ST. PETERSBURG — Two group exhibitions at C. Emerson Fine Arts and Mindy Solomon Gallery have much in common superficially. • Both use portraiture — very loosely defined — to explore identity issues. They're also narrative shows, meaning they tell stories with images and in some cases a few words to help you along. So both in their ways are more accessible than a lot of idea-based, or conceptual, art. • Each show is distinct, though, in its intent.
"Hero Worship" at Mindy Solomon Gallery is tightly focused, with six male artists who present different interpretations of gender. All use contrasts of some sort, either thematically or in the use of materials to set up a masculine-feminine dichotomy.
In the front, suspended from the ceiling, are Mark Newport's one-piece knit suits displayed as if in a trendy boutique. They're sweet, sort of funny and sort of weird. Newport knits life-size coverings or costumes that envelop the body, theoretically imposing another identity on an individual. They're soft and are purposefully displayed on hangers rather than mannequins, creating the impression that anyone could inhabit them. They often suggest in their titles heroic transformations. My Batman is head-to-toe black; Naftaman (named after the North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico) starts with multicolored yarn in red, white and blue that changes to a rainbow of hues. Two Gun Kid is outfitted with pockets (the holster) and mittens (the guns), warm and fuzzy meets macho.
The same vulnerability is present in Jeremy Chandler's lush photographs of men in hunting gear with guns and a photographic triptych by David Hilliard, Rock Bottom, in which Hilliard and his father wade in a lake, their images looking away from each other and bookending the center panel, which is a photograph of the expanse of water between them.
Pavel Amromin's lustered porcelain sculptures have the preciousness of Meissen, the figures arranged in tableaux decorated like wedding cakes. Instead of the decorative romantic figures we associate with that tradition, Amromin populates his groupings with cute puppy heads on human bodies, often wearing combat boots, carrying firearms and roughing up a third party.
At C. Emerson Fine Arts, owner and curator Lori Johns has a broader sweep in "Vignette," with 12 artists ranging far and wide through their narrative territory.
One of the most cryptic is in the most traditional medium, Kim Anderson's painting, Fountain. It has a soft-focus, photographic blur for its idyllic poolside setting. Children swimming or lounging seem innocuous enough, but there's something off about the way the bodies are positioned, suggestive of an undercurrent that we can't quite see, just as we can't quite get a complete focus.
Chalet Comellas' Eternal Return is direct in its portrait of obsessive behavior. The video, shot from above, opens with a woman, shown waist down and wearing a black dress and pumps, who begins sweeping a sand-covered floor. The task takes forever, and when she returns to the floor, now painted with roses, she covers it back up with sand. The process continually loops so we're mesmerized and exhausted by the pointless work. The screen is encased in rough wooden planks that give a further sense of entrapment.
Found Feather, a video by Rocky Grimes, builds up disparate images in a surrealist fashion that become a cohesive statement after repetition of those images and written messages that flash through, including "metaphorically speaking" and "transcend." This video is a metaphor, using literal birds and their feathers along with simulations: a paper airplane, a man fluttering his hands like wings, then pretending to fly. There's also the downside — someone in a bird mask carrying a hunting rifle with the suggestion of a downed bird being eaten. The idea seems to be: Rise above and then risk getting shot down.
Two paintings on wood lighten the cerebration of other works in the show with wit and charm. Daniel Mrgan "paints" by burning images into a wood block so the results have a primitive, cartoonish look that fits the odd creatures he portrays. Kyle Hughes Ogden has a small gem in A Fast Encounter, part anime, part futurism, as complex in its imagery as Mrgan's is simple. They work so well exhibited next to each other, and I wish there were more of the two to enjoy.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.