Catch Paradise Lost/Paradise Found and Disappearing Florida while you can

Living in urban Tampa or St. Petersburg, it's easy to forget about the "real Florida." Not that a daily trip to Starbucks or a commute across the Howard Frankland isn't real — but you know what I mean. I'm talking roadside vegetable stands and thickets of orange groves. I'm talking palm fronds and juice stands with hand-painted signs.

That's the Florida of Karen Tucker Kuykendall's paintings. Her fabulous trompe l'oeil creations juxtapose photorealist fragments of Florida landscape with whimsical elements like painted Scrabble tiles, cartoon Humpty Dumpty figures or, in one case, post-it sized illustrations of a smiley-faced orange, that disrupt the illusion of the painting as a window onto the world, collaging bits and pieces of memory together with witty visual trickery. If you've spent much time in Florida, Kuykendall's paintings will take you right back to a lazy Sunday trip up Route 301.

"When I travel in the car, I don't want to go on the interstate. I want to go the long route and see a lot of stuff," she says.

Like Kuykendall, the other eight artists featured in Paradise Lost/Paradise Found and Disappearing Florida, a pair of exhibitions on view at the Morean Arts Center through Sunday, are great lovers of the Sunshine State. They have deployed their considerable talents to pay homage to Florida and to issue a call to stop, slow down and take a long look at a beloved environment in danger of disappearing.

Their works add up to two distinct exhibits in adjacent galleries — one focused on naturalist photography, the other on more diverse and, I suppose, poetic responses to the idea of Florida and its place in the flux of time. However, the dialogue between the two shows is so fruitful that it's richer, in my view at least, to see them as inseparable. What, after all, could drive home the point of Mark Messersmith's dramatic oil paintings of wildlife on the prowl and under attack (in Paradise Lost/Paradise Found) better than Dick Jacobs' photos of a streamlined egret in flight or a crouching panther (in Disappearing Florida)?

Because of the surfeit of artistic riches on display, I won't say much about work by some of the better-known artists — work you've probably seen before, like Messersmith's paintings or Carlton Ward's photographs of Florida ranchers. (Both are revelatory if you haven't.) I was more struck by some lesser-known names. Raina Benoit, for example, an emerging St. Petersburg-based artist, contributes one of the most delightful pieces on display — a Hokusai-esque wave of cars painted on plastic film and arranged in a cascade across one wall at the Morean. At once funny and poignant, it cuts to the heart of the exhibitions' environmentalist undercurrent.

Stuart-based photographer Kevin Boldenow's work also stands out — for its antiquated look in comparison with the sharply detailed, color photography that dominates Disappearing Florida. Reminiscent of hazy Pictorialist landscapes at the turn of the 20th century, Boldenow's black-and-white pictures give a sense of the atmospheric density of Florida's deep wilderness. "Somber," for example, depicts a cluster of trees draped with Spanish moss, keeping watch over an expanse of flat swampland, in soft silvery tones.

In contrast, St. Petersburg photographer Randy Van Duinen (included in Paradise Lost/Paradise Found) uses cutting-edge technology — HDR, or high dynamic range, photography — to produce images with a strikingly different flavor of history. Crafted to evoke the graphic style of vintage Florida postcards, Van Duinen's pictures capture mom-and-pop businesses, like The Sands Motel on Treasure Island or the Coney Island Diner in downtown St. Pete, in bold color and surreally crisp detail.

The neat trick of HDR photography, which Van Duinen stretches to its creative limits, is that it lets shooters merge, in the computer during post-production, different versions of the same image taken at higher and lower exposures to light. For example, in "Lounging at the Sands," the technology enables Van Duinen to capture not only the motel's blazing yellow-and-white beach chairs and umbrellas, but also the face in shadow of a man peeking out from behind a motel room curtain.

Of course, the technique wouldn't be worth much if Van Duinen didn't bring a good old-fashioned artist's eye to each composition and the careful calibrating of colors and textures in the images, which possess a distinctive painterly quality. A long-time architectural photographer by trade, Van Duinen was inspired to start documenting bits of old Florida after moving from San Francisco to Clearwater Beach (before settling in St. Pete) nearly a decade ago with his wife.

"We were seeing things of Florida just disappearing, part of the cultural history just being developed away," he says.

Stop by the Morean this weekend and have a good look at Disappearing Florida and Paradise Lost/Paradise Found before they disappear, too.

Loving Florida to Death, Part 2: Panel discussion led by USF history professor Gary Mormino featuring writer and CL contributor Peter Meinke, writer/filmmaker Bill Belleville and photographer Carlton Ward from the Morean's Disappearing Florida exhibit. Thurs., March 10, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Free. Poynter Institute for Media Studies, 801 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, 727-821-9494, poynter.org.