For the past three years, Creative Loafing's Sensory Overload has brought artists, musicians and performers together for an evening of multisensory art and revelry. Curator-art director Jay Giroux takes his second turn at the helm of SO (this year in tandem with music curator Becca Nelson), selecting a group of creative participants who reflect both their personal commitment to pushing the limits of artistic expression and this year's theme: the labyrinth.
On Saturday, March 29, from 9 p.m.-1 a.m., a life-sized maze will guide visitors through the Cuban Club's sprawling outdoor plaza, leading them to encounters with paintings, illustrations, photo collages, sculptures and installations created specially for the event, all exploring the possibilities of the labyrinth. Bands from around the Bay area and the country will play on two stages (see Wade Tatangelo's preview on p. 89), complemented by dance and theater performances, film screenings, Indian food and plenty of drink.
When it comes to the Bay area's visual arts community, the idea of a space where artists and audiences can get lost and separated hits close to home, Giroux says. For the first time this year, SO comes with a social networking component — a concerted effort to bring emerging talent together with established artists and help both connect with an audience of patrons and collectors, with the ultimate goal of helping artists stay local and become successful.
"There are a lot of artists who fly through this web," Giroux says, "but only some of them really make it through."
Though the party lasts only one night, the organization, planning and collaborations begin months ahead of time. Because Sensory Overload puts a premium on improvisation, many artists will be working up until the final days before the show. When I caught up with some of the major players last week, here's what they were working on.
Edgar Sanchez Cumbas With Tampa Digital Studios
In the spirit of sensory exploration, West Tampa artist Edgar Sanchez Cumbas converted an unused warehouse on Creative Loafing property in West Tampa into a temporary painting studio — then planned to lock himself inside for five days during the week before Sensory Overload. A former mixed martial arts training facility, the building's interior is literally stained with blood and sweat, Sanchez says. Working on an expansive 8-by-12-foot canvas, he hopes to improvise a series of abstract gestures in response to the space. All the while, staff from Ybor's Tampa Digital Studios will videotape Sanchez and interview him about the experiment. The final piece on view at Sensory Overload will likely incorporate a projection of the edited video alongside the finished painting. For Sanchez, who ordinarily works in a studio at the nearby Bustillo y Diaz cigar factory, the goal is to give his creative process a jolt.
"From what I'm seeing, the project is going to be extremely layered. [The space is] empty and it's got remnants of training: punching bags, murals of fighters. ... It looks very grotesque. You can see the blood in the space," Sanchez says. "My approach is kind of the same thing. Not so much slamming paint on top of the canvas, but working very directly with the surface. I'm looking at it as me going into the space and really sort of activating myself with it."
Rather than traditional oil or acrylic, Chris Parks — owner of Pale Horse Design and Gallery in St. Petersburg — employs the computer-based techniques of digital illustration to create his artworks. In Parks' corner of the Sensory Overload labyrinth, a 4-foot-by-4-foot canvas printed with the artist's contemporary rendering of the nightmarish Minotaur of classical mythology will greet visitors. Two side panels will bracket the monster with images of the Cretan labyrinth where many a hero met his doom. In addition, Parks will create a hallway within the SO labyrinth covered with wheat paste posters showcasing some of his other characters: pirates, zombies and Day of the Dead characters.
"I really like illustrating animals, so that comes into a lot of my work," he says. "I have done a lot of pieces based on Greek mythology and darker fantasy type of stuff. I'm trying to take the theme that I think fits perfectly with this type of work and push it a little bit with the labyrinth theme. ... I've got the haunted part of the maze."
Theo Wujcik, an internationally known artist who remains a loyal champion of Ybor's art scene, reaches back into ancient history with a mammoth portrait (90-inches-by-75-inches) of the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut. The painting is a follow-up to a series of drawings Wujcik completed a few years ago, casting well-known contemporary artists — including Larry Bell and James Rosenquist — in the form of marble Roman portrait heads. A granite statue of Hatshepsut, one of Egypt's most revered female rulers, wearing the gender-bending faux beard customary for pharaohs, caught his eye. Wujcik opted to overlay another of his current concerns on the image: The pharaoh's granite "skin" will be studded with melting chocolate chips, a symbol of global warming.
For the second year in a row, Wujcik has followed curator Giroux into the Sensory Overload fray. The pair has also collaborated on window displays at Urban Outfitters and Dirty But Sophisticated, an art and fashion event, in Ybor. "We sort of realized that we have the same kind of energy and the same kind of interest in Tampa — not feeling like we have to leave to be successful," Wujcik says. "Things are good enough right here. And things are getting better every day."
