Biographical Touchstones

The art of Rose Marie Prins and Kevin Kuenzel

"Suttee, Moths and the Bomb: a Trinity" by Rose Marie Prins

Some of the strongest art currently showing in the Tampa Bay area is the work of South African-born Eckerd professor of art, Rose Marie Prins. In mounting New Works, The Galleries at Salt Creek curator Lance Rodgers recognized uncanny formal affinities between the art of architect Kevin Kuenzel and Prins, particularly when an economy of elements is evident. Nevertheless, these are two separate solo exhibitions.

Prins' small, elegant mixed-media wall pieces — hinting of a powerful underlying aesthetic language — caught my eye at Brad Cooper Gallery's summer anniversary show (Cooper discovered Prins). After viewing her work at Eckerd College's Bookarts exhibition, once again I flagged Prins as an artist to keep an eye on.

Her Salt Creek solo show, her first in this area, includes 28 wall-hung canvases, many dyed, cut, collaged, then coated with surface-hardening encaustic. Along with these are drawings on paper, plus three delicate, pedestaled sculptures.

Also on view, the thoughtful, conceptual installation titled "Suttee, Moths and the Bomb: a Trinity." It was previously shown in a more expansive space at Atlanta's Raymond Lawrence Gallery, where it received respected critical notice. Here it deserves a larger space (which Rodgers would also have preferred).

A small, tented enclosure is dedicated to the East Indian ritual known as Suttee (widows burned alive at their husband's death). Inside, our footprints mark the sandy floor. Suspended by nylon fishing line: gently-moving Prins-crafted "moths," composites of found objects like bone, seed pods, wood and nails — stabilized by wax and resin. A 3-foot floor candle burns from an oil lamp hidden inside. The artist explains that an evolutionary failure to adapt lures moths directly into fire, thus these symbolic elements become metaphors for the doomed women. On a broader scale, it focuses on the suffering of contemporary Middle Eastern women.

The artist's rationale connects with a number of poignant biographical experiences spanning two continents. Growing up "white" in the insulated, Apartheid-dominated atmosphere of Johannesburg, South Africa, she eventually rejected her Baptist faith that omitted blacks from the brotherly love precept. "We could love our neighbors," she explains, "as long as they were white. Not the black who worked in your kitchen." Remnants of this personal religious conflict surface in the motif of the cross, which she uses abundantly, though not irreverently.

Another biographical touchstone relates to the "Bomb" in the installation title and to the artist's anxiety with the Cold War. During the 1980s, when the threat of nuclear annihilation still loomed, Prins lived in the Trinity Site area near Los Alamos, the atomic bomb testing grounds.

Though her visual language speaks to some of the most powerful sociopolitical issues of our time, she also "reveres process." Hers is cathartic, with surprisingly violent aesthetic impulses like gouging, burning or slashing. "Wounding" the canvas is followed by "healing" rituals with copper wire stitches, a legacy of watching her mother and grandmother, both expert seamstresses. Yet the stitching seems more philosophically empowered than a feminine gesture.

In part two of New Works, Kevin Kuenzel's 20 wall-hung assemblages fill the lobby gallery. He's part of a legion of architects now integrating architecture and art objects.

His objects take many forms: small, wooden, illogical towers that question boundaries between architecture and sculpture, and a metronome-like piece expressing postmodern absurdity. In "Manifesto," marbles placed in satisfying formal configurations affirm the architect's internal sense of order, proportion and beauty.

This exhibition would be far stronger with more visual and aesthetic coherence, especially between the wood-based pieces and the metals and marbles. Similarly, disparate framing detracts from the artist's own sense of order and proportion.

The Galleries at Salt Creek, a model for gallery and studio space, and a major competitor for emerging artist exhibitions, is located not more than a minute from the art galleries on Central Avenue and 20 minutes from downtown Tampa.


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