Sunday, August 30, 2009

Object Lesson

In 2004 the Museum of Fine Art in St. Petersburg held a major exhibition of renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. In what would become a prelude to a permanent Chihuly presence in St. Petersburg, the Museum filled its first floor galleries with the maestro’s art.

My friend Rima persuaded me to go, with the promise of lunch and a quick ride in her sleek BMW. I was not disappointed - by lunch, Bavarian cars, or Chihuly. At the Museum we wandered from gallery to gallery, astonished by the sheer exuberance and versatility of Chihuly and company. His swirling sculptural creations have become for many the epitome of the beautiful object.

On the way out, we passed through a room with a small collection of Pre-Columbian Art. My senses had been primed by Chihuly’s flashy glass, but they were pounded by the sight of Meso-American pottery pieces – clay statues of gods and goddesses, warriors, priests, and effigy animals. These works, from before the time of Christ to the 15th Century and all artisan made, radiated primal energy, earthiness, and mystery.

Their self-assured presence reminded me of Archaic Greek statuary, but with more power and scariness. I was so transfixed, my friend had to pull me away from the glass cases. I saw my own art in there, or what I wanted my art to be.

Two exhibitions – one of beautiful objects and the other of mysterious objects. Both are legitimate modes of expression and both have their respective advocate groups. Which am I?

Several years later, Chihuly made a personal appearance at the Arts Center in St. Petersburg. Rima surprised me with the gift of his splashy coffee-table book and we stood in line for an hour to get his signature in it. The book now sits on my shelf, lost among others of African, Mexican, Indian and Oceanic art.

Monday, August 24, 2009


everything that is possible to be remembered will one day work its way up from the cranial folds and synapses and present itself whole and you wonder where in the world did that come from having for these many years completely forgotten for instance who was in the cast of tv’s Our Miss Brooks or what pt in pt boat stands for or how did the word sidekick come about but there they are tumbling about in your conscious until it suddenly hits like a remote against the wall Google Did It and of course now it makes perfect sense because the searching engine that can has turned into our super duper uber brain and the more answers it serves up only opens our temporal floodgates more and everything that was once forgotten surges out into the realm of possibility

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Action Jackson

I first learned about Jackson Pollock in Art History 101, courtesy of H. W. Janson's textbook classic, History of Art. Still in the thrall of van Gogh and Matisse, I paid scant attention to the small color reproduction of Pollock's One, Number 31. It was small and messy looking, much like the accidental spin-art pieces I had seen at the Florida State Fair. Even seeing his work projected large in lecture class did little to convince me of greatness.

Several years after graduation, I made my requisite pilgrimage to New York and The Museum of Modern Art. Wandering from gallery to gallery, I recognized, with increasing awe, masterpieces I had first studied in college. Finally, rounding a corner, I found myself confronted by all 9' x 18' of One, Number 31. The effect was immediate and mesmerizing. Stunned by the painting's immensity and power, I could only stand and stare.

And as I stood there taking it all in, something strange happened. The painting began to vibrate. Juxtaposed layers of colors began a dance of kinetic opposition - blobs of blue receded in deference to stringy runs of red, white comets streaked overhead and anchoring everything, webs of glossy black. The vision of that humming mass passed through my eyes and seemed to resonate inside.

I won't soon forget the experience and came away convinced of the error of my former judgement. Jackson Pollock is one of the greatest of 20th Century painters.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Wild Beast In Tampa

The Tampa Museum of Art's classy new home is not even complete, yet has already landed a big one - the original Fauve himself, Henri Matisse. A Celebration of Henri Matisse will be the inagural exhibition of the Museum's instant landmark building on the Hillsborough River.

The exhibition will feature an extensive collection of Matisse's prints, paintings and sculptures and will be the first comprehensive showing of his work in the Tampa Bay area.

Parisian art critics first called Matisse a "Wild Beast" for his bold expressive colors and non-Academic style. He eventually won them over to become arguably the greatest artist of the 20th Century.

Read St. Petersburg Times Art Critic Lennie Bennett's story.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Under The Bed

Later this month I will shut down yet another temporary studio and move into brand new digs, the Stirling Hall Studios in downtown Dunedin.

The grunt work of packing now begins and I am rediscovering art pieces squirreled away nine months ago. It is good to see old friends emerge from closets and crannies, dusty, but no worse for the wear.

This pastel painting titled Ol' King Cole was pulled from beneath the bed, and may explain some of the regal dreams I have lately experienced. The piece also makes me wonder if an art work can truly be called finished if no one ever sees it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Henri Matisse

One of my college art classes was a studio course called Methods and Materials of the Artist. After an introduction to the various media, we were given the assignment of reproducing a work by a 20th Century master. The catch was that we must stick to a 9" x 12" format and use a medium other than the one used by the artist.

I chose to reproduce in gouache one of the many still-lives of Henri Matisse. After laboring for a long and frustrating week, I finished the piece just before the deadline. Not much more is known, except that I somehow passed the course. The still-life ended up in my portfolio and after graduation became a gift to my parents.

Placed in an antique frame, the piece held a place of honor in their home for years. One day, a visitor to my mother's antique shop stopped to admire her painting collection. Standing in front of my class project, she leaned in close to read the signature and her mouth fell open.

