When avant-garde artists in the 1910s and 20s declared their intentions to throw off the yoke of reason through radical surrealist art-making, they probably didn’t imagine that one of their most lasting legacies would be a parlor game. Since its popularization by surrealists idling in European cafés, Exquisite Corpse — a game in which participants take turns finishing each others’ drawings with only a glimpse of the image they’re adding on to — has been irresistible to artists of all stripes. Based most often on drawing the human figure (hence, “corpse”), the game reveals bizarre and hilarious distortions (hence, “exquisite”).
Through May 1. Morean Arts Center, 719 Central Ave, St. Petersburg. 727-822-7872. moreanartscenter.org.
A local surge in interest in the format inspired a sculptural version last fall, which featured 30 artists, including Josh Poll and Sarah Thee Campagna. Through May 1, the Morean Arts Center is showcasing 74 artists in an Exquisite Corpse-themed exhibition that pays homage to critters of the Sunshine State, comprised mostly of drawings and other two-dimensional art.
The exhibition’s title, Exquisite Porch, derives from the Florida fauna theme chosen by co-curators D. Dominick Lombardi (also a participating artist) and the Morean’s Amanda Cooper. Lombardi hails from New York City and chose roughly half the exhibition’s artists from that area; Cooper picked the other half from central Florida. In a nod to the old saw that virtually no one who lives in Florida — or New York, for that matter — is a native, a wall text for the exhibition notes that the artists were born in 16 different countries with only two originally from St. Petersburg (and one of those is — surprise — a New Yorker). Geographic diversity required a slightly different approach than the traditional exquisite corpse, so artists were given sheets of paper of a set size (12, 18 or 24 inches square) and told to start their drawings at certain points along the edges.
The results make up eight playful patchwork creatures that snake around two of the Morean’s galleries. Slithery, serpentine segments predominate, but the occasional turtle head or armadillo butt enforces a fun Frankenstein effect.
“Looking at the show, you have smooth transitions in one place next to totally divergent aesthetics or mindsets in another place, and it all worked somehow,” Lombardi says. “I think, too, that people really had fun with the idea, using media and approaches that in some cases were completely different from what they would normally do.”
The project appeals on multiple levels. On the one hand, local visitors can go on a scavenger hunt for artists whose visual signature they know well — and be surprised in many cases. Calan Ree’s name calls up ceramic and found object sculptures of creepy-lovely characters, but here she uses collage to create an abstracted belly of the beast lined with soft layers of hand-torn red paper. Neverne Covington zooms in on the body of a roseate spoonbill in a watercolor and acrylic painting. The impressive naturalism of her method is typical; the surreal perspective less so. Gigi Lage, an unexpected contributor as a video artist, kicks in one of the wittiest pieces — a video still of a nature documentary stretched and printed to suggest a snaky torso in motion.
The who’s who of local talents is impressive. Keep an eye out for contributions by Babs Reingold, Edgar Sanchez Cumbas, Chad Mize, Jennifer Kosharek, Denis Gaston, Ina Kaur, Steven Kenny and Jono Vaughan, among others.
Then there are Lombardi’s New York crew, who consistently delight. Evoking M.C. Escher’s virtuosic illusions, Zane York renders a self-portrait of his head as an interlocking mass of lizards and fire ants. In Dale Leifeste’s digitally enhanced black and white photograph, a fragment of driftwood becomes a surprisingly convincing serpent’s head. And in Rieko Fujinami’s delicate drawing on mylar, children’s faces spring from clusters of blue leaves or petals.
“We [the curators] didn’t really know who the other was selecting, so in a way it was a blind collaboration, which made it even more interesting,” Cooper says.
As in any show, certain pieces stick with you for the something extra brought to their concept or execution. For me, those included Vicki Khuzami’s Lagoon, a watercolor rendering of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, as it reaches for a dainty swimmer’s foot. Once Khuzami learned that the film had been partly shot in Wakulla Springs, she had her subject — and breathed creepy, campy life into it with aqueous shades of green and blue. Another was Cynthia Mason’s Xerox-based drawing of a panther torso overlaid with a map of panther deaths caused by vehicles between 1972 and 2015. Along with visual exuberance throughout the show, it was nice to find moments of deeper reflection — whether humorous or sobering — on Florida’s natural history.