A wise friend likes to say of relationships that come to an end: It's how you exit that counts.
The Gulf Coast Museum is exiting in a classy way with its final show, "Christopher Still: Coming Home." When it's over in late January, so will be the museum's tenure at its location adjacent to Heritage Village and the Florida Botanical Gardens. Its leaders are exploring possible new sites in Clearwater; one near Ruth Eckerd Hall is being discussed, for example, and the hope is it will be able to reinvent itself in a more visible location.
But the future is speculative; in the here and now we have something tangible to celebrate, a wonderful art exhibition.
Know at the outset that Still's most ambitious and recent works are not here. A huge painting and sculpture suspended from a terminal ceiling at Tampa International Airport and 10 murals he created for the Florida House of Representatives obviously were not traveling even if the museum had had room for them, nor were the two large paintings completed earlier in the year for the lobby of Sandpearl, a new luxury resort in Clearwater Beach. But there are a lot of other works in this show, and because most are from private collections, few of us will see them again in the foreseeable future. (Collectors understandably hate stripping their walls of beloved art.)
The exhibition is a mid-career retrospective, which means it seeks to present a comprehensive look at Still's development as an artist and is arranged mostly chronologically. It's also a good reminder, if we need one, that even the finest artists aren't born fully formed.
An early education in what would be his life
Still was clearly a prodigy when the Dunedin teen won the National Scholastic Scholarship Competition in 1979 with a portfolio that included a charcoal drawing of Myself at 83. It has an old masters look to it, a sure hand in draftsmanship and a thought-provoking concept. He had taken art classes since he was 7, quickly moved into those for adults because of his talent and sold his first painting at 14. Two abstract paintings from 1976 and 1978 are in no way remarkable, though the latter is more mature, with neutral colors used effectively to simulate dramatic natural light in a Turner-esque way (though Still probably wasn't familiar with the great 19th century landscape artist).
The scholarship took him to the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where Still mastered the complexities of color, a challenge that often undermines the work of the best draftsmen. He became comfortable painting out-of-doors, following the impressionists' path, as well as their stylistic tendencies. He attended anatomy classes at a medical school, making anatomical drawings. He took time off to work with a fresco painter in Italy and to roam through European museums. By the time he graduated from the academy in 1984, loaded with awards for his work, he was armed with the knowledge and techniques needed to abet his talent. Paintings, mostly landscapes, from that period show that all he needed was time for everything to coalesce.
And then a still life from 1989, Treasures of Our Yard. It's startling to examine now; it must have been a beautiful shocker almost 20 years ago. You think at first you're looking at a well-done emulation of a 17th century Dutch or Flemish still life, lush with flora and fauna. A butterfly perches on a bloom; a half-peeled orange sits on a burnished wood table. Hints of life's transitory nature abound, a typical vanitas painting. It's so familiar in a way. So familiar in another, unexpected way. Because we notice that one of those ubiquitous cardboard containers is holding the kumquats. Grocery store china and commonplace Florida flowers and weeds replace the precious porcelains and bulbs of renaissance paintings.
Still didn't copy a genre or even refresh one. He reinvented it. In the 1991 Orchids, the old masterly technique is even surer: rich translucent glazes make the flowers stacked on rustic shelves glow. A trompe l'oeil, or "fool the eye," frame encases the composition, with some of the plants and gardening items floating out of it. Once again, he locates the painting in the here and now with a bottle of chemical insecticide.
Detailed works filled with ample meaning
The still lifes became a means not an end to Still's growing interest in narrative painting. These plant stories about our relationship to nature were not broad enough for the artist who really wanted to use nature and man-made objects symbolically and to understand a contemporary setting by understanding what came before it.
For most of the 1990s, Still refined his ambition to collage landscape, still life and historical painting into single works that defied specific labels. The trompe l'oeil, renaissance color and perspective, the loaded foreground and inclusion of the unexpected became signatures of his complex compositions, as did the surprises he included, waiting to be discovered like treasures from a hunt. In On Sacred Ground and Changing Tides, for example, he deals with the struggles of the Seminoles first and Tarpon Springs sponge divers later, to deal with survival in shifting times. As gorgeous as they are, the paintings are not entirely successful. That loaded foreground sometimes seems like a social studies quiz — name the item, guess its significance. If Still's work suffers, it is from a deep sense of duty to bear witness to environmental or social injustice. But in art, didacticism should never be the main point.
A style at home in the state Capitol
Still needed a broader platform for his epic vision. He found it in 1999 with a commission from the Florida House of Representatives, murals that would consume him for almost nine years and present a sweeping interpretation of Florida history. The gallery devoted to them is really more about his process than the murals themselves. About a dozen studies are displayed that show the laborious process of determining final content. Most are marvelous little gems. Small reproductions of the murals accompany them with legends identifying the details.
Much better is a 30-minute video of Still discussing each mural in the House chambers, pointing out those details. The thought that went into them is remarkable. In the mural based on post-Civil War Reconstruction, he creates a map of Florida by framing background trees against the sky to delineate its shape. Branches hang over it in the same formations of the state's earliest railroad lines. In another, the map is visible in the shallows of a pond. You could spend hours studying them all and I hope you have the opportunity to do so on a visit to Tallahassee.
This exemplary exhibition perhaps should not be called a retrospective because it does not really bring us into Still's present-day career. The most recent painting dates from 1999. That's because for a number of years, he has created one large commissioned work annually or every other year. He's currently working on one for Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater to celebrate its 30th anniversary. So only studies from these projects are available for exhibition, not the completed work. The studies are often of standalone caliber. Still, we miss the full sweep of his development to this point, along with an opportunity fully to appreciate and assess it.
But you should visit this exhibition. Rarely will you see such painting by a contemporary artist in our area. Still has taken many cues from renaissance men. And he's a renaissance man himself.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.