The Art of St Petersburg, Florida

D. Dominick Lombardi
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My trip to St Petersburg, Florida, was as much a success as I could have hoped for. The show I co-curated with Amanda Cooper, Water Over The Bridge: Contemporary Seascapes, is a timely and topical exhibition. Its subject matter, which in large part includes thoughts of climate change and the rising water levels strikes a loud cord here following the wrath of the area’s fall storms. But before I get into the specifics of that exhibition and the exhibition at Leslie Curran Gallery nearby, I want to give you my thoughts on the newest exhibition at St. Pete’s MFA (Museum of Fine Art).

Above, left: Selena Roman, Untitled (Tube) (2013), Archival inkjet print, Photo: Courtesy of the artist 
MFA (Museum of Fine Arts)

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today, which celebrates “the contributions of black women in the field of abstract art”, is a wonderful and stunning exhibition that features many powerful examples of Abstract Art. Walking through the exhibition, I am immediately struck by both the diversity and depth of the selections and the overall scale of the exhibition. Having seen the work of Chakaia Booker many times before, I am very happy to see and experience her work again, especially in this context. El Gato (2001), a rubber tire and wood sculpture that is totally textural and profoundly present, simultaneously challenges and captivates the viewer with waves of wild shapes and fluid gestures.

Below: Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today, Installation View, Museum of Fine Arts, St Petersburg, Florida, Photo: Courtesy of the author

On the opposite end of the exhibition stands another fascinating sculpture by Shinique Smith. Bale Variant No. 0012 (2015) combines a number of fabrics and materials forming a column-like bale of moments and memories. Clustered and tied in the shape of a tall square column, it immediately becomes a monument to diversity, while the recent images of displaced peoples, especially in Syria may make one think of homelessness and flight. When looking at this work I also think of the old cars and station wagons I have seen over the past few decades packed solid with endless belongings that house marginalized families and individuals who have lost their homes. So we have a message in “Bale Variant No. 0012” that can be both a celebration and a warning, depending on where the viewer’s mind and thoughts happen to be.

Left: Mildred Thompson, American (1936—2003), Magnetic Fields, 1991, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia, © The Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia

Mildred Thompson offers Untitled (Wood Picture) (1966), a simple, but elegant work of art that subtly guides the viewer’s attention in and upward as the quietly shifting shapes glide through our awareness. A large painting by Thompson, Magnetic Fields, above, (1991), shows her innate ability to mix very complex thoughts and theories with elusive and intuitive gestures. Nanette Carter’s Cantilevered #14 (2014), which is comprised of collaged bits of oil on Mylar, has a distinctive structure that suggests a battle between a ‘living’ geology and an uninspired architect’s desire to command nature results this work’s feeling of turmoil. On the other hand, the shifting patterns created by the brushed lines, which easily achieved on the slippery Mylar surface, have a sort of Jazzy-Cubist feel.

Right: Candida Alvarez, (American, b. 1955), black cherry pit, 2009, Acrylic on canvas, Courtesy of the artist, Chicago, Illinois, © Candida Alvarez. Photo: Tom van Eynde

The oil on canvas titled Solitude (1963) by Mavis Pusey also has a jazzy aspect. The canvas, which looks more like jute or burlap, probably looks that way because the artist did an umber paint rub, probably thinned with stand oil, into the texture of the coarse canvas. This is important as the red and brownish black that is applied in distinct, razor sharp shapes seem to float above the surface by contrast. Candida Alvarez offers an acrylic on canvas titled black cherry pit (2009) that is quite Popish in its abstraction, with its very fluid and active composition. Overall, there is a distinctive push/pull here, a clashing of worlds – or should I say a coalescing of worlds – dominated by an overall positive atmosphere disrupted with a few curious twists and turns.

Left: Barbara Chase-Riboud (American, b. 1939), Malcolm X #13, 2008, Black bronze, silk, wool, linen, synthetic fibers, Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY, © Barbara Chase-Riboud. Photo: Joshua Nefsky

Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Malcom X #13 (2008) is meant as a monument to a “transformative individual” in Malcom X. In this tall bronze abstraction we see a soul embellished with silk, wool, linen and synthetic rope – a commanding, albeit twisting form that stands firm against all foes. There are many symbols here, some obvious, others obscure, but the overall feel is a figure that is monk-like in its beliefs and steadfast in its convictions. “Racism is Like Rain, Either it’s Raining or it’s Gathering Somewhere”, a mixed media painting by Mary Lovelace O’Neal, has a distinct and ominous storm brewing against a shroud of darkness. Here, the looming giant forms on the right are menacing mangled masses all twisted and in turmoil in mind and body. Alma Woodsey Thomas, who is “a pioneer in abstraction and the elder in this exhibition” has in Orion (1973) a freedom of form and space that reminds me of the earth’s rotation seen when photographing night sky stars in long exposures. By painting the ‘night sky’ red with what looks like stately tree trunks reflected in calm water, Woodsey Thomas brings multiple worlds and dimensions together in one profound work.

