To get into "southXeast: Contemporary Southeastern Art" — or at least the half of the show that's at the Schmidt Center Gallery at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton (the other half is across campus at the Ritter Art Gallery) — you must first pass through a large installation. Mike Calway-Fagen's The Animals Go It Alone, which occupies part of the corridor leading to the Schmidt, is a seemingly haphazard construction. Made of fragments of wood of various sizes, shapes, and colors, it's cobbled together to form what suggests the hull of a boat.
The piece prompts a sort of "Aha!" moment when the title and the structure itself come together in a little frisson of recognition. Call it Noah's Art. What lifts the whole thing above the level of a fairly obvious sight gag is that title, which is somehow simultaneously ridiculous and poignant. This is the best the animals could manage on their own, this pile of scraps of lumber? Then again, consider what reckless faith the animals must have had even to attempt such a bold venture!
The rest of "southXeast" is similarly schizophrenic. The Schmidt part of the exhibition never matches the exhilaration of Calway-Fagen's grand folly, although the show recovers some of its momentum over at the Ritter, especially when you reach Bonnie Seeman's unsettlingly sensuous porcelain and glass teapots and the wonderfully deranged mixed-media works of Jason Briggs. More on those in a moment.
The Schmidt is such a great little display space that it's especially disheartening to see it ill used. It's not so much that the roughly half of "southXeast" that's on view there is screamingly bad but rather that a lot of it lacks rigor and vigor. Four big acrylics by the Gainesville-based Arnold Mesches (who at age 84 is probably the show's oldest artist) are like jokes that, unlike Calway-Fagen's ark, don't quite live up to their punch lines. Or punch line — the pieces make up essentially one big visual gag, that of juxtaposing very grand, baroque interiors with incongruous elements, such as lines of laundry hung out to dry or a projected close-up of a face wearing a gas mask.
The big oil paintings of Townsend Davidson, a 20-something artist living and working in Charleston, South Carolina, are also a bit one-note. He too traffics in incongruous juxtaposition: a tiny ship dwarfed by a big UPC symbol floating in the air above it, an offshore oil rig and the buoy that floats beside it offset on shore by an oversized toilet, a raging fire paired with a tiny lion.
The modified minimalism of Christopher McNulty, a professor at Alabama's Auburn University, is more effective. For Ramifications I, he presents half a dozen wooden pillars of varying shapes and dimensions. The catch is that they have previously been split into wedge-shaped slivers of wood, then meticulously reassembled using staples. The illusion is so complete that you have to look at the logs closely to pick up on the processes to which the artist has subjected them. Replication II works with similar subtlety, giving us 30 vertical, wall-mounted wooden obelisks that have been blackened with graphite. Again, a close inspection is required to realize that McNulty is exploring the idea of seemingly identical objects that in fact brim with infinite minute variations.
If there's an anchor to the Schmidt segment of the show, it has to be the imposing site-specific, mixed-media installation Alluvion by Phillip W. Estlund, a Greek artist based in Lake Worth. Perched on the wall and spilling onto the floor in a rear corner of the gallery, it's a sort of makeshift treehouse-like structure with boarded-up windows and a crudely whitewashed interior, with sheets of smoky, dusty plastic or glass to suggest shallow water lapping at the stilt-like supports. It's certainly an allusive work — its narrative possibilities are vast — and it demands attention by virtue of its sheer physicality.
It's a five-minute stroll to reach the remainder of the exhibition over at the Ritter. The Schmidt office will provide a handout with directions that may be cryptic to anyone unfamiliar with the FAU campus, or you can elect to decipher the visual clues of Avantika Bawa, an Atlanta-based artist who has posted teal markers at various intervals, pointing out possible routes to the Ritter. (I found her "directions" about as confusing as the printed ones.)
The Ritter portion of the show is more rewarding, despite an overabundance of gimmicky color giclee prints by Dan Tague of New Orleans. The photographer's shtick is to shoot himself impersonating such figures as Napoleon, Clint Eastwood, Jacques Cousteau, and even George W. Bush simply by donning crudely made masks. The gag wears thin very quickly.
The gallery includes two other Georgia-based photographers whose work is a mixed bag. A sly strain of surrealism runs through the chromogenic imagery of Sarah Hobbs, as in an untitled shot of a room that appears to have been painted with Hershey bars melted in a fondue pot and in Untitled (ladies' man), in which a settee is surrounded by wine corks labeled with the names of all the women who have presumably been seduced there. Cedric Smith's handful of framed color photos are mostly nondescript.
Fortunately, there are the porcelain and glass ceramics of Bonnie Seaman to provide welcome distraction. Seaman, who teaches at the University of Miami, works almost exclusively in a sort of melony golden orange with striations that suggest tissue. It's as if she has dissected a human body and used the flesh to fashion her exquisitely delicate and detailed teapots, supplemented by a few trays and bowls. Her use of tiny glass insects and flowers as accents jarringly amplifies the effect. She also gets considerable mileage out of mimicking the interior of a split pomegranate, which in her hands comes to suggest nothing so much as a womb dotted with bugs and blossoms.
Along with Seaman, the show has a real find in Jason Briggs, a Tennessee-based ceramicist who's possibly the best artist in the exhibition. Like Seaman, Briggs is essentially a mixed-media surrealist who also finds great beauty in biomorphic forms. His starting point for the handful of pieces here is typically a vaguely phallic object that he then subjects to various permutations, apparently folding and curving the clay to create highly suggestive crevices and recesses. While he incorporates stainless steel and rubber into some of the works (he has an excellent feel for surface textures), he also dots them with pores into which he has inserted tiny hairs — I don't even want to know where they come from — so that the overall effect is like something that has escaped from some futuristic horror film; it's easy to imagine one of his objects making a cameo appearance in a David Cronenberg movie.
The FAU galleries hosted their first "southXeast: Contemporary Southeastern Art" exhibition in 2005 with the aim of providing exposure for regional artists not part of the New York and Miami axis. This second incarnation includes 14 artists — four each from Florida and Georgia, two from Tennessee, and one each from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina — culled from a field of more than 300 competitors. Although overall the show isn't as strong as its predecessor, individual artists as distinctive as Seaman and Briggs make such exhibitions a venture well worth continuing.