Keep on Horttin'

Two years ago, Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art (MoA) shocked South Florida's art community when it unceremoniously dumped the 41-year-old Hortt Competition from its lineup. The popular competition had a long history with the increasingly irrelevant MoA -- namesake M. Allen Hortt, an art collector and former Fort Lauderdale mayor,...
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Two years ago, Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art (MoA) shocked South Florida's art community when it unceremoniously dumped the 41-year-old Hortt Competition from its lineup. The popular competition had a long history with the increasingly irrelevant MoA -- namesake M. Allen Hortt, an art collector and former Fort Lauderdale mayor, was a MoA benefactor -- and it had been commonly assumed that the Hortt and the museum would continue their partnership indefinitely. Wrong.

That's when the brave little Broward Art Guild (BAG), under the leadership of Executive Director Susan S. Buzzi, came to the rescue. With the help of artist and gallery owner Matthew Carone (a Hortt winner himself back in the early 1960s), Buzzi kept the Hortt alive, displaying part of Hortt 42 at Carone's gallery and the rest at the ArtServe gallery. Buzzi even expanded the show to include more than triple the number of pieces featured in MoA's Hortt 41.

For this year's "Hortt 43 Memorial Competition," Buzzi turned again to Carone, as well as to Larry T. Clemons of Gallery 721, who made his space available for juror August L. Freundlich, of the University of South Florida, when he was sifting through the more than 630 submissions. Freundlich narrowed the show down to 96 works, including Best in Show, three Equal Merit awards, and awards in photography, 3-D, painting, and mixed media. Several other pieces were singled out for Judge's Recognition awards.

Hortt 43 is now on display at the Carone Gallery, but -- mea culpa -- I didn't manage to see it until last week, so if you want to take it in, you'll have to hurry. One of the downsides of the post-MoA Hortt is that it has a much shorter running time. The current one is around for only another week or so, and the gallery has limited hours, so call to find out when it's open.

And I do think Hortt 43 is worth taking in, even though it's less satisfying overall than Hortt 42, and like most large, juried group shows, it's an uneven batch of work. Freundlich's tastes are nothing if not eclectic, which is a good quality in a juror, even if you find, as I did, some of his choices to be questionable or even downright baffling.

At first, I wasn't quite sure what to make of Freundlich's choice for Best of Show, Tereza Hazelton's On the Move. It's a simple oil painting of three shirtless, shoeless young boys in different-colored shorts playing soccer against a stark, empty backdrop. But after looking at it for a while, what initially struck me as old-fashioned and a bit dull about the painting began to seem more impressive. Hazelton's handling of the light in that empty background sets up a crucial contrast, and she has a feel for human flesh that's reminiscent of some of the work of the great renegade Paul Cadmus.

I'll even concede that the juror's choice for the 3-D Award -- Philippe Guillerm's Last Drop -- is worth singling out, if only for its teasing combination of whimsy and grandeur. It's a tall wooden contraption that includes a faucet, from which issues a huge drop that encompasses a hollow globe of the Earth containing marine life.

On the other hand, what are we to make of the winner of the Painting Award? Peter Olsen's oil-on-canvas The Great Books isn't much more than half-baked Dalí, with its allusions to great literature afloat in a sea of garish surrealism. (Equal Merit Award winner Baobabs, by Rodrigo Moreno, is more of the same.) And the Photography Award winner, Tarn Tantikij's To Live Is to Leap, impresses only from a distance. When you get closer to this color portrait of a diver in midair, you realize that part of it is, for no apparent reason, out of focus.

Even more shocking is the choice for the Mixed Media Award, William G. Anderson's Day and Night, which consists of nine panels of exterior hotel and restaurant signs, à la South Beach, with accordion-style creases. It looks like something you might pick up in a high-end souvenir shop.

It's especially disheartening to see Day and Night edge out much more interesting work in an exhibition that's heavy on a variety of mixed-media pieces. After a moratorium of sorts on installations last year -- a reaction to Hortt 41 -- the show has allowed a few to creep back in.

For Mona Lisa, by Chris Yoculan, Jon Berge, and Michelle Lach, is perhaps the most ambitious. Its main component is a large panel affixed with 28 hand-written texts by children who have been asked for their takes on the Leonardo da Vinci painting. "Her eyes seem to follow you wherever you go," reads one. Others indicate a more skeptical interpretation of one of the most famous portraits in the history of art: "It looks like she has pink eye" and "Her eyes are very red it seems like she stayed up all night."

Two metal hands hold another wooden panel that extends from the main one and features a sheet of paper with Braille markings on it. A small pedestal to the right is topped with more Braille, and inside are electronic components that, when activated, broadcast the kids' remarks via a pair of speakers mounted on the wall. The whole piece adds up to a droll commentary on the vagaries of perception when it comes to art.

But some of the show's most intriguing pieces don't even merit one of the many Judge's Recognition Awards handed out. Two monochromatic pieces by Carol Prusa work especially well displayed together. Apron, delicately rendered in dry pigment, is a conglomeration of biomorphic forms suggestive of human innards, with nearly two dozen black ovals superimposed over the lower half of the image. It's paired with Necklace, a more minimalist acrylic with the same sort of forms draped to create the title object. And much to the artist's credit, she lends these forms a strange beauty -- they're far from grotesque or clinical.

Last year, I speculated that the Hortt's best chance of survival might hinge on the willingness of another major South Florida museum or other cultural institution to take it over. And as much as I admire Buzzi and Carone for their beyond-the-call-of-duty support for this competition, I still think the exhibition needs bigger guns backing it. Any takers? In the meantime, we all owe Buzzi and Carone thanks for keeping the Hortt alive.

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