The University of Tampa's Scarfone/Hartley Gallery seems to have hit upon a recipe for success: Take a trio of graduates who earned their bachelor's degrees at the school, then went on to graduate study in the visual arts elsewhere; invite them back for an exhibit as they're embarking on full-fledged careers as artists. Last year, UT brought three talented painters back for just such a show — Lippo Parades, featuring Gerald Collings, David Giansante and Daniel Hesidence — and it was one of the best small gallery shows I've seen, well ... period — not just in Tampa or at UT. The result was at least as good as (if not markedly better than) anything you'd see on a typical tour of New York's Chelsea galleries.
The same premise has succeeded in producing the gallery's current three-person show. Intriguing abstract paintings by Marc Mitchell pair nicely with adventurous, ambitious sculpture by Roger Chamieh and Kendra Frorup. Here's an exhibit that could hold its own in Chicago's Fulton Market art district or Miami's Wynwood but sits in a lesser-known Tampa space where mainly UT students tread. (Full disclosure: I teach some of them as an adjunct instructor at UT.)
Imagination links the three bodies of work thematically. Expressions of curiosity and memory are tinged with the slightly morbid, morose and ironic perspectives of adulthood. It's part aim and part accident that the work of all three artists shares equally in this dialog. Dorothy Cowden, the gallery's director, says she knew Mitchell, Chamieh and Frorup would be good in conversation together but left it up to them to send their best recent work. Remarkably, the show coheres as if it had been painstakingly designed.
Mitchell's paintings inspire thoughtful contemplation as well as visceral enjoyment. A 2000 UT graduate — with a finance degree, no less — he's the youngest of the three. He went on to graduate from Boston University's MFA program in 2003 and currently oversees the art gallery at BU. In the hallways of UT's R.K. Bailey Art Studios (where the gallery is located), art by former students dots the walls, which makes it possible to glimpse a pair of Mitchell's undergraduate paintings and get a feel for his progress as a painter. In the recent works on view, he creates the illusion of habitable space with teasingly flat shapes and colors, often playing with what the eye will read as depth and structure. In the vein of Elsworth Kelly meets Giorgio De Chirico, a ghostly sense of presence haunts these spaces, even as they dissolve into ellipses and rectangles. Mitchell's exploration of color and texture relationships is his own unique contribution; the complex layering and juxtaposition of organic browns and deep blacks with eye-popping greens, oranges and pinks gives the canvases a magnetic power.
The works of Chamieh, who returned to live in Tampa after earning an MFA at Syracuse University in the late '90s, have strong roots in the artist's personal life: specifically, the recent birth of his daughter. "Universe" brings this point home powerfully — and also transcends the biographical link — as a playful monument to the sheer power of wonder. Inside an inflatable white cube, Chamieh houses a brilliant crystal chandelier surrounded by a womb-like fuchsia interior. An unassuming exterior gives way to an experience somewhere between the sublime and the absurd: Beholding the painfully bright light of the chandelier through a vaginal crevice as an air blower blasts you in the face. Equally wonderful and decidedly more understated is "Corazón," an impossibly tall and graceful birdcage-turned-wire-prison from which the artist's heart has presumably been let loose.
For all these other great pieces, Frorup's sculpture "Tickled Pink" may be the first one that grabs your attention and the last one you forget. A pink platform on wheels topped with a precarious pile of china plates and a sculpted girl's head sits atop a wooden track, waiting for visitors to push the lever that guides it in circles around a track. (Visitors are free to push the lever, but fear of toppling the dishes and, ultimately, the head will hold most people's urge in check.) Adding to the memory-as-funhouse ambience, the artist's "The Animal Tree House" suggests a peculiarly biomorphic getaway; curved cabriole legs become the critter-like supports for two tabletops joined by a fabric intestine, one end mounted high on a gallery wall. (What happens if you fall down this rabbit hole?) Monoprints by Frorup, who teaches sculpture at UT, and smaller paintings on paper by Mitchell are quiet studies in texture that create a nice pause between the exhibit's bigger wows.
This weekend, visitors can also check out a dance performance against the gallery's backdrop of art. In conjunction with Arte 2007, the Bay area-wide festival of Latin American and Caribbean art and culture, UT grads and choreographers LeKeisha Bostwick, Mohan Kulasingam and Sharell McKinney will perform with UT faculty Susan Taylor Lennon and Debra Loran to Latin beats prerecorded by music professors Libor Ondras and Grigorios Zamparas on Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m.
In conjunction with this weekend's Second Saturday Arts Walk in downtown St. Petersburg, ArtSpace hosts its annual "Deck the Halls" event (Sat., Nov. 10, 5:30-9 p.m.), which benefits Hospice. All proceeds from handmade ornaments by artists including cloisonné-master Mary Klein will go to the charity. Many artists will also donate 10 percent of fine-art sales from their studios as well. Directly below ArtSpace, Florida Craftsmen Gallery (501 Central Ave., floridacraftsmen.net) pops the top on its holiday show featuring crafts by member artists, all of whom live in Florida. Look for everything from jewelry to pottery to handmade furniture.
The Dunedin Fine Arts Center (dfac.org) likewise showcases a diverse spread of art and craft, this one drawn from a national pool of artists. And at Clayton Galleries' annual Small Works exhibit in South Tampa, every artwork on display has dimensions of 24 inches or less and comes with a smaller-scale price to match (through Jan. 12, claytongalleries.net). The exhibit includes photography, painting and sculpture by artists Rebecca Sexton Larson, Jeanne Cameron, Roberta Schofield, Bruce Marsh, Lynn Davison, Craig Rubadoux and more.