Florida gone wild

Mark Messersmith's fierce creatures.

click to enlarge FLIGHT PLAN: Birds navigate colorful congestion in "Golden Forest, " by Mark Messersmith, with carved wooden top part and ladder with mixed-media predella box on bottom. - Courtesy The Artist
Courtesy The Artist
FLIGHT PLAN: Birds navigate colorful congestion in "Golden Forest, " by Mark Messersmith, with carved wooden top part and ladder with mixed-media predella box on bottom.

Describing Mark Messersmith's artwork without getting caught up in clichés about art and the Sunshine State poses a challenge. His paintings are filled to bursting with vivid depictions of Florida wildlife, but they're hardly of the genre you might expect. Viewers will find no gently luminous watercolors of spoonbills at sunset or pastels of white sand beaches. While even masters of wildlife painting (say, Christopher Still or Ernie Simmons) are anathema to some contemporary art lovers — for whom paintings of pelicans and sand dollars are like a scarlet letter to be borne by Floridians in this age of conceptual art — Messersmith is 21st-century safe.

That's because the creatures in his paintings — a taxonomic array of fierce raptors, majestic egrets, burly bears, leathery gators, hungry coyotes and more — serve as much more than objectified eye candy. Rendered in brilliant, sometimes fluorescent, color and set against backgrounds of encroaching human development, these animals are robust, struggling beings with a pre-modern aura of spiritual potency. They are wild; they were here first — and they ought to send a little shiver down your spine that no watercolor spoonbill ever could.

Last week, the first of a pair of Bay area exhibits that explore Messersmith's nationally recognized work opened in Lakeland at the Polk Museum of Art. Thirteen of the artist's paintings spanning the past decade are currently on view, and Friday evening offers an opportunity to hear Messersmith speak about his work in conjunction with an opening reception. In May, the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo debuts a group show of work by Messersmith and his Florida State University colleagues Lillian Garcia-Roig and Ray Burgraff.

Since he arrived in 1985 from the Midwest to teach at FSU — where he's still on the faculty 13 years later — Messersmith has seized upon Florida's natural environment, its simultaneous endangerment and irrepressible life, as his subject. While open-air landscape studies with friends provide a way to practice technique, most of the paintings come together in his studio, where he envisions elaborate compositions informed by real life. Without illustrating particular events, Messersmith draws inspiration from the horrors of commercial and residential development, like the clear-cutting of forests to build subdivisions with ironically pastoral names. But Messersmith doesn't just create a picture of an idea; instead, he inscribes wildlife into existence, a process more closely related to prehistoric cave painting than modern image-making.

"These are creatures who do what they can with the hand they are dealt," Messersmith explains. "[They] eat and get eaten without any real moral problems about it. They're survivors."

The paintings are less about the creatures themselves than the way we, as humans, see them. Influenced by detailed illustrations in medieval manuscripts and altarpieces, Messersmith complements his paintings with a border of shadowbox "predellas" at the base of the canvas, as well as carved wood sculptures of more creatures at the top; sometimes a sculptural element, like the handmade ladder that hangs from "Golden Forest" (2008), rests directly on the surface of the painting. Children intuitively engage with the predella boxes, which are filled with smaller paintings and sculpture, Messersmith says, though they might not comprehend the macabre undertones of the main panel. Adults, however, may take away a more harrowing message.

"As humans, you think we'd start questioning at some point why we are here," Messersmith says. But he's quick to disavow preaching any particular gospel, preferring to pose questions instead — and to concentrate on the artwork.

"I don't think of the paintings as ways of enlightening people," he says. "Maybe that's the difference between painting as artwork and painting as propaganda."

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