Morean Arts Center

Getting back to Water Over The Bridge, Contemporary Seascapes – I thought it best to add my curatorial statement here, then have a few of the artists selected by me and my co-curator, Amanda Cooper, represented with image and excerpts of artists statements. The exhibition can be seen at the Morean Arts Center through June 29th.

Right: China Marks, Game Day in Oceana (2018), Fabric, lace, thread, colored stone, fusible adhesive, Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Curatorial Statement:

Climate Change is as real as the political battle is to deny it. The data is overwhelming. In an October 21, 2009, open letter to United States Senators from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which at the time sited 18 separate scientific organizations including the Association of Ecosystem Research Center; the Ecological Society of America; the American Chemical Society; the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the American Meteorological Society; stated that “Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.”

In a June 11, 2015 article in the Guardian, Susan Goldenberg writes: “Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, who now chairs the Senate environment and public works committee despite famously calling global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”, took a star turn on Thursday at the Heartland Institute, whose conferences function as a hub for climate deniers. His message – that “God is still up there” and that Pope Francis should mind his own business – sent a clear signal to his fellow conservatives: climate skeptics have a loyal – and newly powerful – friend in Congress.” More recently, President Donald J. Trump announced “We’re Getting Out” of the Paris Accord, eliminating any federal restrictions on damaging and dangerous carbon emissions created by utilities and businesses here in the U.S.

Left: Todd Bartel, Sublime Climate, [Landscape Vernacular Series] (2011), burnished puzzle-piece fit collage using only 19th century papers, end pages, book engravings, dictionary definitions, Xerographic-transfers, yes glue, pencil, archival document repair tape, and Alfred DeCredico’s collage remnants, Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Regardless of the side of the aisle you stand politically, it is almost impossible not to notice water levels rising due to the melting polar caps. And it is getting harder and harder to predict the extreme changes in weather events and their surprising new locations. I have personally witnessed three different tornadoes come through Westchester County in the last 20 years, one just missing my home, and that is just not normal. Yet, there is an intensely contentious political divide. There is and always will be big business prodding politicians with their sizable contributions to keep the oil flowing, the fracking going and the coal burning as long as there are humans willing to consume.

On the other hand, contemporary artists can very often be like the canary in the coalmine warning of the presence of deadly gases. Artists can bring to light the changes in sea levels, and the industries that contribute to the problem by simply exposing, with visual and written references, a very troubling reality that we are in the thick of a political battle for our very future, and the futures of the animals and plants we love. We must know and express what is going on. It is necessary to be aware of what we, and our forthcoming generations will inevitably come to face if we continue on our current destructive path. We can never compete directly, one-on-one, with powerful big business, and the legislation and legislators they finance, but we can spread the word by contacting our local legislators and expressing our concerns.

For this exhibition, Amanda Cooper and I have selected a number of artworks that reveal the changes in the contemporary seascape. Pictures can open eyes and the best, and most prominent place to start is our seas and waterways. This is where things are happening quickly, this is where it is obvious and tangible and this is the focus of Water Over the Bridge: The Art of the Contemporary Seascape.

The following are images of art from the exhibition accompanied by excerpts of artists’ statements.

Right: Carolina Cleere, Fish Out of Water (2009), Mixed media, Photo: Courtesy of the artist

I love Florida, but Iʼm worried for it. This piece balances the forces of nature against manʼs destructiveness. This fantasy world is ruled by disappointment, yet she still hopes. The bottled water is the hope she tries to share with nature. One of my Panhandle childhood memories involves wave riding in the Gulf of Mexico with my mother holding onto me. Later, I learned to swim and ski in Bayou Texar near our home. No television or computers competed as entertainment with the garden or waterʼs edge. The industrial plant in the top right refers to manʼs disrespect for nature. Because of pollution, the bayou I explored in my childhood is now unsafe for swimming. Scientists say wild-caught seafood will disappear in another 50 years. If these changes can occur in just my lifetime, what else may we lose?

Left: Don Doe, It Came Like a Thief (1999), Oil on canvas (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

I started my The Flood series in 1992 before the Mississippi flood of 1993, from a dream during a difficult time in my life. In the dream I was saving my wife from drowning in a flood by standing upon our partially submerged Saab. The image came as a metaphor, one that I recognized overlapped my penchant for expressive brushwork with several angles both autobiographical, environmental, biblical, political, and with ‘rites of passage’. It connected many pasts I’d had; a lifeguard, images of freedom (autos) confounded, global warming, seasonal cycles, swimming in abandoned Midwest quarries, baptism, water runoff and other erosions both of soil and relationships.

