Legacy Rising

Gala Corina comes of age

click to enlarge SPECTRAL: A gelatin silver print by Ron Ricardo - HEATHER MC CLEAF
SPECTRAL: A gelatin silver print by Ron Ricardo

I doubt most of us are paying attention when the seemingly ordinary converts into the stuff of legends. Art history is full of such instances. Like Duchamp's upside-down urinal, transformed, quirkily, into a sometimes revered art object, or Warhol's "Factory" mutating into an epicenter of the pop-culture revolution.

The Big Apple has not cornered art trivia; even the Tampa Bay area has its share of personalities, artists groups or events that have significantly altered the cultural landscape and may be destined to become the substance of future lore, or are halfway there already. David Audet's recently revived, funky Cuban Sandwich Show fits the bill. So does Titanic Anatomy, Experimental Skeleton, Covivant Gallery's rise to cutting-edge central, and in St. Pete, the Vitale Brothers' storied Odyssey show at the now-defunct Fusion Gallery. In truth, all bets are off as to what survives or what becomes eligible for the monumental art historical dustbin.

I was musing about all of this while attending the fourth annual Gala Corina, the art exhibition/happening at Tampa Heights' Sanctuary, formerly the historic Tyre Temple. Seventy visual artists are showing — some established, some emerging, and some fresh faces making their debut. I couldn't help but wonder if and how this energetic grass-roots exhibition will be remembered.

In the mid-1990s, Tampa architect John Langley, with a residence and art studio in Palmetto Beach's Corina Cigar Factory, realized that the old building was a natural for showing art, including his own steel sculpture. Discussions with fellow architect Mike Calvino sealed the idea — after which the two, plus artists Amy Rouse and Heather McCleaf, formed Gala Corina.

In year one, 22 artists showed, all invited informally, and representing most media. Five hundred attendees signaled that the founders had tapped into something significant.

After the first event, architect/painter Alex Bothos joined the core group, as did artists Andrej Kroslak and Francesco (father and son), Edgar Sanchez Cumbas, and arts consultant Sophia Nakis.

The group fashioned a philosophy extolling the union of art and life, plus art activities "outside the traditional gallery structure." This meant continuing with annual exhibitions, particularly within architecturally engaging spaces. Their instincts were correct. The union of art and architecture is currently as evidenced in major art museum construction across the country and major national art exhibitions. The 2002 Whitney Biennial's contemporary art survey, for example, featured sculpture and drawing based on architectural underpinnings.

Inspired by their auspicious beginnings, the original Gala Corina movers and shakers, in collaboration with other local design groups, have organized a show every year. It's an enormous project that requires months of preparation for a limited exhibition time.

In 2000, 43 artists exhibited in an 8,000-square-foot Ybor warehouse. An estimated 1,500 attended. Interior spaces were configured with fiberglass panels from the University of South Florida's Sun Dome, continuing the symbolism of architecture's link to art. This was the first Gala I attended. I came away thinking about noble endeavors and obvious energy, though the art was a mixed bag.

By 2001, Gala Corina III, directed by architectural consortium the VIA Group, featured 74 artists spread throughout three floors of West Tampa Bustillo y Diaz Cigar Factory. Opening night attendance estimates ranged from 2,500 to 3,000. The street was abuzz with security police directing traffic; guests were packed in and flowing down the front stoop, all of which generated a wonderfully contagious energy. After the show, organizers sponsored a community cookout, free art classes and a group mural project for neighborhood children.

The quality of the art had definitely improved, with local architect David Bailey's charcoal drawings among the standouts. In terms of effort and energy, Gala Corina was on a roll.

That takes us up to this week's Gala Corina IV, for several reasons the best of the three I've seen.

First, the building. From the outside, the Tyre Temple oozes historic charm and huge, peeling columns. Inside, the enormous, high-domed Sanctuary is under renovation by the 2002 sponsor, the Atelier Group, and will become office space. Beautiful stain-glass windows (best viewed in daylight) adorn the side walls. Loft apartments will fill other spaces.

