Buyers' Market

Group shows offer prime opportunities for summer art-shopping

Summer is always a slow time for art galleries, mostly because artists, owners and collectors take holidays. For the unlucky patrons left steaming in the city, it's a good time to see what's been sitting in storage or is hot off the easels of newcomers and old-timers. Galleries often mount group shows of all their artists during the dog days.

Summer is a good time to buy. Works on view tend to be small in scale and therefore generally less expensive. Thus far, this season's openings have been lively and well attended. The bad news is the inventory is not moving.

Taking the latest trendy advice of economists (and the wisdom of Barnum and Bailey) the galleries are offering "experience" as much as product to draw crowds. Bleu Acier was sold out for a recent evening of live music, art and cuisine by Chef Gui. While guests happily spent $40 each for a charming evening, no one walked out with a print tucked under his or her arm. Matthews gallery owner Albert Burruezo draws up to 700 people at his openings, where there is live music, refreshments and the doors stay open until at least 10 p.m. But he's not quitting his day job.

I'll tell you about the art now if you'll go out and buy some, OK? The idea of building Tampa's "creative culture" starts with writing a check for some real art and hanging it on your wall. Covivant Gallery's "100 Smacks," with all art under $100, closed Sunday night (with a party, of course), so you will probably have to spend a bit more to enhance your collection.

Current Tampa shows run the gamut from nasty to tasteful. (I'll cover Pinellas galleries in an upcoming issue.) Three venues are currently showing work ranging from new unknowns to internationally recognized names.

• Clayton Gallery (4105 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-831-8753) represents the old guard of Tampa Bay galleries, showcasing mature Florida artists whose works fit within comfortable modernist and contemporary genres. This year, Clayton will again present its artists' pieces in two Hot Summer shows. Owner Cathy Clayton signs artists whose work, while not often challenging, is always intelligent and usually gorgeous. Gallery manager Mark Feingold selected and installed the current show.

There are seamlessly painted cloudscapes by Cassandra James, which somehow escape being trite. There are Susan Klein's Van Gogh-esque Florida landscapes in brilliant color. Also: Craig Rubadoux's liquidly abstracted hounds and John Reimer's Calder-homage mobiles. Rebecca Larson's photographic pieces stand out with their incredible craft and subtlety. She builds her own cameras, makes her own paper and sews it all together with Southern gothic sensibility and personal reminiscence.

• At Kama Gallery (2929 N. 15th Street, Ybor City, 813-251-6939), the work is simply bad. Bad Art for Bad People is a group of lowbrow artists, untrained and unrestrained, promoted by artist Bob White. Two of the members, Oscar and Dismas, fill Kama's loft space with drawn and painted icons of blasphemy, obscenity and death. Dismas' gray works are peopled with skeletons, Christs, Madonnas and more skeletons. Oscar's colorful work has bursting hearts, black lungs and hilarious warnings about prescription drugs and consumer corruption.

The show is titled The Ramblings of Madmen. The images could have been sketches on paper torn from the artists' grade school notebooks. (Although the teacher would've been scandalized by the doodlings of these bad boys. I guess that's the point.)

Gallery director Katherine Kearney offers her space to young artists who would have a hard time finding a venue elsewhere. Sales are not brisk, but this is a labor of love. Her day job now is teaching middle school, where she just might discover the next outsider artist.

• Around the corner at Bleu Acier (109 W. Columbus Drive, Tampa, 813-272-9746), we go from lowbrow to the highbrow world of serious mid-career European and emerging American artists. Still, even here we find a wall of drawings featuring dildos and indeterminate body parts, much of the drawing done in fine-tip marker on pink photocopier paper. Their creator? The highly schooled Neil Bender, who has an MFA from the University of Georgia, and is a painting professor at the University of South Florida.

Erika Schneider, a master printer who works with international artists, created Bleu Acier, a live/work/exhibit space to exhibit major artists and publish fine art prints. The current show includes work by French artists Dominique Labauvie (Schneider's husband), whose sculpture has been commissioned by the city of Paris, and painter Pierre Mabille. Labauvie presents steel maquettes for monumental outdoor works and sensitive black-and-white drawings. Mabille's paintings on paper, consisting of repeated lines of waves, at once suggest minimalist abstraction and landscape.

Also on view are prints by Sylvie Eyberg, Belgium's representative to the 2003 Venice Biennale, and German artist Max Neumann, all printed by Schneider. Eyberg's photogravures from her "Love Stories" series are found photographs that she reshoots and textualizes. Neumann's figurative monotypes achieve the richest black backgrounds interrupted by rubbing and solvents printed on rare Japanese hand-made paper.

Tampa does have a gallery scene and it is not asleep for the summer. There is funky, bad, important, beautiful, scary and pretty work for you to look at and live with.

If it seems that I'm shaming you for enjoying the free food and drink and live music without writing a check, it's because I am. There is no obligation to buy something every time you visit a gallery. But if you aren't buying, don't complain to me about the lack of culture and value placed on art in Tampa.

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