The best of 2009 in visual art: Visions of paradise at the Ringling, artists' books at the Dali and more

3. Teresita Fernandez: Blind Landscape (University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum)

A solo exhibition for MacArthur fellowship-winning artist Fernández offered a series of immersive, nature-invoking works. For instance, "Epic "— made by painstakingly applying dozens of circular graphite marks to the gallery wall with a fingertip, smudging the marks downward into wispy tails and mounting a nugget of pure graphite to the wall atop each mark — alternately suggested a meteor shower, a grouping of clouds and a mountainous landscape. The same emanation of natural presence manifested in "Drawn Waters (Borrowdale)," a waterfall, or giant drawn line in three-dimensions, made of graphite panels. Imagining who or what has drawn such a line and the other "lines" that compose any natural landscape enticed visitors into sublime territory.

[image-1]4. (Salvador Dalí Museum)

When does a “book” consist of a pair of vials in a metal tin, a triptych of glass “pages” or a cardboard box filled with pamphlets, drawings and a custom-made lollipop? When it’s one of 100 works featured in, an exhibition jointly hosted by the Salvador Dalí Museum and the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at USF St. Petersburg. Devoted to books produced by artists, writers, designers and publishers of Catalonia, Spain — the native region of the museum’s namesake — delighted the eyes and intellect. The survey included Dalí’s "Dix recettes d’immortalité" ("Ten recipes for immortality," 1973), a series of pop-up books encased in a custom-built valise, as well as Martí Guixé’s unconventional cookbook of tapas recipes like one for olives arranged on toothpicks to mimic a molecular structure. (Pictured: "Us I abús" ("Use and abuse," 1990) by Pere Noguera, with texts by Carles Hac Mor, a tin box containing two glass bottles with stoppers and an instruction manual.)

5. Werner Reiterer: Raw Loop (University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum)

Reiterer’s solo exhibition of interactive sculptures functioned as a series of droll jests. Against the implicit seriousness of the museum context, visitors to Raw Loop were asked again and again to perform actions that resonated with mildly titillating subversion. "Breath," a sheet of paper stuck to the gallery wall, instructed readers to “Yell as loud as you can, now!” while "Life counts Death" invited participants to step on a drum pedestal attached to a massive white box; both actions triggered unexpected, highly sensory fallout. In light of additional pieces, including a smoking barrel labeled as laughing gas, the exhibition acted as a metaphor for the absurdity of life: without knowing what to make of much of it, you were pretty sure you had a good time.

6. Jasper Johns Prints: Things the Mind Already Knows (Morean Art Center)

This exhibition of Johns’ prints spanning 40 years, on loan from the John and Maxine Belger Family Foundation’s collection, ran the gamut from spare black-and-white intaglio prints to impressively large, multi-plate lithographs in bright color. Spotlighting Johns’ signature subject — quotidian-yet-iconic objects like the Ballantine Ale can, the Savarin coffee can filled with paintbrushes, the lightbulb, the target and the flag — the exhibit served as a powerful reminder of the artist’s ability to render everyday objects so full of suggestion about the way we perceive and interpret images, still compelling no matter how sophisticated we’ve become as image consumers.

[image-2]7. Florida Fire: The UF Ceramic Faculty Experience (Florida Craftsmen Gallery)

Conceived by Florida Craftsmen Executive Director Maria Emilia and curator Mindy Solomon (who has since opened a private gallery in downtown St. Pete), this exhibition highlighted teachers, staff and an alumnus of the University of Florida’s highly regarded ceramics department. Matt Shaffer stole the show with his life-sized ceramic figure, "Flounder" (pictured) — an ironically geeky superhero clad in red briefs and purple tights with a green puppet atop one hand — but subtler enticements also shone. Not least, a series of connectable bulbs with protruding nubs and round sockets by Ray Gonzalez, titled “Collectibles,” that toed the line between playfully biomorphic and teasingly erotic.

8. Contemporary Chinese Photography (Florida Museum of Photographic Arts)

This small but riveting showcase at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts highlighted 21 photographs and digital images by notable contemporary artists from China. Some pictures captured unconventional glimpses of Chinese culture while others conjured visions of the country’s future utilizing computer-based techniques. Drawn from local collections and on loan from New York galleries, the exhibit spotlighted images of internationally known artist Zhang Huan’s famous performances, including 12 Square Meters (1994), for which Zhang coated his nude body with liquid fish and honey and sat in a public toilet for one hour, covered in flies.

9. Visual Unity (Morean Arts Center)

This exhibit, which remains open through Dec. 31, features 18 Florida-based artists working in unexpected collaborative match-ups. The outcome of the nine collaborations takes the form of sculptures, paintings, prints and various mixed media works incorporating clay, glass and found objects. Highlights include pairings between Seminole Heights-based glass artist Susan Gott and painter Leslie Neumann (an Aripeka resident); Lynn Whipple and Polaroid transfer adept Anna Tomczak; and curator-artist Rocky Bridges (known for his mixed media paintings) and another local glass master, Duncan McClellan.

10. Portraiture in Three Movements (Studio@620)

Painter Thomas Murray’s moving portraits of addiction became the inspiration and backdrop (literally) for this unconventional, one-woman performance by St. Petersburg artist Alice Ferrulo. Brainstorming a nebulous biography for a woman named Olivia based on the paintings, Ferrulo distilled the character’s tribulations and evolution into a series of live "images" composed of movement, sound and visual stimuli, including an elaborate, gorgeous gown by designer Rogerio Martins. The resulting performance — a visually striking marriage of painting, dance and theater — stunned viewers with its tantalizing ambiguity.

The new TMA’s debut — kicking things off with an ambitious exhibition of Matisse prints as well as an exterior "light sculpture" by artist Leo Villareal commissioned for the building’s façade — certainly bodes well for the visual arts in 2010. But so does the ongoing emergence of smaller-scale endeavors like Tempus Projects in Seminole Heights ( and Mindy Solomon Gallery in St. Petersburg ( In a look back at 2009,

Even with the Tampa Museum of Art closed (pending its reopening in February on the downtown waterfront), Tampa Bay managed to keep art lovers busy in 2009 with a diverse slate of exhibits and events. Here are my top ten visual art offerings of the year.

1. Picturing Eden (John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art)

The Ringling’s sleek Searing Wing hosted this exhibition of contemporary photography featuring more than 150 images by 37 artists from around the world exploring the idea of paradise. From prints in surreal, super-saturated color to ones in painstakingly balanced black-and-white, the showcased works reminded viewers that there’s no single recipe for a compelling image—or ironclad expectation for what constitutes photographic art—in contemporary practice. Highlights included Binh Dahn’s camera-less prints, pale but indelible memories of the Vietnam War, on dried leaves encased in resin. Smart, sensuous and substantive, this show was a little slice of heaven. (Pictured: "Structure of Thought #15, by Doug and Mike Starn.)

2. I Heard a Voice: the Art of Lesley Dill (Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg)

Voices and visions played a prominent role in an exhibition of work by New York-based artist Lesley Dill. A profusion of words, letters and images combined to form concrete bodies, freestanding garments and psychic extensions (e.g., an expanse of icons literally flowing out of one seated figure’s mind, or a verbal "soul" hovering behind another figure) in her sculptural installations. Drawn from the poetry of Emily Dickinson and others (Salvador Espriu, Rainer Maria Rilke) as well as the artist’s own musings, this visionary language constitutes human beings, for Dill, paradoxically "speaking us" even as it passes through our lips and our minds.

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