Somehow, in the less than 12 months since it opened, the white-walled garage in Seminole Heights that is Tempus Projects has become one of the most important art venues in Tampa Bay. An artist-run space where a donation bowl makes or breaks the budget and hipsters sip Natty Ice during openings, Tempus steps into a void between Tampa's museums and its few private and commercial galleries.
For a sense of just how good Tempus' game is, check out its official season opener: a solo exhibition, called LineTimeLine, of new work by Julie Weitz. Against Tempus' white walls, Weitz's latest paintings generate a commanding presence. Hypnotic forays into optical abstraction, the paintings layer up patterned circles and orbs, sometimes evoking mask-like faces that entice viewers to gaze into their eyes. Collages — smaller works that invite close attention — achieve similarly arresting effects by piecing together hand and eye forms cut from painted paper and photographs. Mysterious and even disorienting at times, the works exert a simultaneous push and pull that might just stop you in your tracks for moments that turn into minutes. And when's the last time that happened?
Weitz is just the kind of artist Tempus exists to promote. She's "local" in some senses of the word — as a current Tampa resident and as an artist who teaches at the University of South Florida. But the Bay area hardly delineates the boundaries of her practice; earlier this year, she was a finalist for the West Prize, a national competition, and she also exhibits in New York, California and Chicago.
If you know her work, as you might from previous shows, Weitz's paintings in LineTimeLine come as a shock — quite literally, in a visual sense. Half the fun of the exhibit's opening reception last week was listening to people express surprise about her turn toward abstraction and her new and striking color palette of grays, blacks, white and fluorescent yellow and orange. That reaction tells you something about what people had come to expect from Weitz, whose prior paintings reveled in the realistic rendering of masked faces and covered heads in saturated (but still naturalistic) hues of gouache, a quick-drying opaque watercolor medium.
Behind the faces, both then and now, was a long story — a life story, really, equal parts personal and aesthetic. In some ways, her work has always grappled with what it means to encounter — and, specifically, to see — another person. In the eye-opening milieu of college after a conservative Jewish upbringing, she became fascinated with stereotypes of Israelis and Palestinians, painting narrative landscapes that rubbed against the grain of such images while invoking them. (In one early painting, two cartoonish figures stand on either side of the separation fence, their forbidden love indicated by two stubby erections.)
Later paintings both broadened and narrowed her scope. Focusing on forms of head coverings that replace individual identity with cultural and political signifiers, she painted disembodied garments — a Ku Klux Klan hood, a kafiya, a "terrorist" ski mask — floating in space, as if they adorned invisible humans. Painstakingly rendered in gouache to faithfully replicate every fabric fold and stitch, the paintings were profoundly unsettling because they revealed just how much meaning was embedded and embodied in the forms of the head coverings, the perception of which instantly evoked emotions like anger, fear and pain. Then, up until earlier this year, Weitz made her works larger and brought people back into them, painted large-scale portraits of faces obscured by ski masks that invited viewers to imagine personalities for the eyes and mouths that peeked out from behind the knitted masks, each stitch differentiated in gouache.
The paintings in LineTimeLine suggest a next step in Weitz's formal investigations of pattern, painted surface and how viewers' eyes engage with paintings. The two largest paintings in the Tempus show invite this sort of interpretation — each consists of a series of concentric circles on a square background, one featuring alternating patterns of fluorescent yellow and black stripes, the other painted with a kind of orange-yellow-and-black herringbone. They are dizzying, in an exhilarating way. But other paintings, in which striped orbs on striped backgrounds sprout painted and patterned eyes, evince (for me, at least) a connection back to Weitz's interest in what happens when we see an "other."
By dropping out the overtly political content and arresting the viewer in front of her paintings with a disorienting optical experience (what else are the biggest, abstract works but giant eyes?), Weitz taps into the unbreachable gap that we span every time we encounter another human being — the sensation of being at once pulled into and pushed away from someone we can never fully apprehend. At least, that's my take on the vertiginous space created by patterns-on-patterns and the eyes that gaze out from floating orbs in her paintings. You could also just think they look cool.
Weitz's collages offer a more concrete context for this feeling of alienation. Composed of cutout eyes and crosswalk-like hands ("stop!"), they incorporate photographs of abandoned houses in the Tampa neighborhood were she lives. Lingering reminders of residents now absent, but somehow still present, the collages invite consideration of how our views of other people translate to circumstances like a neighborhood scarred by misfortunes that are understood as individual but lived as communal.
The best time to see Weitz's exhibition at Tempus Projects is when the gallery opens for a performance by the band November Foxtrot Whiskey (with Preston Beebe) on Sat., Oct. 16, 8 p.m., or during the latest installment of its Secret Movie Lecture series, a special horror film edition, on Fri., Oct. 22, 7-11 p.m. For more information about either event, go to tempus-projects.com.