Video/film artist Jesper Just poses provocative questions at Tampa Museum of Art's "Pride & Passion"

Four of the 30something Danish artist’s film and video works — three projected on large screens, the fourth displayed on an LCD monitor — take over much of the gallery space recently devoted to Matisse. Nearby, a small showcase of electronic sculptures by Leo Villareal — the artist who designed the LED display that shines on the museum’s façade after dark — emit colored light. Between the two shows, as well as ongoing exhibitions of work from the Margulies Collection in Miami and photographs by Garry Winogrand, the bulk of the museum is given over to contemporary art, at least for the summer.

In describing Just’s work, one has to be careful to avoid clichés. His poignant short films typically explore relationships between men — relationships that clearly involve experiences of love, but which rarely square with readymade concepts of love between men as “gay,” “platonic,” “brotherly” or “paternal.” In “Bliss and Heaven” (2004), for example, a young man climbs into the back of a semi-truck to find himself — in a transition that defies ordinary spatial logic — inside an expansive concert hall. On stage, the driver of the truck, a middle-aged man, performs a classic Olivia Newton-John ballad, “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting,” in a deadpan bass and a blond wig. Though the two men never touch (and whether they make eye contact remains unclear), the emotional climax of the film suggests an experience of profound intimacy.

The three other works on view continue this quirky celebration of the dialectic between strength and vulnerability, coupled with desires to be loved, accepted and expressive. The inclusion of a video from Just’s art school days invites viewers to trace the themes back to his early work. In “No Man Is an Island” (2002), an aging tap dancer performs spontaneously in a public square in Copenhagen as a younger man watches, weeping. The older man’s uninhibited and often goofy moves reflect a liberating freedom from public opinion, cultural pressures against expressing feeling and joy, and concerns about looking cool or possessing a body type appropriate for public performance. (In case we don’t quite get it, the presence of snickering children in the background of the video confirms that the dancing man does not look cool.)

Loneliness, in Just’s works, finds delightfully odd remedies, though perhaps only fleeting ones. In “The Lonely Villa” (2004), a group of old men — retiree age — sit silently in armchairs in a tastefully appointed den when a telephone rings. On the other end of the line, a young man begins singing a love song with muted passion, until the older men join in. In contrast with the blunt tropes of sex and love in commercial cinema and pop culture, a closeup of the young man’s lips and the sonorous melding of voices between the singers lend the film an elusive eroticism with shades of longing for lost youth.

“Romantic Delusions” (2008), which gives the exhibition its name, may be the most provocative and poignant of the works on display, offering less in the way of resolution than the others. Udo Kier, a prolific German actor, plays a transgender character revealed to viewers as such after a train ride during which we see only his head. Clad in a track jacket and a white t-shirt that makes plain his possession of feminine breasts, Kier wanders, visibly agitated, through crowded city streets and an empty building strewn with architectural rubble. Far from depicting a coherent story, the video invites a variety of impressions and reactions: to empathize with the character’s discomfort and apparent sense of disorientation; to appreciate his unusual beauty; or to sit, simply, watch and feel.

I come back to a variation of my friend’s question: What will Tampa be like when a new generation is used to seeing art like this in a museum downtown?

Despite, or perhaps because of, its indeterminate relationship to conventional ideas of love, gender and sexuality, the Just exhibition serves as an intriguing backdrop to Pride & Passion — one of the museum’s best-known fundraising events and a local, unofficial kick-off to June as Gay Pride month. This year’s fourth annual installment, scheduled for Fri., May 21, 8 p.m.-midnight, features — as always — a generous helping of booze, food and entertainment along with a one-year TMA membership for the ticket price of $75. (A membership alone costs $50 and entitles the holder to free museum admission throughout the year.) Tampa-based artist Gianna Love treats attendees to a gender-bending performance; “Men-A-Morphosis,” a glass vase by renowned local glass artist Duncan McClellan, will be raffled off; and South Tampa restaurants Bern’s and Sidebern’s cater the event. All proceeds benefit the museum.

Last week, I was walking through the newly redesigned Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in downtown Tampa when a friend stopped me in my tracks. Pointing to a crowded playground in front of the Tampa Museum of Art, he said, “Those kids are going to grow up expecting this.” By “this” he meant not only the park but, more generally, a downtown with institutions and amenities befitting a city. Then my friend asked a really provocative question: “What will Tampa be like when a new generation thinks ‘all this’ is normal?”

I’ll ask the same question specifically of the new Tampa Museum of Art. What will Tampa be like when a new generation thinks it’s normal to have a formidable institution devoted to the visual arts downtown? Three months since its re-opening, the TMA has already set a new standard, dropping banker’s hours to stay open until 7 p.m. four nights a week (and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays); providing a riverfront destination for lunch or a casual dinner; and offering an array of solid, even impressive, exhibitions. Apparently, people — both local residents and tourists — like the TMA’s new M.O.: more than 38,000 visitors checked in during the two months of the inaugural Matisse exhibition, in comparison with an annual average of about 52,000 visitors in 2006 and 2007 (at the old building).

Look no further for a sign of TMA’s newfound sophistication than one of its current exhibitions, Jesper Just: Romantic Delusions.

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