She slowly turned to my mother and with mounting excitement said, "I'm not positive, but I think you might have an Henri Matisse painting."

In that moment, my mom made the decision to have some fun and play along with her visitor. "Oh goodness, do you really think so?"

The lady did think so and nothing would do except for her to take the piece to a friend for authentication. Her friend turned out to be one of the curators at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.

My mischevious mom resisted the urge to halt the ruse and handed over the still-life. Weeks passed until one day the visitor called with promising news. The Ringling curator had thoroughly examined the piece and agreed it might indeed be a Matisse.

"The only way to know for sure," he said, "is to show it to Matisse's son Pierre in New York."

At that point, my mother thought it best to end the charade. She had the art returned and continued to enjoy her 'masterpiece' for many more years.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Art For Artist's Sake

There is a belief held by many people, including artists, that art museums are about artists.
And by extension, local art museums are or should be about local artists- their art, their concerns and their careers.

A recent article in the St. Petersburg Times brought this belief into sharp focus. Museum Innovators Stay True To The Mission is an interview by Times art critic Lennie Bennett with six Tampa Bay museum directors. In an extensive double-spread story, the directors discuss their missions, creativity, and working through tough economic times.

After reading the interviews, it occurred to me to reread the story and with a yellow marker underline the word “artist” each time it appeared. I was surprised to find “artist” mentioned only one time in the entire story. Three internationally known painters were discussed, but only in the context of upcoming exhibitions. In closing, one of the directors stated that the key ingredients for a successful museum are exhibitions, collectors, critical writers and patrons. None of the six directors said part of their mission is to exhibit, promote, or support local artists.

However, all of the area museum directors I’ve known do support the local art scene. At various times there have been outstanding exhibitions of local artists as well as student and very special arts exhibitions. Museums have also, in the past, helped sponsor art related events. Sadly, these kinds of shows have succumbed to economic demands.

The Times article brought home one crucial factor in understanding how art museums function. Museums are in the business of art and consequently greatly concerned with
meeting payroll, insurance, taxes, building maintenance and myriad other problems that arise. These all take money of course, and I’ve come to believe that the main job of museum directors is fundraising.

Suffice to say, every museum exhibition must be considered in terms of how much buzz will be created and how many paying customers will come in the door. In that formula, exhibitions of local artists are not a high priority.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Arbiters of Good Taste Ride Into Clearwater

Rest safely citizens of Clearwater. No longer must you tolerate wicked or satanic art in your fair city. Your City Council, atop white steeds of moral indignation, has ridden to the rescue.

Several years ago, Clearwater, like hundreds of cites across the country, formed a Public Art Project. One of the Project’s goals would be placement of outstanding artworks throughout the city - in city buildings as well as select commercial settings.

Longtime city employee, teacher and artist Margo Walbolt headed up the Project until her recent retirement. Under Margo’s excellent guidance, and with the assistance of an arts committee, many wonderful examples of art began to grace the city. Clearwater’s mayor and City Council applauded. Everyone was happy.

Last year the Downtown Development Board (The City) and the Clearwater Downtown Partnership (local businesses) began placing temporary sculptures in the median of Cleveland Street. These public art pieces went through a rigorous selection process by a panel of experts and are fine examples of art created by national artists.

One piece titled Sorcerer’s Gate soon brought an outcry of protest from some in the community. The title and part of the piece they interpreted as a tail were found objectionable on religious grounds. The sculpture was called “wicked” and “a message from hell.”

The Clearwater City Council caved under the complaints. It has now changed a city law ensuring that they, the Council, have final approval over public art. In so doing, the City Council has compromised the Public Art Project and decided they know more about art than their own art committee experts.

The Council has acceded to the beliefs of a small and vocal part of the community, and denied Clearwater’s citizens and visitors the opportunity to experience a wide variety of art.

This is unfortunate in the short-term, but creativity springs eternal and public art will continue to enrich our lives for years to come. Municipal governments, on the other hand, come and go.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Allen Leepa Retrospective at Leepa-Rattner

I first met Allen Leepa in the late 1990s when he and his wife Isabelle dropped by my Dunedin art studio. Dressed casually and wearing his trademark suspenders, Mr. Leepa gave the appearance of a rumpled academician. I was not surprised to learn he had retired as art professor from Michigan State University.

For almost an hour, we talked about art, the life of an artist and my paintings. Many people who look at art speak in glowing terms about pieces they like and remain silent about the rest. Mr. Leepa studied each piece hanging in the room and even looked at works stacked in the back. All the while, he gave a running commentary of pieces he liked and why he liked them.

But more than that, he proceeded to talk about painting that, in his mind, were less successful and why they seemed unresolved. All throughout our discussion, Mr. Leepa asked questions that made me rethink why I painted a certain way.

Artists often paint themselves into corners, redoing the same tired images until they become stuck to the studio floor. We need to ask ourselves the questions Mr. Leepa asked – “Why did you put that blue color on the left?” “Why is that head floating in space?"

I knew when Allen Leepa left my studio that I had just met an extraordinary teacher.

ALLEN LEEPA (1919-2009) A Life In Paint at Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art

Confession of a Clown
, (picured above) 1950, pastel and oil on canvas, courtesy Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art