Review | Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration at Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

August 10, 2017 by DANNY OLDA | VISUAL ARTS
Anthony Record, Ride the Line, Acrylic on unstretched canvas, 2017
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I anticipate that for most avid Bay area arts lovers, the new triple-museum exhibition Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration will elicit one of two effects: it will bolster or renew your faith in the Tampa Bay art scenes. The semi-caveat should be dispensed with, that this is a juried exhibition rather than a curated one. That is, it isn’t a survey of Tampa Bay contemporary art in the proper and exhaustive sense. However, the pool is arguably deep enough to remind us that we have much to be proud of and inspire optimism.

Indeed, the exhibition is expansive, enormous even. The work of 57 artists spans three museums. In view of that, I won’t attempt to provide a necessarily deficient overview of the entire endeavor, but rather limit myself to the portion of the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. I like to think that this is sufficient. In addition to featuring artwork by 24 artists, the exhibition as it is at the MFA is organized such that the artists and their work engage with each other with a subtlety and depth that can be explored for pages. An entire article could easily be exclusively devoted to the interplay between the respective installations of artists Noelle Mason and Gregory Green.

The exhibition at the MFA is divided into roughly four or five thematic areas, each generally strong enough to bear the scrutiny of a stand-alone exhibition. One such space highlighted abstraction.

Though contemporary abstract art is frequently the recipient of casual reblogs and likes or aloof dismissal, the work in this gallery demonstrates that, at least locally, explorations in abstraction are vibrant, varied and fairly rigorous. For example, in paintings such as Palpable Blur (2016) and Futurist Feelings (2016), artist Walter Matthews works with an equally confident color palette and brush stroke. The strong brush work, seemingly sprayed acrylic paint and jarring rhythm of the paintings seem to abstract written language more than a figurative reality, perhaps a barely perceptible nod to graffiti and typography.

Whereas Matthews paintings are executed with a certain urgency, on the opposite wall the work of Anthony Record operates on what feels like a more monumental time-scale. The museum’s wall text says that “Record engages with “deep time and big data”” – this isn’t artspeak but, looking at the work, a spot-on tweet-sized description. Though paintings on cut and unstretched canvas, a trio of near-colorless writhing figures and forms resemble weather-worn stone or garbled television signals in interstellar space. They feel big in a way that stretches beyond their dimensions.

Akiko Kotani, Soft Walls, Crocheted plastic over wood, 2016

Of course, one work of art that cannot be ignored in the “abstract gallery” is Akiko Kotani’s imposing yet snuggly wall planted in the center of the space simply titled Soft Walls (2016). The work is a large wall that essentially partitions the gallery into two halves and is covered in white crocheted garbage bags. The material combined with process are an affecting reminder of what is commonly considered domestic labor, or as Kotani puts it, “women’s work” and its perceived value (or lack thereof). However, in a time when a wall is endlessly intoned in a presidential campaign call and response as part of a campaign promise that points to broader fears, concerns and emotions, Kotani’s work can’t help but spark larger and unexpected conversations.

The bright airy space of this gallery is contrasted across the hall by a dimly lit area, stoutly anchored by diverse representations of the body. As such, the video piece Tragedy Brings Them Back to a Virtuous and Happy Mean (2016) by Bahareh Khoshooee is perhaps the most disquieting. It plunges headlong into an uncanny valley through clips of a childbirth manakin simulating delivery and (by today’s standards) a severely polygonal computer animation of a woman exercising, muscle tissue bared. Despite the new-age-y guided meditation voiceover, the harsh artificiality of the representations suck a spirituality out of the bodies, reframing them as biological masses in with specific functions. The title is part of a quote by Enlightenment-era art critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in which, speaking about the idea of catharsis, he says “In real life men are sometimes too much addicted to pity or fear, sometimes too little; tragedy brings them back to a virtuous and happy mean.” Pair this sentiment (and maybe the etymological root of catharsis, referring to a literal physical purge, such as of the bowels or menstruation) with the imagery of the video, and it becomes quickly apparent that there is a lot to unpack in this work.

Wendy Babcox, Good Morning Heartache, Archival inkjet print, 2016

Nearby, artist Wendy Babcox further explores representations of the body, specifically in regard to violence and injury. She combed through approximately 38,000 works of art in the Louvre Museum’s collection on view in Paris, searching for every depiction of a wound, compiling an archive of 7,000 images. Babcox’s three photographs exhibited in Skyway, Good Morning Hearache 1, 2, 3 (2016), all specifically feature medieval representations of Jesus’ spear or lance wound. The gospel of John relates that the Jesus, already dead, was stabbed in the side to ensure that he had indeed died, whereupon blood and water poured from the wound.

