Dueling Art Departments

USF and UF students face off at Matthews Gallery

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Give me a gallery exhibition and I'll give you the gallery owner's lavish praise and enduring allegiance to the featured artists. Enterprising gallery owner, Dave Matthews, whose Matthews Art Gallery is relatively new to the downtown art scene, takes a bit of a different approach in his latest exhibition "Style and Substance." On one hand, he speaks highly of the graduate art students he is currently showing — four each from University of South Florida and University of Florida's art departments.

On the other hand, Matthews implicitly criticizes the art department and students of one of those universities, though he doesn't say which one. In his press release, he states, "One group might be more concerned with how their art looks to the world, and the other more concerned how the world looks 'in their art.'"

As far as the public is concerned, the scales are weighted because the art in the front gallery, where UF student work is featured, is treated with far more care than the art in the back, the area chosen by USF students. The back gallery is burdened with a copious, crowded, all-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, with so much art that the overflow is fastened to temporary supports and easels. In this respect the back feels like an alternative gallery, rather than the downtown established variety that I believe it wants to be.

So much for style — the gallery's that is.

Now for substance. Dave Matthews, who also operates a framing business, has an eye for new art. And he's absolutely right to call USF student Brad Kokay a standout. Kokay's original vision is evident through fascinating, mostly figurative collage and decoupage works on wood. Kokay's subject matter has no boundaries; it features cut out imagery, such as skeletalized creatures, reels of film, deserted city streets and landscape vistas. By opening night, Kokay had produced 500 of these miniature imaginative narratives. And priced at $40 each (an up), they apparently sold like hotcakes. In several larger works, the artist's paint on collage is far less effective than his wonderfully obsessive and sometimes bizarre accumulations of minute imagery. Nevertheless, one hopes future Kokay exhibitions will feature a more cohesive approach to this interesting artist.

I also liked Matthews' choice of painter Michael Parker, another artist with an entirely individual sensibility. If Kokay's work exhibits the horror vacuii (fear of empty places) syndrome, Parker is poles away, pitting his peculiar little characters against a spatial vacuum or empty field. (We are reminded of A. A. Rucci's miniature figures seen in Matthews Gallery's opening exhibition last fall.) In one Parker work, two small heads emerge from a large body of water, evoking themes of isolation. Incidentally, Richard Vine, managing editor of Art in America, for the recent Arts Center juried show, chose one of his images. But seeing his ensemble here obviously permits a broader perspective for this original vision.

The other featured USF artists are Marie Yoho Dorsey and Monica Hatcher. Dorsey, an award-winning artist with a profound interest in memory as subject matter, describes herself as an installation artist who combines photographs, prints, sculpture and ikebana (the art of expressing ideas and nature through flower arrangements), which she studied in Japan. In this show, her lyrical cyano type tree prints illustrate that combined sensibility.

Within this diverse melange of student art, Hatcher's photographs inject the contemporary female figure. Several different series of small images are shown with overlapping transparencies or photos under glass with scrawled text. Like the Kokay presentation, far too many images fill this small space.

Up front, in UF territory, we're drawn to James Ehlers' prints, especially his outstanding and accomplished acquatint, Untitled (with Dead Bird). Although his two painted self-portraits detract from the print series.

Jiri Lonsky's expressionistic ceramic creatures, the "human animal," synthesize an animal body with human angst. If you ever wonder to what lengths a gallery owner will go for an artist, take a peek at Renee Wirtz's Bobbsey Twins, a tiny illusionistic diorama that Matthews actually installed within a gallery wall. Molly Brauhn's serigraph series offers refuge from all the emotive power.

The Matthews Gallery opened last fall and chose an eclectic exhibition path by alternating contemporary art with the more traditional. Owner Dave Matthews is finding his niche and making himself heard. For the downtown cultural arts district to succeed, we need gallery owners like Matthews.Figuratively SpeakingEvery once in a while a beautiful, realistically rendered figurative art object pops up in the local circuit. In the last week I saw three. Clayton Galleries' summer show includes Lynn Davison's acrylic on canvas figure. Here's an opportunity to see why Davison is consistently at the top of the charts for Florida figurative painters. (Clayton Galleries, 4105 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-831-3753.)

At Brad Cooper Gallery I was pleased that Willard Lustenader's oil on linen female figure is still on view. This is not to be missed. (Brad Cooper Gallery, 1712 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City, 813-248-6098.)

On your next visit to Tampa Museum of Art, take note of the newly installed (though it's a temporary spot) Audrey Flack statue, Bella Appolonia. The Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners through its Public Art Program commissioned this beautiful bronze statue in 2001. On long-term loan to the museum, the statue will eventually be placed outside the new museum. It was designed to honor the late Louise Kotler, one of the founding members of the County's Public Art Committee, longtime Tampa Museum of Art Board Member and passionate arts patron.

Flack, known for decades for her groundbreaking photo-realist paintings, was the first artist to have a photo-realist work accepted into the MoMA in 1966. After abandoning painting and turning to sculpture in the early 1980s, she has focused on a series of goddess statues that synthesize powerful personal beliefs and art historical issues. Bella Appolonia combines the grace of ancient statuary with the unexpected drips of paint, legacy of Flack's fellow painter, Jackson Pollock.

Bella Appolonia is a welcome addition to a museum known for ancient artifacts. Its contemporized image will help link that past to our present. (Tampa Museum of Art, 600 N. Ashley Drive, Tampa, 813-274-8130 or www.TampaMuseum.com.)

Adrienne M. Golub can be reached at [email protected].

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