August in Florida. It's about as hot as hot gets in the continental U.S. We try every option at our disposal to stay cool: Friends' pools, strangers' pools, that new water park in Orlando that looks like a volcano, the Easy-Bake of a beach.
But there's another option. It's climate-controlled, and carefully UV-ray protected. And it happens to be hosting maybe the biggest regional extravaganza of art to ever hit the Bay area. Yes, this is the summer of Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration, and there's no more profitable way to spend the dog days than by getting a grip on the most au courant art our area has to offer. You'll get cooler by the minute.
Walking into the Tampa Museum of Art, here's no doubt that the museum committed fully to the project. A big site-specific work by Ya Levy-La'Ford greets you in the lobby. Upstairs, the show covers nearly half of the gallery space. It's heartening to see the utopian Skyway idea become reality, and sprawl across three big rooms.
Well, three rooms and a hallway. The latter space contains a massive, lascivious balloon animal created by St. Pete's Jason Hackenwerth. You walk between its legs (tentacles?) to move between galleries. It smells like latex and looks a bit like jellyfish porn — fun for the whole family!
One of Hackenwerth's balloon creations recently hung in the famous atrium of the Guggenheim in NYC. In other words, this work is about as plugged-in to art's power centers as it gets. That's true of plenty of artists in Skyway: participants were chosen for how well they chime in on global art conversations.
Still, there's plenty of locally-shared headspace for the artists inhabiting our little stretch of the gulf. From the looks of things in the TMA, that headspace involves a lot of grids. They're everywhere, tessellated and stark — from Cynthia Mason's Aggrandize Grid series, to MK Foltz's Emerging from the Soviet Grid photographs of Russia and Eastern Europe, to Sue Havens's Brick and Mortar Suite, to Corey George's images of abandoned housing developments. It's a fitting form for a traffic-addled people.
Ezra Johnson's painting "Paul Klee on Dale Mabry" is a good example. It begs the question: What would the supreme Swiss modernist think of our beloved thoroughfares? Johnson's take may not be far off. What I wouldn't give to set Klee up with a canvas in Mons Venus.
Though for viewers who want to see, really see our environmental features represented — whether strip clubs or cypress domes — there isn't an abundance of work on display. Maybe that's why I kept coming back to the work of Bruce Marsh.
His work hangs near the entrance of the TMA's Skyway, where it belongs. The area's painter emeritus is closing in on the big 8-0, and "continues to paint every day." It's a good thing he does. Otherwise, Skyway would be without works like his deeply ambiguous "Tiki Bar" — and therefore deprived of its clear-eyed image of the living texture of our region. The mottled and confused faces of the drinkers lingering by the cabana speak to a mood we've all seen and felt, and begged to be depicted.
We need this. Work like Marsh's anchors the show, and plays an outsized role in connecting the climate-controlled gallery to the humid actuality outside. But there's another reason to be glad for artists like Marsh. They keep the viewers aware of the generational nature of the Bay area's blossoming. It'd be too easy to forget that the area's upward ride is not the spontaneous efflorescence of a few twenty-somethings with fresh MFAs. Hell no. This has been a marathon, and there's no finish line in sight.