For me, these paintings foremost explore in the spirit of Romanticism a metaphor of an interior drama, tangled with a sexual undertow flooded with hard emotions, as if surviving the great flood without Noah’s invite and links it to a concrete yet pop-cultural political message that unfolds a synthesis of past and present, emotion and discourse.

Right: Rieko Fujinami, Invisible Site—After (2016 – 18), Glass engraving and lighting stand, Photo: Courtesy of Dale Leifeste

Recently, the threat of using nuclear weapons as a deterrent force is being shouted out loudly again in the news. But where such a deterrence to arrive, the actual result is cities in ruins and the loss of thousands of lives. This ruin and loss continues over many, many years as the environment and the bodies of the survivors continue to be plagued by lingering radioactivity… the image engraved on glass is almost invisible in ordinary room light, just like the actual nuclear sites have become invisible in our ordinary lives, due to our indifference, the fading, weathered memories of the past, and the fact that these tragedies have happened “somewhere else”, far away from most of us. But we need to see, and be reminded of, these invisible sites, for the sake of our future, and the future of the next generation.

Left: Kate Helms, Colony I (2016), Mixed media, Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Colony I centers on fantasies of the contents of a luxuriously ornate home being dismantled by the climatic effects of sea level rise and tossed into the ocean, where they become artificial reefs for barnacle and sponge-like encrustations. In contrast to widespread coral bleaching, which causes vast swaths of coral reefs to rapidly perish into milky oblivion, these new species spontaneously evolve to thrive in the changing environment. Incorporating Victorian furniture, the work references an era in which humans substantially contributed to climate change by adding heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Building on the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian Era was all about extravagance. About channeling industrialization to support lives of ornately embellished opulence, environment be damned. Victorians in London were choking on the soot and smoke from the very coal-fueled industries that supported their luxurious lifestyles. It was certainly not the first time that humans had lived so lavishly, nor the first time that the environment took a substantial hit for it, but it may perhaps be the most notorious.

Right: Foreground: Babs Reingold, The Last Sea (2018), Silk Organza, rust, tea, human hair, dryer lint, encaustic, cheesecloth, leather string, thread, yarn, wood, modeling paste, charcoal, old nails and plastic trash, Background: Painting With Bag No.1 (2016 – 18), Modeling paste, dry pigment, paper, rust, tea, graphite, charcoal, colored pencil, cotton organza, on canvas on wood panel, Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Human fragility in the face of climate change jolted to the forefront in 2005 when I watched Hurricane Katrina devastate New Orleans and powerfully impact its less fortunate population. The next year, 2006, the environment came to fore after I heard a lecture by Jared Diamond on climate change. For the first time I linked my direction to how environment and poverty affect us all, if not tomorrow, then in future tomorrows.

Unless checked, our greed and blindness will cause all our demise. The Last Sea installation speaks to the physical manifestation of time. The objects within the boat, essentially translate the inquiry: At what point do we recognize — and act?

Left: Holly Sears, Swimmers (2011), Oil on paper, laminated on board, Photo: Courtesy of the artist

I have always been awed and inspired by the mystery and amorality of nature. My paintings deal with carefully selected subjects from my observations, visions, and experiences with the natural world. Subjects include creatures living and dead, birds, butterflies, insects, and mammals along with a selection of natural objects and elements – these all have become part of the scenes that haunt my thoughts and make up the images I create. I investigate the kinship between my envisioned nature and its inhabitants and their physical and spiritual machinations and intrigues. I see the natural world filled with both unconscious and symbolic rituals and phenomena. My paintings are meant to give insight into this often unseen world and a heightened awareness that challenges our assumptions about the world around us.

Right: left to right: Robin Perry Dana, The Sky Turned Dark (2016), Archival pigment print; Jeannnine Hascall, Emerging Silhouette (2018), fiber, Photo: Courtesy of Leslie Curran Gallery

Leslie Curran Gallery

Finally, I would like to bring attention to another significant Gallery in St. Petersburg. Leslie Curran Gallery, a much needed fine art institution showcases art that goes beyond the saccharine-type submissions of seagulls, sails and shoreline. Their current exhibition, an impressive two-person show, features works by photographer and video artist Robin Perry Dana and mixed media fabric/assemblage artist Jeannine Hascall. The exhibition, which is titled Nouvelle Vague, offers Perry Dana’s quietly compelling art that captures the magic of the everyday. Here, we see the simplest and purest of moments in works like The Sky Turned Dark (2016), when one can embrace the world without preconception or prejudice, where only a curious eye for the never-ending light and life all around us matters amidst hints of an awaiting storm that looms heavy above. The art of Hascall has a certain reverence for the collective soul. Emerging Silhouette (2018) reads like a harbinger of the future or a reminder of a time long past, where we are left with the faintest of memories of the impermanence of time and the staying power of enlightened thinking.

(Ended May 19, 2018)

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