Artistic partnerships yield an impressive show at Morean Arts Center

Since I went to see Visual Unity, an exhibition at the Morean Arts Center in St. Pete, I've been thinking about it in terms of that old candy slogan: "two great tastes that taste great together" (a reference to the marriage of peanut butter and chocolate in Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, as candy fans and survivors of the 1980s will know). The show, which features work by 18 Florida-based artists, has a simple premise: pair two artists with distinct styles to create a collaborative piece (or pieces) that neither would come up with on her own.

It's a testament to the participants, certainly, but perhaps even more to the insights of curator-artist Rocky Bridges that this tricky arithmetic — one-plus-one equals more than the sum of its parts — actually works. (As anyone can attest who has ever ordered an espresso martini, the "two great tastes" proposition is one that can go disastrously awry.) When I spoke to him shortly before the show opened in November, Bridges explained that his inspiration arose from a strong sense of community among artists locally and even regionally. Recalling the many times he had experienced or witnessed a mind-altering conversation between two practitioners, he asked: "Wouldn't it be great if we had a tangible outcome of this discussion?"

The outcome of the nine collaborations showcased takes the form of sculptures, paintings, prints and various mixed media works incorporating clay, glass and found objects, spread throughout three galleries. (While their tangible manifestations are all most visitors will have access to, Bridges drops the titillating detail that behind the scenes these collaborations also birthed a gamut of emotional offspring, from frustration to romance.) The works tell their own stories — most often one of impressively fecund creative exchange.

Thanks to the inclusion of works by each individual artist as a kind of visual primer for appreciation of the collaborative projects, viewers needn't come equipped with knowledge of the styles and practices in play to appreciate the end results. However, the pleasure of unexpected combination will be all the sweeter for viewers who do recognize the work of these artists, many of whom regularly exhibit locally. For instance, Anna Tomczak's reputation as a master of photo transfer precedes her, while Lynn Whipple's whimsical, poetic mixed media works are always a welcome sight at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts (or in her Winter Park studio). Put the two together, and you get a dreamlike foray into a botanical world of fragmented memories — through the literal juxtaposition of illustrations of plants, collectibles like buttons and small glass bottles imprinted with transparent photos, and words inside a large frame. (Theirs is a mint julep collaboration — a bit on the sweet side, perhaps, but one you just can't quit.)

A match-up between Seminole Heights-based glass artist Susan Gott and painter Leslie Neumann (who resides in Aripeka) produces another arresting co-creation. Neumann's astronomy-inspired abstraction — all glowing orbs and scattered light rendered in encaustic — meets a welcome foil in Gott's glass-blowing and sand-casting. In addition to a canvas punctured with crystalline globes, the pair exhibits a three-panel piece that bookends a painting with two cast glass panels embedded with luminous portals offering a "view" of the cosmos rendered in molten glass: swirling planets and shooting stars.

Glass shines again in the collaboration between curator Bridges and artist Duncan McClellan. A luminous orange-red glass vessel — instantly recognizable as a McClellan — bears an unusual motif: a black folding chair, repeated around the vessel's curves. The image serves as a kind of visual inside joke that captures the spirit of the exhibition in a nutshell; a frequent emblem in Bridges' paintings past, the folding chair (but in red, not black) stands in for his practice as an artist — almost to the point of becoming a cliché he can't escape, Bridges says — here, playfully inverted by McClellan. The piece shares the exhibition's title, "Visual Unity." Unity, yes, but nothing like uniformity or monotony here.

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