Fear and Diversity in St. Petersburg

Central Avenue is teeming with art and ideas

In our new world order, Americans equate terrorism with anonymous suicide bombers in the Middle East, religious fanaticism and political fervor; however, not so long ago, terrorism meant white-robed white men with a penchant for racial profiling and cross-burnings. What both do superbly is instill fear.Despite the difference in details, the two converge — if only in spirit — in A Burning Issue, a small thoughtful installation at M. Petty Photography, one of St. Pete's newest Central Avenue galleries.

Mark Petty, with a background in journalism, photojournalism and law, opened his elegant, well-appointed gallery in November. In this second show of his own work, 10 black-and-white documentary photographs, accompanied by framed texts, offer an authentic and compelling narrative of Ku Klux Klansmen.

During two nights in 1977, Petty witnessed and photographed their rituals and group activities in the Florida Panhandle towns of Pensacola and Pace. Since that time the photos have rarely been seen and were never exhibited. Recent news about hate crimes prompted the photographer to review what he calls his "relics."

"Until I made the prints for this exhibit, only five of the negatives from those two nights had ever been in my enlarger," Petty said.

Though the events were defining moments for the photographer, his own heritage includes defiance of the Klan by Rosalia Greco, his maternal grandmother, who was born in Colorado in 1921 to Italian Catholic immigrants. When forewarned to remove sacred religious images from her home or risk finding a burning cross in her yard, she refused to surrender to fear.

Rosalia's story reminds us that the Klan was not a strictly Southern phenomenon as many believe; during the 1920s, a Klan member was governor of Colorado and others sat in the U.S. Senate and Colorado legislature. Though the Klan is notorious for hatred of blacks, their wrath was spread liberally to Catholics and Jews.

Petty's images include a close-up Klansman portrait, the ritual passing of fire from member to member, the intimacy of a seemingly ordinary group and their children witnessing nighttime rituals. A woman laughing. A daylight parade of white-sheeted members is led brazenly by a hoodless business-suited man.

Compared with cerebrally tedious documentary photographs of industrial sites — like those of celebrated German photographers Hilda and Bernd Becher, for example — Petty's work is satisfying because of its simple storytelling and connection to ideas. There's enough visual interest to sustain attention and come away educated.

One of the most effective photographs is a fully clothed and hooded Klansman with only slits in the cloth for his eyes. Shooting from a low angle creates a slightly monumentalized stature made even more dramatic as the fiery cross behind him appears to grow out of his upper body. The nighttime fire bestows a luxurious shimmering light onto his gown, as if illuminating a visual metaphor for evil.

All images are loosely draped with burlap squares which must be lifted and held (a temporary hook would permit unobstructed viewing). Yet I liked the way the burlap flaps cover the work and thus enhance the installation's focus on free speech issues. Framed texts also complement the images. They're effectively used to impart small doses of information, such as legal data from state or federal courts considering issues like First Amendment rights and cross-burning.

Petty's gallery, decidedly one of the smallest Bay area spaces, reminds us that good things often come in small packages. A Burning Issue is a timely and powerful reminder that Klan terrorists with homegrown American roots are just another variety of terrorist.

Also on Central Avenue, The Arts Center, with its side-by-side galleries, is one of the few Bay area venues suitable for mounting multiple simultaneous exhibitions. It is currently showing a visual smorgasbord of artists linked by their African heritage. Because of the overwhelming number of separate shows (five), I'll focus mostly on The Watermelon Chronicles and Images of the Spirit, both selected by in-house curator Amanda Cooper.

But it's comforting to come away from the exhibitions with the understanding that it's futile to attempt to homogenize artists' ethnicity. As all of these separate exhibitions demonstrate, the artists remain individual in approach, attitude, style and content.

Aside from heritage, if there's another unifying element in Cooper's choices, it's the general absence of overt black anger. The exception may be Samuel L. Dunson Jr.'s "Invisible Man," from his The Watermelon Chronicles series. I say, "may be," because this work functions as both a commentary on anger and on the status quo. A mixed-media-on-wood piece, it depicts a crime scene with the usual chalk outlines on the sidewalk where a body has been removed. Within the outlines are newspaper headlines and power words like "criminal violence" and "gun shootings." At the left are watermelons of varying sizes and shapes, which become coded symbols.

The Watermelon Chronicles series challenges and transforms tired stereotypes of watermelon-eating blacks by creating satirical narratives. Comical figures and anthropomorphic animals people these stylized, colorful figurative paintings. Dunson's skillful use of interesting perspectives and angles is especially effective here.

Images of the Spirit: Albert Chong, Radcliffe Bailey & Whitfield Lovell focuses on three internationally known, award-winning artists, all of whom adapt elements of photography to their own styles. And they could not be more different.

Whether manipulated in the darkroom, collaged, projected, digitalized or painted over, photography is still the reigning champ of the art world. In the Images exhibition, Albert Chong's use of photography appears more straightforward than the others as a medium, although his symbolic imagery — like cowrie shells — are often added digitally. "I work not unlike a sculptor," says Chong. "I find, create, assemble and in the end record."

Born in Jamaica of Chinese and African ancestry, Chong is currently professor of art and photography at the University of Colorado. He combines ancestral photos with objects, a process he calls "artistic shamanism" and says is influenced by African and Oceanic tribal arts. We see this in two throne images of chairs laden with organic objects like eggshells, a skull, cowrie shells and feathers. His "Throne for the Ancestors" is especially strong.

"The Cowrie Necklace" is also memorable. A child's face appears distant, even ethereal, while the cowrie shells — the symbolic element — are brought into sharp focus.

By contrast, Whitfield Lovell draws with charcoal while transferring photographic images onto old and scraped wooden panels. (I couldn't help thinking about the current decorating fad for "shabby chic" — sort of a perversion isn't it?). His installations, combining photography, drawing and sculpture, include objects like rusty pots set on the floor before the large wooden drawing of family members. Although we see residue of black poverty, ironically the gentle figures are dressed in middle-class garb.

Radcliffe Bailey embeds old photos onto huge wooden panels and then nearly eradicates them with multiple layers of expressionist lines, tree limbs, and abstract geometric shapes. I found it really hard to decipher these works until grasping how, in a work like "Rooted," Bailey's dimensional layers force us to reach inside his visual cacophony to find the central images. In a metaphorical sense, he seems to protect those within by nearly hiding them under his art. I thought his "Sacred Cosmos" is a far stronger piece with more coherence between the central image and the outer design elements. Whether you become a Bailey fan or not, you will not easily forget his work.

Last, "Lady of the Tree," a collage and acrylic on canvas by Tampa's Sangoyemi Ogunsanya, part of a two-person exhibition curated by Sarasota artist Gale Fulton Ross. The work (the best Ogunsanya here), with its economy of forms, is as simple and elegant as Bailey's work is complex. With a pair of eyes staring at us through what might be a slitted tree trunk, it seems a perfect visual bookend to the Mark Petty photograph of a hooded Klansmen.

Art critic Adrienne M. Golub can be reached at [email protected].