Nomads

[5]art finds yet another temporary home; Sam Gilliam returns to UT

click to enlarge KEEP WALKING: A still from Carolina Sardi's digital video projection "Walking Towards Water." - Carolina Sardi
Carolina Sardi
KEEP WALKING: A still from Carolina Sardi's digital video projection "Walking Towards Water."

For everyone who has ever felt like life's vaunted journey is really more of a cycle of endless repetition, here's one for you.

In a short, looping video, artist Carolina Sardi endlessly traverses the same stretch of sandy beach, her dainty, red-manicured toes leading the way, green wrap skirt flapping in the wind. She's a tropical Venus, attempting in vain to rejoin the sea, or maybe just an artist casting around for a way to describe visually how she feels inside. One thing's for sure: Each time she reaches her goal — water — cut, she begins again. Is it a heavenly journey or some kind of well-accessorized hell?

In context, the recurring passage also suggests a metaphor for the experiences of [5]art, the nomadic, Tampa-based collective now hosting a show of Sardi's work in an empty Ybor storefront. The group of four artist-curators (they started as five, hence the name) has bounced from place to place in search of a home base, only to be told they must begin again.

Last October, they emerged at Silver Meteor Gallery in Ybor, helping owner Michael A. Murphy spruce up his worn — but much-loved — bungalow and black box theater in exchange for exhibition space. (And when Hat Trick Theatre Productions' season of performances there concludes, more art shows may follow.) After the Silver Meteor stint, they took part in a massive open house at West Tampa's 1906 Gallery. Then they moved to their current space just off Seventh Avenue next to Laughing Cat Restaurant.

Now the nomads — squatters, well-heeled art revolutionaries, whatever you want to call them: HCC Ybor art professor Tracy Midulla and artists Kurt Piazza, John Russell and Tyler Jopek — have had enough of wandering, but the decision to stay is not theirs to make.

Their plight illustrates the troubles of many a nascent arts organization. A generous landlord — but not one so charitable as to outright give them the space on a permanent basis — will let them stay in the current storefront until he finds a tenant. In the meantime, the group would desperately like to book the kind of established artists that draw a high level of interest but also require high standards: stability, security, maybe even the potential for sales.

Their current exhibit is a step in that direction. Two videos and half a dozen delicate pastel drawings by Argentina-born, Miami-based Carolina Sardi give a taste of her latest work in those media. She's better known, especially in Europe, as a sculptor of minimalist, biomorphic and geometric shapes in metal that seem to suggest elemental forms — the egg, the forest, the sky — with the barest hint of representation. (Her 2005 exhibit at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo was conceived by Piazza, formerly the museum's registrar.)

Work by Florida State University professor Scott Groeniger couldn't be more different; his work tackles thorny issues, like globalization, in new media. Three digital collages of photographs taken in China's Taiyuan City draw stark attention to the uncontrolled development that has endangered that city's water supply and air quality. The "60-40 series," as Groeniger refers to the images, alludes with subtle irony to the Chinese practice of collectively agreeing, to enable polite conversation, that Mao Zedong's legacy was 60 percent good and 40 percent bad. (Insert Bush joke here.) The pictures would seem to suggest a different ratio.

That the two artists present works in video, of which there is a severe shortage in the Bay area — Groeniger's depicts Chinese soldiers engaged in a heartrendingly absurd ballet of military exercises — is a welcome addition to the local arts scene. Thanks to [5]art for bringing them.

"If you work where you're wanted," says Sam Gilliam, "you have a hell of a time."

That explains why the 73-year-old painter is on his third visit from his home in Washington, D.C., to the University of Tampa's STUDIO-f, a collaborative printmaking residency where staff and students interact with well-known artists. Count another time when he visited the now defunct Berghoff-Cowden Editions in 1994, and Gilliam's printmaking junkets to Tampa number four; master printer Carl Cowden, who now manages the UT program, lured him back for this month's visit.

In both frequency and renown, Gilliam sits near the top of a list of UT visiting artists that includes Ed Paschke, Audrey Flack and Miriam Schapiro. Since the 1960s, he's been hailed for taking color field painting and abstract expressionism to new territories: creating bright, three-dimensional paintings on draped or bunched canvas; folding canvas laden with wet paint to make marks; sewing pieces together, inspired by his mother's quilting; even combining abstract, photographic images into his unique prints.

At UT, an exhibit of Gilliam's prints and paintings from the 1990s will be updated this week when he finishes the new STUDIO-f prints; go on Friday for the unveiling and an opportunity to meet the artist. When I visited last week, he was calmly but efficiently toiling away, directing a UT student with the point of a finger and a smile to deposit a dollop of paint before raking through it with a tooth-edged scraper (in lieu of a brush) and showing another student how to sew two prints together. He builds up each piece with layer upon layer of acrylic paint texturized with cement to create vivid, crusty images.

Stop for a minute to watch a CBS-produced video news segment on Gilliam circa 1995 that's included in the exhibit, and see his jaw-dropping installation of painted canvases draped from the atrium ceiling of the Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria in midtown Manhattan (a space, incidentally, that soon may no longer be funded by the corporation). Some people have faulted Gilliam, who is black, for not taking the opportunity presented by his success to address social issues in his work. To my thinking, such issues may not have an explicit presence, but if a 40-year career devoted tirelessly to creating beautiful images doesn't have social implications, I don't know what does.

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