James Michaels' pop art introduces new audiences to St. Petersburg's James Museum

The Tampa Bay resident's eclectic work combines multiple styles.

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Through May 22

The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art

150 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.

727-892-4200, thejamesmuseum.org.

click to enlarge James Michaels' pop art introduces new audiences to St. Petersburg's James Museum
Artwork by James Michaels. Photo by Todd Bates

With its special exhibition, James Michaels: An American Pop Life, St. Pete’s new James Museum goes beyond its western borders and expands its appeal to art lovers of all stripes. It’s a retrospective of Bay Area artist James Michaels’ 40-year career, from his early pop art works of the ‘70s, to his more recent forays into contemporary realism. 

“Many of these paintings are from the James’s own collection,” said Emily Kapes, the museum’s curator. “They’ve been collecting Michaels work since the ‘80s, since they first saw his work. They established a relationship, and now Tom and Mary James own about 100 of his paintings, including a few from the ‘70s.”

Originally from New York, Michaels made the Tampa Bay area his home in the ‘70s, working as a cartoonist and artist at the Tampa Tribune. A couple of pieces in this exhibit celebrate his time at the Trib, and most are from the James’ private collection, while others are from the Tampa Museum of Art and the Polk Museum of Art. 

Michaels is well-known in the area for his self-portraits, and the exhibit includes several, subtly changing with the artist’s life. In “J.M. 1990,” the artist, wearing a white shirt and suspenders, stares directly ahead, framed on either side by skulls. It’s quite realistic, in the style Michaels has named “painterly realism.” It’s basically colorless, rendered in browns and white that give it the sepia-tone of an old photograph.

Another in this same monochromatic style is “The Stoning of St. Stephen,” depicting a group of men in white suits pelting rocks at one of their own huddled on the ground, receiving these blows. 

“We call these his men in suits,” explained Kapes. “Michaels spent some time in the white-collar world, and he didn’t like it, so these are expressions of that experience.” 

The exhibit also offers many examples of Michaels’ other distinct style he calls “pop expressionism,” where he has fun with a playful mix of advertising icons and cartoon characters. For example, “Popeye Picasso” features a classic Popeye surrounded by brightly-colored pop-culture images, including a Picasso-like profile of a swarthy man in a striped shirt. 

It’s always interesting to see that an artist who uses pop icons can also render in classical style, and Michaels can. His businessmen are strikingly exact, and the faces are all handsome, generic and model-like, properly positioned to look like an amalgam of art and ad. When placed next to a pop expressionist example, it highlights his ability to switch between two different styles.

In “Skippy,” he juxtaposes toys and cartoons next to a couple of images of Van Gogh. In “Howdy Doody Dutch,” he brings out childhood memories of old TV shows, and the iconic image of the Dutch girl from the cleanser his mother used. 

When Michaels injured his back severely in 1988, he was unable to paint for several months. However, he put his time to good use by exploring art history, discovering his attraction to Baroque art. He quickly decided to try out some new techniques, such as the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, and the allegorical works of Rembrandt and Velasquez.

Unlike other artists delving into pop art in its heyday, Michaels continues to use these iconic images to enhance his paintings, creating works in both of his styles simultaneously. In addition, he also shows his skills in his use of paint, working in an impasto on a floral painting, and using a layered technique on others. One interesting piece features a classical madonna and child, rendered in sepia, against a black background with almost Victorian roses and tiny daisies. It’s these surprises that make the show unpredictable, much like the artist himself.  

The James Michaels exhibit inaugurates the exhibit space the James Museum has set aside for special art that may step outside the boundaries of the western and wildlife art the museum is known for. 

“It’s a special exhibit space where we can showcase emerging artists, and Florida artists,” said Kapes. “Tom and Mary James have collected more than 3,000 pieces, and they are very broad, not everything is western or wildlife.”

The Jameses want to support the community, so they are eager to attract visitors by offering a variety of art in the special exhibit gallery. 

“We want everyone to enjoy art, so we will have shows in this gallery that can appeal to art lovers who may not care for the western style,” said Kapes. 

“We’re looking at our exhibition calendar now,” said Kapes. “We’re just excited to have this show in the space… its imagery is so recognizable and fun.”

The James Museum offers $10 Tuesdays, on which day they’re open until 8 p.m., with special programming for visitors.

“It will be different each Tuesday,”said Kapes. “We’ll have music, or a talk… and it’s affordable because we want everyone to enjoy art and the museum.” 

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