Opening night brought out an estimated 2,500-3,000, with people spreading throughout two floors. Under the dome, folks swayed to jazz punctuated with a tribal beat. Drinks in hand, they enjoyed a USF dance troupe and paint-to-music performances.

Contrasting with last year's central corridor bottleneck, Calvino worked with the Atelier architects to make architectural space compatible with the need for wall space and swarms of art lovers. Their collaboration led to intimate nooks perfect for showing individual artists or groups. One resourceful solution: covering unfinished wooden wall frames with inexpensive butcher paper; the result mimics Japanese Shoji screens.

Ultimately, Gala Corina IV tops previous years because the art is significantly better and reflects a curator's recognizable aesthetic sensibility. Though artists were selected by group consensus, responsibility for curating and installation was bestowed on Cumbas, a fine artist in his own right, and an annual exhibitor. Gala Corina has arrived at an artistic maturity that will now be the standard for its future. With amateur night purged, a new level of professionalism makes the event a show to watch. What a difference a year makes.

The wide variety of art includes few cutting-edge entries. Photography is particularly strong, especially Colette Eddy's color infrared images and Lori Ballard's wonderfully surreal black-and-white infrared images. Infrared film reads light unpredictably, thus intensifying lights and darks and creating an otherworldly essence. Also look for Ron Ricardo's fine gelatin silver print figures, Tacy Brigg-Troncoso's sensitive nature study, and Justin Smith's interesting focus on the void between forms. Jennifer Saavedra's innovatively mounted archival digital prints on vinyl lend a contemporary flair to figures exuding a melancholy feel.

I also liked Tracy Midulla's figurative collograph prints with just a touch of symbolism, each textured and brushed with shellac. Midulla, who teaches art, is fairly new to the exhibition scene.

There are several interesting painting contrasts, all using the figure: Tom Kettner's heavily impastoed "Three Graces," William Talenti's meticulously dissected figurative forms, Cumbas' isolated figures, and Francesco's faces engulfed within claustrophobic and abstract forms. Dragoslav Milic's well-painted, in-your-face image of Marilyn Monroe conveys her sensuality through oils.

The biggest surprise was Guillermo Portieles' shift from showing nudes (though one was included) to imaginative compositions featuring chairs — miniature sculptural chairs attached to canvas, precariously stacked chairs, and a surrealist still life with a miniature painted chair within a bowl of fruit. A versatile artist, Portieles is also a fine colorist, which is noticeable here in several paintings.

I was pleased to see Richard Beckman's new expressionistic sculptural forms of extruded steel. He's able to step out of USF professor role and continually support all aspects of the arts community, an admirable accomplishment.

There are many other works I could have singled out, which speaks well to the entire Gala Corina effort.

With good reason, the event was awarded a Planet Best of the Bay this year for its grass-roots aesthetic. Its organizers have not only enhanced the cultural life of the Bay area, but by uniting and rolling up their sleeves have demonstrated that artists do have the will and ability to make things happen for themselves.

You still have a few days to peruse the art and the building; while you're there, take some time to schmooze with the founders and artists, and ponder whether Gala Corina will end up as the stuff of legends.

Attention, art shoppers.Here's a bargain-filled heads-up for a one-day-only holiday gift shopping binge at our Tampa Bay treasure, Graphicstudio. Their benefit sale, Fri., Nov. 22, 7-10 p.m., will offer discounts of 10 to 60 percent on fine prints, photographs and sculpture multiples created and produced in Tampa by world-class artists. Check out the inventory online at www.graphicstudio.usf.edu/ calendar.html

Graphicstudio, part of USF's College of Visual and Performing Arts, was founded in 1968 as an experimental, research-oriented workshop. Over 60 leading national and international artists have created more than 400 limited edition fine art works.

All sales benefit Graphicstudio's research and education programming.

Contact art critic Adrienne Golub at [email protected]

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