The best of USF

Flight 19's USF showcase is all wheat, no chaff.

On a Saturday earlier this month, I was at Flight 19 and probably making a bit of an ass of myself. The gallery was closed (so this particular story is not about drinking too many beers at an opening), but the Union train station in downtown Tampa was open, so I went inside and pressed my face against the dusty windows to catch a glimpse inside.

The people waiting for trains, who perhaps already found it a bit odd that an art gallery should be located inside an Amtrak station, regarded me quizzically. I wanted to explain to them that a rara avis of the Bay area art scene lay behind those doors. Finally I gave up and e-mailed Joe Griffith, explaining that I had some very important art-critic-type business to conduct in the space, and could he please let me in.

If you can find a way inside — and Flight 19 promises to be open this weekend — I'm happy to report that Informe is just about the most exciting showcase of emerging artists I've seen all year.

Every artist in the show is a student in USF's Master of Fine Arts program, but Informe is emphatically not a student show. USF professor Derek Conrad Murray, who teaches critical theory in the School of Art and Art History, separated the wheat from the chaff with — I'm told — the cold-heartedness of a real-world curator.

Fourteen of the program's 20 first- and second-year MFA students made Murray's cut (the graduating third-year students had their own show at the USF Contemporary Art Museum), and it was strictly tough titty for anyone who didn't. (Apparently, this was so devastating that an adjacent "project room" was set up to accommodate some of the un-chosen, at least one of whom — Shane Hoffman — scored a minor coup by finishing his fabulous, whimsical cartoon sculptures in multicolored felt after blowing the original deadline for the exhibit.)

The somewhat lofty exhibit title, Informe, unpacks into a complicated-but-worth-parsing art historical reference. French philosopher Georges Bataille, a misfit who also wrote pornography, used the adjective in the 1920s to describe art that thumbed its nose at traditional formal conventions. In the late 1990s, critics Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss organized an exhibit around the concept at Paris's Pompidou Center with American artists like Mike Kelley, who were incorporating "low" or "abject" materials into their work.

Professor Murray has something similar in mind, if on a more modest scale: the proposition that these emerging Bay area artists are doing work as revolutionary in its thinking as you might encounter in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

If Allen Hampton comes off as the show's star, it's because he has two very different bodies of work, testimony to his breadth as an artist, on view. If you've been following his appearances at other exhibits at Flight 19 and Para Gallery — an immersive retro rec-room installation complete with old vinyl records, a black velvet painting and comfy chairs at the former, and an elaborate, double-sided graffiti-painting at the latter — you might be wondering by now: So what can't this guy do?

Maybe what won't he do would be a better question, since the work on view in Informe suggests that Hampton will go to some pretty gruesome lengths in the name of self-expression. Like cutting through a frozen cow's tongue with a hacksaw. That's merely a fraction of the hair-raising labor Hampton put into his "sepulchresic vessels," a series of ornate wood-and-glass constructions filled — with a tip of the hat to Damien Hirst — with rubbing alcohol, formaldehyde, hair and cows' tongues hand-tattooed by Hampton. That they're arrestingly beautiful is no small miracle; I won't go into the other body of work — detailed and often quite decorative drawings in rust-colored pig's blood — except to say that it bears witness to the same transformative process.

If there's a theme here — as often in art school endeavors — of young people going to extreme measures for their work, then Rebecca Flanders is not far behind Hampton on this one. Staged photographs depict her performing the unusual act of female standing urination, an undertaking that required precise manipulation of certain nether parts and the patience to document it in striking photographs with the aid of gallons of tea.

But if you think she's working a clever-but-ultimately-empty gimmick in the images, which showcase the artist as a masked nude cheekily directing her golden stream into classical vessels, you're dead wrong. With an earnestness that's slightly unsettling, Flanders — who says a mental light bulb went off after a friend's sly comment that women could do it standing up if they really wanted to — sees female standing urination as a kind of liberation. She even hopes to offer workshops in the technique and start a website to reach out to women who have hitherto been unexposed to the joys of standing and peeing.

What's great about Flanders' photographs is that they offer a "meta" read along with literal absurdity: a feminist (yes, that whole to-do is still going on) send-up of art as a male-dominated pissing match or, as Flanders pointed out during our conversation, ejaculation — an image I dare say suggests a direction for future projects; I'm just not sure I would want to see them.

Other standouts from the talented cohort include Noah Doely, whose ambrotypes — an early form of photography — evoke elaborately staged hoaxes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, capturing a freakish monkey-child surrounded by examiners in one instance. Sean Erwin's pristine white ceramic Virgin Mary water fountain (with yellow rubber duck floating in the basin) is uproarious fun. Ivan Reyes Garcia's rotating assemblage of Volkswagen auto parts is topped with a fire-breathing metal heart.

Flight 19's beautifully restored baggage claim building — itself a fascinating object — couldn't be a better setting for these works. And none of my kvetching about not being able to get into the gallery is meant as a diss on Experimental Skeleton and the amazing volunteer work they do to keep the nonprofit space up and running.

But selling art is neither their interest nor their responsibility, and what's missing for me from this exhibit are the collectors who should be clamoring to add these burgeoning talents to their cache of art. That's why meandering through the old brick building and seeing so many strong pieces by new artists made me miss Covivant, the now-defunct Seminole Heights gallery, and its owner, Carrie Mackin, who moved to New York last year. Without a market for the intellectual and aesthetic labor of these artists, how can they possibly afford to stay in Tampa?

Would you?

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