Treat Yourself

Paintings from across the spectrum in a joyous show at Bleu Acier.

When she opened her Tampa Heights gallery and printmaking studio, Bleu Acier, in 2003, Erika Greenberg-Schneider didn't quite get the welcome she had hoped for.

Visitors seemed confused by the gallery's unfinished industrial space and the international mix of works on paper — many quite conceptual — that adorned the walls. On reception nights, some people seemed to think she was running an open bar. Rarely did she sell a work of art.

In response, the master printmaker — one of only a few in the state — quickly became a persistent voice about the difficultly of surviving as a member of Tampa's artistic community. To the chagrin of some, she didn't hesitate to point out that the city styles itself as arts-friendly but offers little concrete help to gallery owners like her.

Recently, however, Schneider has been feeling a bit less out of place. She hasn't changed her critical tune (thank goodness), but there's a little more bounce in her step.

That's because it's been a banner year, relatively speaking, for Bleu Acier. Following her Metal, Leather, Resin, Wax sculpture show in the spring, Schneider says she finally found a cadre of gallery-goers who are also interested in collecting art — and in having serious conversations about it. It simply took us a while to find each other, she says philosophically.

As for help from local officials, Schneider recently received a gesture of support that boosted her to cloud nine. The Arts Council of Hillsborough County has pledged $1,000 to help defray the cost of printing catalogues during Miami's Bridge Art Fair — concurrent with Art Basel Miami Beach in December — to which Bleu Acier has been accepted, she said. While that money is a drop in the bucket compared to what Schneider will shell out by the time she's done paying for her booth at the fair and shipping in art from around the world, the show of solidarity is one that visibly moves her.

In the midst of a flurry of activity — preparations for the Miami fair plus a full-time photogravure project that fills up days in the printing studio — Schneider finds herself debuting a new painting show in the gallery. It's her way of treating herself, she says, after a year of positive changes.

The exhibit is loosely structured around one of the favorite French expressions of Schneider, who lived in France for two decades. Entre chien et loup describes the moment when day turns to night, i.e., twilight, and translates literally to "between the dog and the wolf." Here the expression serves as metaphor for the play in contemporary painting between a stew of trends, whether modernism and postmodernism, abstraction and representation, or the incorporation of other media — drawing, printmaking, collage — into painting. Works in the exhibit, following the sense the expression confers of being somewhere indefinably in between, pursue elusive moments on the continuum between those distinctions.

The spirit of the wolf is out in full force, with some wacky, raunchy works that will make you want to howl. The leader of the pack is USF professor Neil Bender, whose "Boot" reads as a present-day birth of Aphrodite, the love goddess alleged to have sprung from sea foam off the coast of Cyprus. If that sea foam were a puddle of bubble-gum-pink ejaculate on the Las Vegas strip, the emerging creature might resemble Bender's legs-down figure, collaged from cutout pictures of buff male torsos, wearing a big, bad cowboy boot. In the gallery's adjacent installation room, the artist has pasted up a veritable swarm of larger-than-life winged noses in alarming shades of pink. The crinkly-fleshed proboscises are unambiguously phallic and gloriously ridiculous.

The show also catches Bender's USF colleague Elisabeth Condon at an exciting moment. In her oil and acrylic "Monkey Painting," she creates a rainforest of impressive texture and depth; the canvas grabs you with its outlandish color — electric green and ice blue — as soon as you walk through the door, but what's really interesting are the tree branches in this abstract landscape. The foliage takes on a nearly plastic, sculptural presence thanks to the matte surface Condon coaxes out of the paint, in combination with high-contrast shadows to create depth on the shapes. That a swirl of brown monkey fur that sweeps across the canvas has an entirely different texture is both fitting and fabulous.

At the opposite end of the spectrum stands a cohort of minimalists. Where Condon and Bender layer on the visual interest and revel in the physicality of their materials, these artists scale it back to the barest of gestures.

French artist Pierre Mabille paints with sunlight on wood-pulp construction paper — essentially the stuff of elementary school art projects — leaving the large fuchsia and orange panels outside to fade at the edges while a covering keeps his trademark ellipse-like shape dark in the center. Schneider calls the shape a lentil; here, it looks like a flying saucer about to dissolve into space. It's kinda hard not to stare at it for hours.

The restrained geometry of Stephen Westfall's monotype prints has a similar effect. Spare black lines create a grid of interlocking rectangles in one image. Rows of colored triangles — like perfect, rigid flags in shades far removed from garish primary colors — alternately emerge and recede into space against the white triangles of negative space around them.

Between those two poles, the show erupts with a chorus of different voices in painting: evocative — cinematic, even — black-and-white watercolor cityscapes by '96 USF grad Steve McClure (now an up-and-coming artist in New York); immersive imaginary landscapes by Megan Bisbee-Durlam (local for the moment, but currently featured in a two-person show in Manhattan's Chelsea art district) and Kim Curtis (Chicago-based); a video of clouds, smeared across the sky in brush-like gestures, by Robyn Voshardt and Sven Humphrey (formerly of St. Pete, now living in New York) — to name just a few.

With 23 artists artfully clustered, but not crammed, into Bleu Acier's relatively snug gallery space, the show provides one of the most robust and playful experiences Schneider has yet offered Tampa. Her joy in presenting is as palpably present as the art on the walls; she says she's treating herself, but visitors to the gallery are the ones who will walk away with the feeling of having received a gift.

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