Shadow Dancing

Puzzles and deceptions at GCMA

If you watched the PBS program art:21 last season, you may have seen painter Laylah Ali talking about her work — in particular, about the role of race and skin coloration in her paintings. Her figures sport green, pink, and russet faces — shades that don't exactly correspond to conventional ideas of skin color — frustrating our unconscious tendency to type them as individuals according to race.

In fact, Ali hesitates to use the term "race" at all. "...sometimes I think of them as having a skin condition rather than a race. Like when your skin gets burned, it turns a different color or has a different texture — somewhere between race and skin condition," she said in comments on the art:21 website.

I mention this because figures in paintings by Edgar Sanchez Cumbas, on display at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, hover in some similar limbo between identity and affliction. Bled dry of color except where red splotches suggest tender, raw surfaces, the figures exhibit a tantalizing ambiguity when it comes to guessing who or what they are.

Twenty or so paintings in two galleries at the museum present a fragmented narrative centered on the figures as they go about their daily lives, meandering through a sometimes desolate landscape that reflects their own simultaneous embodiment of the familiar and the alien.

Simple dress, primitive technology and crumbling shelters suggest both the pre-modern and the post-apocalyptic. Scale, both established and obfuscated by the round disc of color that recurs as a kind of window into each painting, alternately suggests larger-than-life beings and hobbit-sized creatures. Blankly innocent facial expressions in some scenes convey a childlike personality. A world-weary frown or an outright scowl in others hints at a disturbance contained not far beneath the surface — a monster potentially about to erupt. And the floating disembodied heads that hover throughout the scenes certainly raise unanswered questions.

Absent familiar visual clues suggesting what to make of these individuals — whether human or divine, man or child, grotesque or beautiful, idiot or savant — we're left mired in our own mixed feelings. Like Shelley's Frankenstein, these sweet freaks inspire gentle waves of revulsion, fear, and profound empathy. In a manner perhaps as writerly as painterly, Cumbas succeeds in creating a compelling enough story (or haunting lack thereof) that makes us want to know more.

In an adjacent gallery, HCC Ybor professor Diran Lyons creates an exhibit with an altogether different premise: deception. Where Cumbas reveals a personal vision, pulling the viewer into his intimate psychological and spiritual space, Lyons maintains the chilly distance of intellectualism. In fact, you may even feel duped or insulted by the exhibit — but, then, that's sort of the point.

Most emerging artists wait half a lifetime to share a gallery with better-known, more respected elders; Lyons takes a shortcut by organizing a show of his own work, then labeling it with the names of some of his favorite artists. That's how his mammoth (8 ft. by 7 ft.) canvas crusted with pastel blobs came to be attributed to Pia Fries, and other works to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Katharina Grosse, Donald Lipski and Charles Gaines. To be clear, Lyons makes no attempt to re-create the work of these artists visually; the illusion of authenticity is as terse and tenuous as a label.

Some visitors will find this conceptual exercise irritating, even humiliating, as they stumble upon the punchline, but you've got to hand it to Lyons: In one fell swoop he illuminates a complex web of power dynamics between artist and audience (not to mention all those invisible behind-the-scenes gatekeepers of art: museum administrators, art historians, even critics).

It's not pleasant to be reminded that as visitors to an art museum we come as supplicants on a quest for knowledge and experience, trusting — perhaps too blindly — that the artist, in particular, offers up some tiny nugget of sincerity, even if we think their work is bewilderingly abstract or just plain ugly. Lyons snaps that trust in half, boldly announcing in a wall text: I've lured you here under false pretenses, with the names of other artists, and now all you're getting is me.

After the punishing confusion of this "ah-ha" moment, his work had better be really good to make up for it, right? Again, Lyons aims not to please, but to provoke. The pastel blob painting — jellybeans in a fascistically regimented grid — stands out as almost conventional among a collection of non sequiturs that pull the rug of context out from under your feet.

Nearby, an actual tree juts horizontally out of the wall, its slender, adolescent trunk sprouting from the virginal white wall. A giant, pink-and-orange neon wall painting mimics the sun; its spray paint hues sear the eyeballs and diminish the tree's "real" nature. A video of a woman, apparently meeting her unwilling demise, loops on the white duvet of a four-poster bed. Photos of a recent performance/political protest the artist staged with HCC students adorn the walls, and a wedding cake that had not yet arrived when I previewed the exhibit will round out the collection, an experiment in conceptual density.

(Is there a point at which the "meta" level of discourse — about what makes something a work of art — becomes so heavy that a sinkhole opens up and simply sucks these objects back into the molten core of planet Earth?)

Finally, 'tis the season to contemplate fall art classes — and there's no better way to get an idea of what's on offer than by checking out student exhibits like StudioWorks 2006 at GCMA, or the exhibit of member artists opening at the Arts Center later this month. Jewelry plays the starring role in this production: a pair of feather-light earrings in gleaming silver suggest sails filled with a gust of wind; a chunky necklace pairs sea-green beads with meaty fingers of textured silver.

Instructors share wall space with students, and painter Thomas Murray stands out as someone you'd want to log some serious classroom hours with. Real men aren't afraid to paint flowers, I think to myself whenever I cross paths with a canvas of his. He marries abstraction and representation, painting a shadowy backdrop of voluptuous floral shapes in charcoal grays, then overlaying bright stencil versions of the same shapes that pop in orange and yellow. The stencil-like shapes have a lightness that threatens to carry them off the canvas and into space. Somewhere, Plato just found his ideal flower.

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