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At the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, spirits that move you

ST. PETERSBURG

Wild Spirits" may be a tad hyperbolic as the title of the current exhibition at the Morean Arts Center. But only a tad. The works by Felipe Packard and Ricardo de la Vega, Candace Knapp and Lenne Nicklaus-Ball are without doubt spirited. Though they crackle with exuberance, they sometimes seem more wily than wild. So let's call them free spirits, and this a light and undemanding show that suits summer perfectly.

It's definitely a departure from the wonderful but cerebral Jasper Johns prints the Arts Center just traded out for these colorful sculptures that are fundamentally based in the craft tradition.

I have always loved Packard and de la Vega's papier-mache people, cousins of those Mexican folk art statues that saturate cultural and religious traditions south of the border. The artists make suave use of their material, shaped and smoothed like clay or wood into figurative characters, then painted in vibrant colors. All in this collection are smaller scale than many previous works, and the best have ambiguous narratives.

A statue of President Barack Obama, standing in a dignified pose, titled The Audacity to Dream, borders on kitsch in its literalness. His chest opens like a cabinet to reveal a little piggy bank and a collage of timely headlines. The chest "cavity" is also used for Mr. Green Thumb, a dapper man (thumbs painted, of course) whose innards are equipped with gardening tools and seed packets. The best works have more mystery: A figure in jester costume declaiming in Soliloquy and another atop a rooster, juggling balls in Los dos Gallos (The Two Roosters) are two examples.

Knapp's wood sculptures hang from a gallery ceiling or arrange themselves on curving pieces of artificial turf, creating a village of characters somewhere between Seuss and surreal. The figure in Sweet Dreams has the large, broadly featured head and curled body of a fetus, attached at the navel to feathery hands that wing upward. It could be Freudian, and disturbing, but it's more immediately charming. That's the impression given by most of Knapp's sculpture, sinuous abstractions combined with a figurative trope that suggests a story. The installation's effective, too. Good light placement casts shadows that give some of the works, such as Leilah, a second life. In corporeal form, it's an assemblage of yellow forms resembling parts of a bird; as a shadow, it seems to be in full flight.

I concede that of the four artists here, Nicklaus-Ball's work could, in all truth, be called wild. Not only are her sculptures wild animals, some are so outsized and all are so lavishly encrusted with baubles, bangles and beads that a Carnivale parade in Rio seems likely to ensue. You have heard of Statement Jewelry? This is the sculptural version. The starting point for this menagerie, born several years ago, was hollow ostrich eggs Nicklaus-Ball discovered on a trip to Africa. She decorated some as an homage to her late grandmother, Peg Nunn (a lovely community light whom I adored and who was known for her style, especially an ability to wear hats well). Nicklaus-Ball uses the eggs here as cargo placed on the backs of small, fantastical zebras, giraffes and leopards. More recently, she has translated them into enormous metal orbs on creatures soaring about 12 feet and similarly adorned on a much larger scale. I'm not sure where it's all going, but I would love to join the caravan.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

Wild Spirits

The exhibition is at the Morean Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, through Aug. 15. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Please note that the center now has a suggested donation of $8 admission. moreanartscenter.org or

(727) 822-7872.

At the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, spirits that move you 07/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 5:30am]

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