Members of artist collective Experimental Skeleton plan to use the maze to spoof the idea of artworks as priceless commodities. Constructing a replica of British artist Damien Hirst's "For the Love of God," a life-sized, diamond-encrusted skull that made headlines last year when a group of collectors purchased it for $100 million, Experimental Skeleton plans to surround its replica of the work with an array of laser beams designed to mimic a high-end security system. In typical ES fashion, after the group's core collaborators agreed on the concept, a wide-ranging debate between their 15 to 20 members ensued.
"Now we're talking about the reality of it. 'How can we do this? How can we construct it?'" says longtime ES member Bob Dorsey. "Everybody kind of jumps in and says I'm doing this or that."
Tristan Henry Wilson
When Giroux asked illustrator Tristan Henry Wilson to join the group of artists, the Ringling College of Art and design grad admits he was flummoxed.
"The theme for SO that Jay had come to me with, I was having difficulty coming up with something. As an illustrator, I really like having a story to go by," he says.
So Wilson called up a friend and collaborator who writes short stories and asked her to write something based on the idea of a labyrinth. A few days later, the illustrator had a narrative to work with. Only the final 16-inch-by-20-inch illustration will be on view at SO, along with some of his previous work, but Wilson says that's the way it should be.
"I think the piece stands on its own," he says.
Using the labyrinth as a metaphor for global networks, photographer Marina Williams will use her 8-foot-square segment of the maze to showcase photographs she has taken in public spaces around the world.
"I am very fascinated by 'third spaces,'" she says. "Places that you don't work in, places where you do not live ... airports, subways."
Williams, who recently returned to St. Petersburg from graduate school in London, plans to weave her photographs into actual maps to create a surface for visitors to explore while poster-sized color photographs will show off her candid shots of people in the third spaces of public life.
Josh Pearson and Eleanor Grosch
Tampa artist Josh Pearson had never met Philadelphia designer Eleanor Grosch until Giroux suggested that they collaborate, but after one look at Grosch's work he knew they had a lot in common, Pearson says. Both artists are drawn to illustrating animal characters — like the whales, peacocks and owls that decorate pairs of Keds designed by Grosch for the shoe company, or the hybrid "octo-phant" that Pearson recently created for an Art After Dark event at the Tampa Museum of Art. For the past few weeks, the pair has been trading digital files over the Internet and plans to create an area filled with illustrations of quirky sea creature characters for the labyrinth.
"She was somebody that I really respected," Pearson says about Grosch. "Her style is all about simplicity and elegance, and I like that."
At last year's SO, Kim Coakley's curtain of colorful prints and drawings folded into three-dimensional, flower-like shapes drew a lot of attention. This year, the Tarpon Springs artist plans to create something similar on a smaller scale. Wall-mounted creations that bridge the gap between sculpture and drawing merge colorful, organic lines with curling planes of paper. This time around, Coakley says she's ready to admit that the pieces are unabashedly floral.
"It's actually always been the center of my work. ... but now I'm accepting it as the description of it," she says. "The flower is the perfect manifestation of truth and beauty in my eyes and my world. Flowers are just perfect, so that's what I want to create. I want to find that truth within my work and within myself."
Moving Current Dance Collective
Responding to the maze's architecture, Tampa dance collective Moving Current — also veterans of last year's SO — plan a "structured improvisation" with lights and shadows, artistic director Cynthia Hennessy says.
"That means that we have a basic idea of a beginning, a middle and an end," she says.
From there, three or four of the company's dancers will interact in the space, using their profiles and proximity to light sources to create dancing shadows. Since a performance at a film festival last year, where Hennessy and co-artistic director Erin Cardinal used the technique to comedic effect in a dance about superheroes, they have wanted to explore it more, Hennessey says.
And there's more ...
The event will also feature performances by Hat Trick Theatre Productions and the roving actors of Jobsite Theater; artists from RedLetter 1 and Calavera Comics; food from the famed Tun-du-ree Trailer; filmmakers from the International Academy of Design & Technology and everybody's favorite add-on, the Polished Palate International Rum Festival in the fourth-floor ballroom (admission to which costs an additional $25).
As in past years, Creative Loafing is encouraging attendees to imbibe at Sensory Overload because all of the drink proceeds (not including the Rumfest) go to support local arts. In past years, the event has raised thousands for arts education; this year, the beneficiaries are two organizations who exemplify the creative synergy celebrated by Sensory Overload: the Ybor Festival of the Moving Image and St. Petersburg's [email protected].
This year more than ever, Sensory Overload seems likely to be full of surprises. So brave the maze: Even if you get lost, you never know what you might find.