The Nature of Things

Two shows and a call to action

click to enlarge UNNATURALLY NATURAL: Marc Quinn's photos of - real preserved botanicals look artificial. - University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum
University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum
UNNATURALLY NATURAL: Marc Quinn's photos of real preserved botanicals look artificial.

University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum's (CAM) current exhibition, UnNaturally, set me thinking about two issues; the idea-based art it's showcasing, and hints of a breakthrough in what contemporary art ought to offer.The show features 15 artists who re-create nature with artificial media or manipulate natural elements until they appear artificial. Curated by Los Angeles-based independent curator Mary-Kay Lombino, the traveling show suggests elusive boundaries between what we think is real and what is not.

If it sounds complicated, it's anything but. It's fun and thoughtful, but more provocative than profound (with the exception of Gregory Crewdson's wonderful psychologically penetrating digital prints). The fact is that we're already immersed in a world saturated by synthetic products. From faux finishes, fake fur and ersatz sugar, to synthetic jewels, bogus silk-leaf trees and artificial turf.

Here's a sampling of what you might encounter. Alyson Shotz spoofs nature with a Disneyesque tree sprouting pod-like biological mutations. Marc Quinn preserves exotic plants and flowers in silicon, installs them in an aquarium and photographs their Technicolor splendor. With no decay possible, his preserved specimens tease us because they resemble fake botanicals.

Still, there's far more here than meets the eye.

CAM's website describes the exhibition's "visually stunning works." Delicious words indeed.

So get out the bubbly because the real news here is that a contemporary art museum devoted to cutting-edge art appears to be making an ever so subtle shift by even mentioning visual appeal. Maybe they've used such tantalizing text before and I just didn't notice. But they couldn't have said it any better and the timing is impeccable. Not to get maudlin here, but a little "stunning" can go a long way at this moment in history.

Idea-laden art has been touted with such passionate fervor that one might think it's the only game on the block. But the best art still synthesizes visual seduction and ideas, not one or the other.

UnNaturally delivers both.

Chris Astley manipulates enigmatic objects into simply staged, quietly elegiac photographs. In one, block-like shapes resembling slices of brie or phyllo-wrapped quiche simulate ice floating in a misty amorphous sea. In another, slender twigs float in an incredibly beautiful watery environment; a central core of cloud-like forms dramatically heightens a stripped-down cerulean version of Sturm und Drang. Vertical twigs hang midair, holding back the mist in a narrative of heroic tension without a single figure in sight.

Frances Whitehead uses computer imaging and technology to convert plant life into beautiful "drawings" and delicate sculptural forms.

Roxy Paine, known for artmaking machines, simulated mushrooms and fungi, also creates small abstract forms resembling Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty." In the main lobby, his new sculptural "paintings" on stark white backgrounds are studies in restrained elegance that beautifully bridge the gap between idea and stunning visuals.

The CAM website also tells us that UnNaturally plays on our nostalgia for an idealized pre-industrial past, when human beings and nature coexisted harmoniously in an unspoiled landscape. If that's really true, we can also interpret this as nostalgia for another kind of art.

Great ExpectationsAt first glance, the Keith Edmier exhibition of flower drawings on paper and a simulated plant installation in CAM's West Gallery seems connected to UnNaturally. It's actually coincidence, though the New York-based Edmier does have a beautiful fabricated synthetic flower in UnNaturally.

But the show, curated by independent curator Jade Dellinger, is surprisingly lackluster. Edmier's sculptural works are far more interesting, and perhaps because Edmier's reputation has recently soared, I was expecting much more.

Edmier, who had a solo show at CAM in 1997 (a collaboration with Evel Knievel for his EK:KE exhibition), has received press in the last few years as a 2001 Whitney Biennial star. More recently he's had an artistic collaboration with Farrah Fawcett, golden girl of the 1970s and longtime aspiring artist. Several of the drawings here were a collaborative effort with Fawcett, though it's unclear who did what.

Public PolicyOn Feb. 15, I attended several sessions of the first Ringling Symposium on Public Policy, a three-day, open-to-the-public event organized by Professor Charles Dorn, Department of Art Education, Florida State University. It was supported in part by the state's Division of Cultural Affairs (DCA).

Over the last 25 years, the DCA has also funded 1,000 statewide recognition and financial awards for fine and performing artists.

The conference brought arts advocates from across the state, including representatives of arts councils, museums and universities. Gil Lazier, Director of the Florida State University Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, spoke on his highly rated program, which places an astonishing 80 percent of acting students into professional jobs. Amy Cox and Ade Ofunniyin, University of Florida anthropology doctoral candidates, presented a provocative critique of the South Florida Peoples and Their Environment exhibit at Gainesville's Florida Museum of Natural History. Focusing on the extinct Calusa Indians, the graduate students demonstrated how, over the next 25 years, Florida residents and children will learn slightly distorted history lessons because of visual displays that sometimes skirt historical accuracy.

I was invited to speak on the role of the art critic. However my real interest was to present, in a public forum, an idea that I suggested informally to Valerie Ohlsson, the Division's Art Administrator, in October 2002. Because I believe that criticism is the hallmark of a democracy, and because critical writing is an integral component of the total arts environment, I suggested that the state should begin to recognize or value art criticism (or any cultural criticism).

I proposed that the Division of Cultural Affairs review its policy (it hadn't since 1976) and consider extending Florida Fellowships for graduate students interested in pursuing the field. (It would be ethically impermissible for working critics to receive such funding).

Of course, it may be a moot point now that Florida's Cultural Institutions Trust Fund is in danger. This fund is the source of grants awarded through the Division of Cultural Affairs. But with rapidly shrinking finances, Gov. Bush recently proposed that the Trust Funds should be transferred to General Revenue. In a nutshell, this means that a dedicated pot of money earmarked for specific cultural needs would be up for grabs for all other state projects. Many within the cultural community view this shift as ominous; once the change is made it will not easily be restored. In 2002, $2-million was moved from the Trust Fund and used for other purposes, much like the lottery and tobacco trust funds are far from secure.

The Senate subcommittee met last week, and by the time this is published the House subcommittee will have met. Last stop, the Legislature, with decision-making set for the end of April.

What impact will this have in Hillsborough County alone? Art Keeble, Executive Director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, reports that The Florida Arts Council has approved $4.1-million, with $2.5-million earmarked for the new Tampa Museum of Art. It is, however, subject to Legislative approval. Voice your opinion by contacting the Hillsborough County Legislative delegation at [email protected]. Or write the delegation at P. O. Box 1110, Tampa, FL 33601.

Regarding potential changes to Florida Fellowships, the Division of Cultural Affairs is now planning to review its policies and is asking that Florida's artists and arts organizations "participate in an assessment of services to individual artists, to explore how those services might be expanded beyond Fellowship Awards for a select few and be adapted to provide additional and broader opportunities for the more than 85,000 artists living in Florida. ..." I hope the review will consider granting opportunities for all participants within the cultural spectrum.

If you have suggestions for the policy review, contact the Division of Cultural Affairs at http://www.dos.state.fl.us/dca or call your local arts council.

Art Critic Adrienne M. Golub can be reached at [email protected].

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