Two for the road

Head to Lakeland to see two of Central Florida's best artists in peak form

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To invoke an oft-heard refrain about the Bay area arts scene — one I'm weary of, yet find myself repeating constantly — you don't have to leave the state or travel to a big city to see great art.

In this case, you'll just need to drive to Lakeland.

Much like Largo's Gulf Coast Museum of Art, Lakeland's Polk Museum has a long history of showcasing gem-like exhibits in an out-of-the-way location. Both museums are the pride of their communities, but really they deserve to attract audiences from the entire Tampa Bay region.

For the two shows now at the Polk, that's especially true.

Funnily enough, the pairing of two established painters at the peak of their talents finds them both doing something other than what they're best known for. For James Michaels, based in Palm Harbor, a series of figurative tableaus from the 1990s marks a temporary break with his trademark pop expressionism. For Gary Bolding, art professor at Stetson University in Deland, a recent plunge into pure abstraction follows years of making picture-perfect figurative paintings.

The Michaels exhibit is built around "15 Men," a painting owned by the Polk that visitors selected as their favorite work in the museum's permanent collection. It's one in a series of images depicting a rat pack of matinee-idol male figures—chiseled features and draped suits painted with Michaels' jaw-dropping facility with anatomy — and, somewhere near the center of the picture, the artist in self-portrait form, gangly, bearded and sticking out like a sore thumb.

What turns the paintings into showstoppers is a simple paradox: The images obviously tell a story, but one that's far from obvious.

Michaels, now 61, made them during a deeply introspective decade in his life, after completing the transition from working as a commercial artist to succeeding as a fine artist. He had won an NEA grant in 1986 and began to see his work enter collections including the Polk, Gulf Coast and Tampa Museums of Art, and Raymond James Financial. Between bouts of creating his main body of paintings — remixes of pop culture iconography and expressive gesture—this other version emerged, "like two 'me's," he says.

With a blitheness that draws smiles and protests, Michaels insists the paintings are more about creating compositions and shadows worthy of Caravaggio than telling any particular tale. His coyness makes even more intriguing the question why the artist would cast himself as a Christ-like figure stoically bracing for a beating or seeming to beg for forgiveness amid a cast of armed men, orphaned children, and, in several instances, his wife posed as a muse or goddess. To fuel your own exercise in interpretation, be sure to take a friend, family member or a well-worn copy of Freud.

Visitors will encounter a completely different scene in the adjacent gallery, where paintings by Bolding hang. They hold their own in visual impact and heft, a great match with Michaels in terms of monumentality, but a polar opposite in terms of style. Bolding, 54, has exhibited in New York, Miami and abroad, but this new body of work has taken him back to square one.

His earlier paintings were smaller, perfectly—almost surreally—photorealistic in detail, and dense with art historical references. That's not to say they were highfalutin'. Take "Man with Flaming Wiener," in which Bolding depicts a hotdog-roasting colleague incongruously deposited in a museum setting. An impish boy who takes aim at the adult with a suction-cup tipped arrow suggests the role of the artist, poking fun at the sacred temple of art even as he worships at its altar.

But Bolding, the consummate master of illusion, opted to take on the role of student again. Free-falling into abstraction, he forbade himself from using any of his usual tricks: oil paints he switched out for faster-drying acrylics; brushes he traded for non-traditional tools like the squeegee; and for canvases, bigger became better. As the show's title suggests, it was out with painting as illusionary window, in with big abstract walls.

In moving to large-scale abstraction, Bolding hasn't lost interest in embedding art historical references in his work — or perhaps these days even the simplest gesture constitutes such a reference. (To take the postmodern stance in a nutshell: It's all been seen and done before.) So you'll see marks that remind you of Jackson Pollock or aboriginal patterning in his paintings, even shapes and silhouettes quoted from famous paintings in one—"S.P.F.A.H. No. 1XL" (spare parts from art history), he cheekily calls it.

Just goes to show a good cook can do great things with leftovers. Bolding's biggest works (in the 8-foot-by-12-foot range) recapture the gravitas of the more somber abstract expressionists — say, Clyfford Still — that turns a painting into the breathless experience of looking out over a precipice. This is sublime, this is bigger than me, this is ... awesome. That they're nearly black and white, swinging between emotional heights and depths with a touch of blue, brown or yellow along the way, aids the drama.

Did I mention that now would be a great time to get over the to the Polk Museum of Art?

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