Show us the goods: "A Sum of Its Parts" at Polk Museum

An artistic safari down Polk Musem's memory lane.

Artistically speaking, sometimes one and one add up to more than two; when separate parts are brought together as a whole, that's what gestalt is all about. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Polk Museum of Art’s A Sum of Its Parts is offering the first serious survey of its entire permanent collection, with around 230 items on display.

In its original incarnation as the Polk Public Museum, the institution was known for its diverse (borderline strange) permanent collection which, in its early years, included everything from craft items to fossils to a live Florida panther. In the 1980s, the museum decided to focus solely on fine art, and currently owns around 2,400 art objects and artifacts from prehistoric sculptures to local talents to a Warhol.

The museum established its base collection with works by Florida artists before amassing artworks from around the country, and eventually the world. Since the galleries are set up salon-style, with artworks filling the walls to max capacity with no wall labels to clutter the space, the effect is almost overwhelming.

Though everything is in order by the decade, just a tip for the neat freaks: There will be moments of “What the heck?” when the most logical order of arranging the paintings is tossed and you’re wandering around the gallery looking for the rest of the paintings in the ’90s era. Just take a deep breath, and use one of the guides. Each era has color-coded numbers to steer you through the gallery, so if you want to find out about the works, you can easily flip through the catalog. If not, I say go for an artistic safari!

Judging by the few items collected in the ’70s before the Polk was officially an “art museum,” its collecting criteria had yet to be fully developed, but by the ’90s, the assortment of works blossoms significantly, showing off the museum's goal of acquiring art by Florida artists (Clyde Butcher, Jerry Uelsmann, Jeffrey Kronsnoble). Using op art painting tactics, Richard Anuszkiewicz's "Blue Tinted Star" is one piece that pops out from the wall. In the same way Frank Stella uses shape and color to define the pictorial space, Anuszkiewicz uses solid colors to create visual depth without resorting to shading by the distance or closeness of the blue lines that run along the planks of orange that make up the star shape. With clean-edged simplicity, the artist creates a space where our eyes can visually wander in three-dimensions, even though it's a 2-D lithograph.

A standout from this section is Judy Chicago’s diptych “My Dove in the Cleft of My Rocks.” On the right is a print of a pinkish-blue rock/dove/vulva being softly caressed by a pair of hands. The left part of the diptych reads:

“My dove

in the clefts

of the rocks,

the secret

of steep ravines

Come let me look at you

Come let me hear you”

Most well-known for her installation "The Dinner Party," this feminist artist examines traditional and stereotypical roles of women, often bluntly. Incorporating text and imagery, her work exudes sensuality, while also nodding to the concurrent exhibition in the next room: “Unmanned: Women Artists from the Permanent Collection.”

The decade of the 2000s seems to be when the museum really splurged, since this era is the one best represented in the exhibition, the portfolio widened by a greater number of world-renowned artists. One neat twist on the collection is the tendency to collect art not just by Florida artists, but about the state itself. NY-based William Wegman is mostly known for his photographs of Weimaraners dressed up and posed like little humans (and they do have one on display), but two pieces done with lithograph and collage show his multifaceted studio practice.

In “Souvenir” Wegman re-appropriates two vintage postcards from his personal collection. Both depict a quiet evening in Tampa’s Plant Park, and are placed near each other. Wegman extends these cropped scenes with his own painting, playing with the idea that pictures never fully encapsulate the experience of a vacation.

Lichtenstein’s “Before the Mirror” is one of the many pop art pieces in the collection, along with works from Warhol and Rosenquist. Inspired by cartoon imagery and advertising logos, he pairs flat color with bold patterns to reinvent the typical still life of a cup of water and a lemon in a vibrant, eye-popping way.

By the 2010s, the Polk's collecting seems to slow significantly, perhaps because they went high-roller in the acquisition of a pink and yellow Warhol Cow print and a Damien Hirst's screenprint (decked out in diamond dust, of course).

Being a fan of Hernan Bas’s paintings with their sumptuous lines and chaotic compositions, it was a nice surprise to how his painting background translates to his black and white photogravure print on display “A Brief Brush with a Thrush.” Still using mostly bored young boys as the protagonists in his romanticized yet somber narratives, you're drawn in not just to the narrative, but the materiality of the scribbly lines that ease into more washy, loose sections.

Collecting the unexpected and unfamiliar from locals, well-known artists, and beyond, this anthology is an exception to the norm. Now that Polk Museum is always free to the public, there’s no excuse not to make the short road trip out to Lakeland and immerse yourself in the summation of their permanent collection.

A Sum of Its Parts

Through Sept. 17.

Polk Museum of Art, 800 E Palmetto St., Lakeland.

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