CASS gallery opens in South Tampa with risky work by Chris Valle

Valle's paintings mesh baroque debauchery with today's media culture.

click to enlarge POWER OF TWO: Jake and Cassie Greatens in their new South Tampa gallery space. - Brian Adams
Brian Adams
POWER OF TWO: Jake and Cassie Greatens in their new South Tampa gallery space.

Breaking into art dealing isn’t easy, but Jake and Cassie Greatens are giving it a go.

On Friday, the couple opens CASS: Contemporary Art Space Studio, a new gallery on MacDill Avenue in South Tampa. The two University of Tampa alums, who are married with four kids, decided to take the plunge after a European vacation clinched their longtime interest in art, museums and galleries. They renovated a 4,500-square foot storefront across the street from Michael Murphy Gallery, along a walkable stretch of MacDill, turning it into a spacious gallery with white walls and sleek concrete floors, an office and small studio for Jake, who is an artist.

“Traveling all around, we noticed that there was a void for contemporary art in Tampa,” Jake Greatens says. “Instead of us moving to a bigger city and trying to pursue it, we wanted to be on the front end here.”

For now the Greatens are taking an exploratory approach — rather than assembling a stable of artists, they’ve launched an open call for submissions. Their first exhibition opens to the public on Saturday and features work by two painters: Tampa-based Chris Valle, who teaches at UT (where he was one of Jake Greatens’ instructors), and Michael Turchin, a Miami-born LA resident whose work focuses on celebrity iconography. (For more on Turchin, see David Warner’s interview.)

“We wanted to press the envelope a little here in Tampa, maybe bring some stuff that people aren’t used to seeing,” Cassie Greatens says.

CASS’s commitment to taking on risk is borne out by its inclusion of Valle’s latest work. His new paintings depict nude, fashion model-esque women wrapped in plastic, an effect that makes them look like sexy corpses or murder victims frozen in the process of suffocation, breasts pressed revealingly against the transparent wrap. The paintings, which are fairly small and intimate, are rendered beautifully in a photorealistic style that reveals the texture of paint close up. The most recent include a barcode painted as a stamp on the plastic that enfolds each woman.

These images are bound to offend someone. (I guess the gallery is concerned; during my interview with Valle, we were shadowed by an employee from a public relations firm whose job title is “director of public perception.”) But the broader context of Valle’s work invites slowing down to consider his ongoing commentary on mass media and sexuality in prior paintings. The best of these are a series of layered canvases, “Consuming Bodies,” circa 2010-2013, which combine sepia-toned under-paintings of decadent Old Master scenes with bodies and text appropriated from contemporary fashion ads.

These paintings accomplish what they set out to do — draw a playful parallel between baroque debauchery and today’s media culture — with wit and opportunities galore to appreciate Valle’s range as a painter. For example, in “Get Some CK Jeans” (2013), he fuses a Rubens backdrop with bodies from an orgiastic Calvin Klein ad. Additional layers of abstracted faces and textures, which Valle composes in a Photoshop mock-up before painting, make the end product fascinating to look at and puzzle through.

A trio of still older paintings, circa 2008, overlay contemporary pop culture icons of hyper-sexuality — Paris Hilton, Michael Jackson, Hugh Hefner — onto early modern depictions of saints and biblical figures. (A measure of Valle’s mischievousness is that a saint’s hand appears to clutch Jackson’s crotch in one painting.) These “Altered” paintings are fun one-liners, if not as richly complex as the “Consuming Bodies.”

The new plastic wrap works eschew such levity for a more disturbing confrontation. Valle says he wants people who see the paintings to be simultaneously repulsed and attracted, and to reflect on how women are presented and circulated as meat of sorts in television and media culture. (The title of the series is “Packaged.” The painted barcodes indicate specific cuts of meat, like ­— wait for it — skirt steak.) I’ll give Valle credit for wading into taboo territory; it’s fun to have a bad boy who can paint in town. But the whiff of snuff porn, or flat out jerk-off material, coming off the paintings is strong for my taste. It’s not critical of female objectification to paint topless women who seem to be asphyxiating for the pleasure of an implied male viewer. That is female objectification.

As for CASS, I give the gallery points for getting behind a legit local talent in Valle — one that entails taking a risk — on its first outing. Let’s see where things go from here.

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