Critical reaction

A less-than-inspiring show at an admirable St. Pete gallery.

click to enlarge RADDLE ME THIS: Eva Eun-Sil Han's Raddle is one of a number of her whimsical collages on display in C.  Emerson Fine Arts' React exhibit. - Courtesy C. Emerson Fine Arts
Courtesy C. Emerson Fine Arts
RADDLE ME THIS: Eva Eun-Sil Han's Raddle is one of a number of her whimsical collages on display in C. Emerson Fine Arts' React exhibit.

In the Bay area community of private art galleries, C. Emerson Fine Arts is starting to look lonelier and lonelier. Since Covivant's exit from Tampa in late 2006, Tampa Heights gallery Bleu Acier has scaled back its exhibition schedule and opted to focus on artists who collaborate with owner and master printmaker Erika Schneider; Ybor pioneers Brad Cooper and Marcie Hoffman Porges have both announced plans to sell their buildings and close their long established galleries; and Sarasota's Jonathan Greene has pulled the plug on his Pineapple Street gallery, Greene Contemporary, and signed a lease for a space in Manhattan.

Just around the corner from C. Emerson in downtown St. Petersburg, signs of life abound: the launch of ARTpool, a rent-a-wall space geared to young artists and designers, and the presence of tony new Nova535, an upscale event venue that touts its artiness with rotating exhibitions. Within a 1-mile radius, several nonprofits — The Arts Center, Florida Craftsmen Gallery and [email protected] — thrive. But C. Emerson is the only private and for-profit gallery in downtown St. Pete with a commitment to showcasing — and selling — an ever-changing body of contemporary art by local, national and international artists.

All this makes me wish I could praise React, C. Emerson's latest exhibit, as an example of owner Lori Johns' courageous vision — because I think she's got one — but I can't. While the exhibit's line-up includes some formidable Bay area talents (Rebecca Sexton Larson, Frank Strunk III, Denis Gaston) and a pair of intriguing non-locals (Lee Lee, Eva Eun-Sil Han), the work on view fails to come together into a cohesive exhibit and in some cases even feels like second-rate pieces by good artists. The show's proposition — that each of the artists is reacting to some inspiration, whether an event or a particular medium, in their work — is too vague, I suspect, to provide the needed structure. So many visual styles and approaches to meaning and process collide here that aside from a few disconnected moments of satisfaction, the exhibit inspires an anticlimactic reaction of mild disappointment.

Take Strunk's metal sculptures, ordinarily a favorite of mine for the fetish treatment he gives scraps of metal, hardware bits and found objects. Here, three similar pieces, all rectangular patchworks of subtly rusted metal, feel repetitive and dull; a single version could serve as a minimal study of metallic patina, but cluster three together in a tiny alcove of the gallery, and they look merely decorative. Larson's segment of the show is similarly uninspiring; her series of eight hand-painted pinhole photographs of calendar pages, dried flowers and family portraits belabors the point — collage as an exploration of memory — without tapping into the ambiguity that makes her work, in other instances, so poetic. Lee Lee's paint, blood and fabric-encrusted mixed-media paintings cry out loudest for a different context. Ostensibly, their craggy surfaces engage Strunk's sculptures in a dialogue about texture, but crammed in among all the other works the paintings are inert.

Sculptures by C. Wade Brickhouse shine, however. His meticulously crafted wall-mounted pendulums of wood, cast paper, rusted metal scraps and other found tidbits make for contemplative viewing. They cast the artist in the role of urban ritualist, exploring the sacred through the mundane. Daniel Mrgan's pop-surrealist wood-burnings also manage to survive being lumped into the larger conversation, though they'd be much better off in an exhibit of complementary work or a one-man show. Next to Mrgan's cartoon-y parables of modern discontent, Denis Gaston's primitive animal and figure paintings — like Neolithic glyphs — don't make much sense, their mystique sapped by juxtaposition with the literal. Eva Eun-Sil Han's whimsical collages, pieced together with bits of Flemish Renaissance paintings, are charming but far from revelatory.

If you're a contemporary art lover in the Bay area, you've got to be pulling for the continued success of C. Emerson Fine Arts — but both the gallery and the artists in React deserve a better exhibit than this one.

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