current exhibition.

There are no sprawling installations of the sort that generated controversy in the latter Hortts before BAG entered the picture. To the contrary, juror Tom McPherson, director of Alabama's Mobile Museum of Art, seems to have been cautious to a fault in making his selections. He may have thought it daring to declare Dwayne Black's big acrylic Abu Ghraib the Best in Category for Painting, but the piece is too literal and heavy-handed. Daniel Garcia's mixed-media El Corazon Grande offers a much more provocative image of contemporary angst.

Another painting that forgoes the obvious for ambiguity and mystery is the acrylic Dark Pleasure by Alfred Phillips. Like the artist's People's Choice winner at "United and Proud," it's a realistic treatment of a seemingly ordinary subject, in this case a rattan chair with pillow against a backdrop of indoor plants. And a smoldering cigarette in a glass ashtray is enough to generate a hint of narrative — someone has just departed this scene, leaving no other clue about his or her identity. In a nice touch, the smoke curling up from the cigarette echoes the shape of some of the foliage in the background.

There's plenty of warmed-over abstraction in the show, as well as lots of mostly mundane photography and a smattering of uneven work in other media. But McPherson's pick for Best in Show, Kenneth Moylan's appropriately titled What Went Wrong, is an out-and-out bad joke — a composite of eight one-foot-square canvases with crudely painted images and phrases that add up to... not much of anything.

The gag falls especially flat when you consider that just a few feet away are two complementary mixed-media pieces by Dennis Dezmain that tower above almost everything else in "Hortt 45." At first glance, KSS2 and KSS3 look like latter-day abstract expressionism revisited, and indeed, that's their lineage, but there's more to them. Spend some time with them and you might find, as I did, evidence of an extraordinary eye for composition.

Dezmain packs his surfaces with geometric shapes that have been laid down in thick, bold lines, then reiterated in lighter strokes that reinforce the forms. Other shapes suggest the curves of decorative molding, and there are zigzags and crosshatches and all kinds of patterns. Pigment has been thickly applied in some places, then gouged to form deep furrows.

This is painting that's about painting, make no mistake about it. The artist's hand is everywhere evident. There's a grand rawness here — vitality and spontaneity tempered with technique — that, at its best, recalls some of the early work of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. "Hortt 45" has much to recommend it, but even if it didn't, I would be glad to have gone just to see Dezmain's work.

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Michael Mills