Babcox may be mining centuries-old imagery, but the conversation is distinctly contemporary. The saturation point of violent imagery seems to be a perpetually receding point. As the shock of ISIS beheading videos sinks into numbness, Facebook Live murders emerge as a distinct thing. What happens to us when the representations of the suffering of others becomes common place? Babcox essentially approaches this question by way of one of the Western world’s most iconic and ubiquitous images of pain and violence. In regard to the larger exhibition, Babcox’s series acts as an appropriate segue to the exhibition’s rear gallery.

Shared in part by artists Noelle Mason and Gregory Greene, this gallery has certainly been the most talked-about area of the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts and perhaps across all three museums. Both explore violence broadly and depict meticulous preparations for mass violence specifically.

In Love Letters/White Flag (Book of God) (2016), Mason reproduces journal entries of the Columbine High School Massacre shooters as more than 200 hand-embroidered handkerchiefs. As tear-drying handkerchiefs, as white flags of surrender, as mementos and as tedious handiwork and soft and airy and enduring objects, there is so much to scrutinize in its form, before even broaching the work’s content, that it’s frankly overwhelming. The content of the journals—doodles, notes, lists—is generally as one may expect: offensive, angry, at times ridiculous, hateful, juvenile. However, through the piece, Mason offers us something the news cycle then and now has withheld: time and space for critical thought, reflection.

Work that can be emotionally visceral, such as that of Mason’s and Green’s, is frequently mischaracterized as intentionally attention-seeking created by artists with penchants for unfeeling provocation. I think this characterization is very often, and particularly in this case, wrongheaded. While network news culture offers opportunity for little more than gawking-in-passing and pearl clutching at a distance, contemporary art offers what it always has: space and time to unravel and question complex ideas and emotions. Watching an embroidered handkerchief ripple gently in the air conditioning, I recognized that the work gave me a quiet and slow moment with the tragedy that I’m unsure I ever had been given.

Gregory Green, Worktable #9, He of Righteousness, (Minneapolis, Saint Petersburg), Mixed media, 2017, photo by Ethan Early

Nearby, Gregory Green’s installation, Worktable #9, He of Righteousness, (Minneapolis, Saint Petersburg) (2017), offers a pause of a different sort. A bomb building workshop feels frozen in a moment mid-task, as if the bomb-maker is merely taking a bathroom break. The materials and explosives look real and I’m told they’re visually accurate. Thus, there is more than one notice on the gallery walls that the installation “lacks the dangerous materials that would make it truly functional.”

Gregory Green, Worktable #9, He of Righteousness, (Minneapolis, Saint Petersburg) (detail), Mixed media, 2017, photo by Ethan Early

If you’re shocked by the realism of the installation as a bomb-making workshop and allow that shock to subside, you may begin to notice that the installation is actually something much subtler: it’s an investigation and documentation of an individual’s radicalization. The bomb itself is nestled inside the cut pages of an enormous Bible. Behind it, perched on the corner of the desk are books such as The Anarchist Cookbook, SAS Urban Survival Handbook, How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It, and the biography of white nationalist William Pierce The Fame of a Dead Man’s Deeds. Newspaper clippings, wires, buckets, knick-knacks and garbage are strewn across the floor and table tops. It’s easy to begin stitching a detailed narrative of idealism transforming into radicalization and violent ideation before suddenly the workshop radio hisses static from its speakers jolting you back into the museum.

Perhaps the most sagacious pairing of artists in the MFA installment of Skyway is that of Babs Reingold and Charles Parkhill. Both artists’ offerings are sculptural and of similar materials, namely time-worn wood. However, they act as precisely positioned foils. Parkhill deftly exercises a sort of formalism that somehow at once belies and reaffirms his organic medium of choice.

Reingold’s work, on the other hand, inhabits a different conceptual space. Her installation, The Last Tree: Squared (2015-2017), emerges out of a meditation on the havoc wreaked by hurricane Katrina and a quote by environmentalist Jared Diamond: “What did the Easter islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” Poverty has been a perennial theme in the art of Babs Reingold. Therefore, environmental concerns may be a logical progression in her practice, as Katrina tragically illustrated that the poor are perhaps the most frequent and greatly affected victims of environmental abuse. That progression bears out well in Reingold’s work as typified in this installation as well as its larger iteration (not in the exhibition) simply titled The Last Tree (2010-2013).

I’ve mentioned only a minority of the artists in a minority of the venues participating in this exhibition: Attempts to meaningfully synthesize everything in Skyway are necessarily doomed. The breadth and depth of the exhibition won’t allow it. But that is a success in its own way, perhaps the success of Skyway. It demonstrates that there is an abundance of talented contemporary artists creating work very relevant to the national discourse on art, on par with the rigor found in more established art communities and able to hold its own in any city but thankfully hangs its hat in Tampa Bay.

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