Changing views

Looking at the world through the eyes of postmodern artists

Landscape has long been a subject for visual art, but humankind's relationship with the natural world has never been so complicated.

Technological developments like bioengineering and cloning have called into question the very distinction between natural and man-made. Imaging technologies, from satellite mapping to photo manipulation, come closer every day to simulating reality. But even as these attempts to manipulate and fabricate the natural environment seem to flourish, global warming, resource scarcity and other disasters loom to remind us that perhaps our role in nature is not so much master tinkerer as malevolent parasite.

Faced with profound uncertainty about the state of the natural environment and our role in it, how are contemporary artists using a 2,000-year-old genre to be expressive in new ways? So asks an engaging exhibit of landscapes that capture the postmodern moment at Brad Cooper Gallery in Ybor.

Corey Postiglione knows the postmodern when he sees it — after all, he's been teaching the concept, in the broader context of critical theory about visual culture, since 1990 at Columbia College Chicago. He's also been a regular visitor to the Tampa area for at least as long. (His parents live here, and he hopes to retire to the area some day.) During that time, he's paid regular visits to Brad Cooper Gallery — a venue that, as a professor, painter, curator and critic, Postiglione values for consistently exhibiting interesting work, he said.

Conversations between Postiglione and Cooper led to the idea of a juried show that the professor would judge and the gallery owner would curate and exhibit in his Seventh Avenue space. In 2002, their collaboration debuted with Nude in the Postmodern, a show that took a fresh look at the human figure in contemporary representation. This year's follow-up, Landscape in the Postmodern, sets its sights on innovative depictions of the natural environment.

When the gallery issued an international call for submissions, Postiglione hoped to find works that added something to that conversation. For the most part, he got what he was looking for in a diverse group of submissions from as far away as Australia and as near as Tampa that ranged in media from oil and acrylic to found objects and digital photography. Some works, however, showed little engagement with the postmodern. There were a lot of great landscapes that would have made it into a different kind of show, but in this context they "didn't give me any new perspective," he said.

Postiglione winnowed 100 entries down to 35 and chose a handful of prizewinners during a long day of viewing slides in a dark Chicago classroom. Entries included up to three slides by each artist, making the task at once easier and harder; seeing multiple pieces made clearer the quality and depth of each artist's work but also posed the challenge of choosing just one piece for the exhibit.

The winning artist, Chris McCauley, submitted three pieces in her signature encaustic painting technique. Two depicted grassy fields in a minimal, abstract style; the third painting was a vibrantly realistic image of water lilies, and Postiglione chose it as best of show. The use of beeswax as a medium evoked its ancient heritage in art and preservation while alluding to a contemporary problem, he said: the scarcity of untouched natural resources like the abandoned hatchery pond depicted in the painting. Combine McCauley's painstaking method of applying layer after layer of colored wax to create a translucent surface not unlike an actual pond with a visual reference to Monet, and the painting holds pleasant surprises at multiple levels.

As the winner, McCauley will receive a solo show at the gallery, probably sometime next year, Cooper said. The value of that prize, calculated on the basis of the gallery's overhead for two months, is about $8,000, he said. Other winners received cash prizes — $500 for second place and $100 each for three honorable mentions.

Brian Ritchard earned second place with one of his enigmatic "crop paintings," a format he developed by cutting his wooden "canvas" into an unconventional shape — in this case, a trio of overlapping circles that looks like a Mickey Mouse head turned on its side and suggests the roving viewpoint of a camera or telescope. The unexpected shape raises questions about conventional modes of looking and seeing, while the generic wooded landscape pictured within is teasingly unspecific.

Beverley Southcott, an Australian photographer and winner of an honorable mention, offers a manipulated digital print of a day at the beach. The sun, symbol of essential natural life par excellence, is censored by the insertion of the puzzling term "un-reel," which suggests both an ironic slang commentary and the mediated reality of the cinematic reel.

R. Scott Whipkey, another honorable mention winner, weighs in with a creepy, cartoonish landscape punctuated by an abyssal well. Here, pop art comes with as dark a subtext as its cheery exterior. Whipkey poured found house paint onto the flat panel to create the silky surface.

Though Postiglione chose the pieces in the exhibit, the most gratifying surprise was seeing them come together under Cooper's curatorial hand, he said. They turn the gallery space into a varied and dynamic conversation about the changing nature of landscape — and with works that span a price range from $500 to several grand, it's also an amazing opportunity for local collectors to grab a piece of the postmodern.

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