Physical beauty is a celebration of everything sensual. Seeing something we consider beautiful should make us happy.
So why did I feel almost depressed when I left the Morean Arts Center recently, having seen art that could, by most standards, be considered beautiful?
It was the cow. The birds. The panther. The marshes, fields and forests where they live. The fragility at the heart of their existence that they are completely unaware of.
"Disappearing Florida" makes clear its polemical mission in its banal title. If you're going to give people a lecture, better to do it with the subtlety of the show's content: 33 photographs by four artists with an environmental bent. They let their silent stars speak for themselves, giving elegiac voice to these creatures of the wild with elegant restraint.
Carlton Ward Jr. has made a name for himself with numerous exhibitions of his National Geographic-worthy portfolio of natural Florida. Unlike the other photographers represented, Ward tends to put his subjects into a context that seeks to connect the viewer both to an endangered life and an endangered way of life. So we see the plains of Central Florida along with the cowboys and animals that inhabit them. We see Gulf Coast waters and a bounty of blue crabs. It's all of a piece, they say to us. Damage one thing and you damage many others.
Fellow photographers Dick Jacobs, Laurie Excell and Kevin Boldenow follow up with about two dozen visual testimonials. Boldenow is the only one working in black and white, and his use of infrared film gives his landscapes a ghostly drama that is lovely, if overdramatized. Excell's crisp closeups of birds and water animals make personal what is usually a matter of generic identification. To the good, they keep their emotional distance so you won't be tempted to name them (Manny the Manatee!) though you'll probably want to have them tagged and monitored to assure their well-being. Dick Jacobs divides his wall space between more gorgeous shots of indigenous animals and lush landscapes. If his name seems familiar, yes, this is the same Dick Jacobs, well-known lawyer and great supporter of and keen-eyed adviser to the arts center. Who knew he also had such a lyrical heart?
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"Paradise Lost/Paradise Found" is a larger companion show with five artists and almost twice as many works. It's also less precise in its intent and more personal in its collective observations.
Randy Van Duinen's color-soaked photographs are nostalgic mementos of "Old Florida" — small motels, roadside tourist attractions — that are sort of ironic when juxtaposed with the real Old Florida, predevelopment of any kind, that's alluded to in the other show.
A similar nostalgia permeates Karen Tucker Kuykendall's paintings. They're more complex, with layers of referential images, some obscure, others more readable, such as Outrageous Expectation with various games and pastimes scattered across its canvas along with an old motel sign that reminded me of whiling away the hours with books and board games during family road trips.
Mark Messersmith's familiar, disturbing interpretations of the Florida landscape never fail to jolt, with their hellish, lurid lighting and mashup of fantasy and reality, a sci-fi take on environmental disaster. John Gurbacs, too, invokes a sci-fi model, though his paintings have more to do with science and the repetitious forms found in nature and man-made things. They're very nicely painted in a fractured collage of images that owes quite a lot to James Rosenquist. Raina Benoit's sculptural works are the most inventive, especially Southern Seascape, with hundreds of small cars painted onto bits of plastic sheeting, then applied to a wall in the shape of a giant tidal wave. Inside Out is a roadkill narrative in which a dead deer's entrails are depicted in a painting above the deer's carcass. (The deer is not a taxidermied one but made from synthetic materials.) It is less successful. The stuffed deer looked amateurishly made — maybe the point, but why? — and the guts reminded me of many other biomorphic interpretations seen in recent years. But Benoit does make an environmental point more forcefully than her colleagues.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.
Paradise Lost/Paradise Found
Both exhibitions are at the Morean Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, through March 13. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5. Free on Monday. (727) 822-7872 or moreanartscenter.org.