Tampa Museum of Art's Avant Garde re-brands itself as the Exhibitionists

click to enlarge MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE: "The Fleet of Doom," by Chris Parks, integrates oil company logos with a Transformers-style robot. - Courtesy Of The Exhibitionists
Courtesy Of The Exhibitionists
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE: "The Fleet of Doom," by Chris Parks, integrates oil company logos with a Transformers-style robot.

Chances are you know them as Avant Garde — if you know them at all — but the Tampa Museum of Art's young professionals volunteer group wants you to think of them in a different way: as the Exhibitionists.

If you attended their say-goodbye bash at the old Tampa Museum of Art building in January, you're well aware that these folks not only know how to have a good time, they have a good eye for art as well. The party, called Retro Perspectives, doubled as one of the strongest and most diverse showcases of local visual artists in recent memory, while sending off the old TMA building with a touching video tribute and a touch of street art on its exterior. (The event even earned them a Best of the Bay for Best Art Party 2008.)

That commitment to staging exhibitions — unique among similar museum groups in the area — in combination with a desire to seem more accessible, has led the group to re-brand itself as the Exhibitionists. (Apparently Avant Garde sounded too hoity-toity, while the Exhibitionists reflects their not-too-self-serious commitment to "exposing art.")

"The museum and the arts are here for every person in our community, and it's important that our group feel accessible to every single young person across Tampa Bay," says incoming chairperson Noah Rollins.

So come, young and young-at-heart, to the Exhibitionists next party/exhibit, Brand New Day. As a loose curatorial premise, the show takes on themes of branding, advertising and corporate identity in works by 14 local favorites, including Rocky Bridges, Chris Deacon, Laura Mae Dooris, Brandon Dunlap, Jay Giroux, Nicholas Gomez, James Michaels, Chris Parks, Joshua Pearson and John Vitale. Staged in unleased retail spaces on the ground floor of Skypoint, the event also aims to draw a crowd to downtown Tampa on a Saturday night — a concept that, while becoming gradually more familiar to Bay area residents, still has a long way to go. The site, not by coincidence, is a paint splash from where the new Tampa Museum of Art, currently under construction, will sit in Curtis Hixon Park.

During interviews with Rollins and several of the exhibit's artists, I was impressed by their engagement with a theme that could have been limiting or trite but has turned out to be a catalyst for all manner of reactions to commercial culture. Fans of Tampa success stories Kathie Olivas and Brandt Peters — whose high-end art toys grace shelves in New York and California while they glide under the radar in T-town — will be thrilled to gather some behind-the-scenes glimpses of their process. In addition to recent paintings, sculptures and toys from each, Peters plans to exhibit a 4-foot prototype of a toy and several "turnaround drawings" that show how his depictions of macabre-yet-whimsical figures become limited edition collectibles at the hands of fabricators in China.

Along with Olivas and Peters, the inclusion of established artists like Bridges, Michaels and David Williams lends Brand New Day an element of gravitas. St. Petersburg-based Williams, whose style bridges Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, offers a trio of canvases he calls "cultural vending machines." Inspired by his recent trips to Japan, each of the three paintings entices viewers to contemplate a meticulously replicated bag of quirky Asian snack food on a field of abstracted manga illustrations, oversized Japanese characters and red dots. Though they function well enough simply as eye candy, the artist hopes the paintings will suggest a subtle irony: While Japanese culture lends itself to consumption in forms like Hello Kitty or a box of Pocky, there's much more to the country and culture than "brand" Japan.

Several pieces in the exhibit take iconic corporate logos as fodder for satire or subversion. Among them is a curiously engrossing painting by Sarasota-based artist Lynda Bostrom, who imagines what purpose a Target or Chevron logo might serve in the future to explorers discovering the remains of our civilization, post-apocalypse. (And, yes, I assume the subtext here is that said corporations are somehow complicit in the apocalypse.) With graceful gestures that are equally beautiful and poignant, she renders a portrait of one such explorer wearing a headdress adorned with corporate idols. Damned if that BP sunflower doesn't make for a pretty accessory.

Other highlights include Parks' deliciously over-the-top digital illustration of a Transformers-style robot assembled with Big Oil logos and Pearson's illustrations for a hip children's book that simultaneously teaches the alphabet and the ABCs of urban living. ("D" is for dump truck.) Like Olivas' and Peters' work, Pearson's drawings show the artist operating within the commercial world rather than reacting against it. That the show can represent both sides of the to-brand-or-not-to-brand coin and still have a lot of fun visually says a lot about the Exhibitionists' own sophistication. Let this Brand New Day dawn.