The Appleton Museum of Art is a regional museum I often overlook. I mean to correct that.
It's set in 11 wooded acres a few minutes beyond downtown Ocala, a stately building of travertine marble you approach along a drive divided by a dramatic rectangular pool and fountain.
It's big, too, 35,000 square feet of gallery space — the new Dali Museum's galleries total about 15,000, for example. Its permanent collection mostly comes from its founder, the late Arthur Appleton, a wealthy Chicago businessman and art collector who had a thoroughbred farm in the Ocala area. It's heavy on 18th and 19th century European and American paintings and sculpture and has a large group of pre-Columbian and African artifacts. It also has a robust special exhibitions schedule, which brings me to the point of my recent visit.
"Visions of the Gulf" is a joint show of paintings by Christopher Still and photographs by Carlton Ward Jr. It's a good match: Both are ardent environmentalists who translate their interest with superb technique and visual straightforwardness. No abstraction, no high-concept approaches.
Most of Still's work here is new. And I mean new in a larger sense, too, with a freshness I have never before seen in his paintings. They're still done in his meticulous manner. But they are more subtly toned, more edited. More mature. One obvious reason is probably for the first time in many years, he isn't working on a commissioned piece. His most famous ones, the panels in the Florida House of Representatives, are a visual history of Florida that doesn't always resolve the tension between unfettered artistic expression and necessary didactic. You can see the difference clearly in an earlier work in this show, Changing Tides from 1994, which was created for the public library in Tarpon Springs, where he lives, and is crammed with historical references and objects. It's beautifully painted but its talking points jostle distractingly with artistic merit.
Seventeen years later, another painting of boats on the water could not be more different. And My Father Before Me is a family portrait of an oysterman, his wife and their two sons harvesting their bivalve crop in a small boat in Apalachicola Bay.
It's a simple scene. The boat rests low in the water under the weight of the shellfish as the family goes about its work. Other fishing boats are out on the water, glinting with sun, as storm clouds form in the distance. High in the sky (and too tiny to see in a reproduction), jets from Eglin Air Force Base pass overhead.
This is a personal painting, undertaken by Still after the 2010 gulf oil spill brought thousands of people in several Gulf Coast states, including Florida, to their knees in outrage and grief.
He painted his way up and down the coast to create a body of work that would chronicle the threatened water, land and animal life. And the way of life that relates to them and is the subject of And My Father Before Me, the group's signature painting. Still painted 39 studies and small works in addition and only one depicts the oil spill itself. He makes even that beautiful, with flames rising from the water under a glowing sky. The others celebrate the landscape: palms, beaches, sunrises and sunsets and a series of waves from the west central coast to the panhandle. There are two studies for the signature work and one still life: A plump oyster sits in its shell, lustrous and luscious. As always, Still uses his old-master style in service to a contemporary sensibility. He doesn't "pretty up" the oysterman and family. The younger son's shorts slide down his hips to reveal boxers and the older son wears laceless athletic shoes. Maybe the cross formed by their poles is too obvious, but the way he positions the older boy is superb. It's the best painting he has ever done.
Ward is an effective partner in the show though his representation is smaller with 10 photographs, none of them new. They add gravitas to the message of the exhibition. However representational Still's paintings are, Ward's photographs can claim certifiable reality. Yet it is a reality of a very high and visually eloquent order.
No question that the Florida these two artists know and love is an endangered species and there are no better spokespeople for its protection, short on words, long on pictures. But for the works to be considered art and not just lovely propaganda, they have to stand on their own. Much of that judgment will be made over time, probably when many of us reading this now are long gone.
I think they'll survive, as art in Still's case and artful documentary in Ward's. I hope, too, that their subject matter, when that time comes, isn't known only through images such as these.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.