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Nancy Cervenka reels us in with coiled art


The celluloid coils are so seductive. Slithery. And, more than 25 years after Nancy Cervenka began noodling around with rolls of film as a graduate student in cinematography, still mysterious and compelling. They were startling when she introduced the sculptures that seemed to defy gravity and logic. They no longer startle but continue to delight.

Cervenka has a new group of them at C. Emerson Fine Arts along with departures from those signatures that she has increasingly explored in recent years. All remain about film as a tactile material rather than a conveyor of images and information. As sophisticated as they are, they are about as low-tech as a cinematographer can get.

But she also incorporates moving pictures into her art on occasion, in one instance here projecting herself on a wall amid long, snaky coils hanging from the ceiling, like being lost in reptile land. A vessel, shaped as a vase, contains the surprise, when you peer into it, of the artist's eye staring back at you, projected from a camera fitted into the stand holding the work.

She also likes exploring photography. One small gallery is lined with images, snapshot style, she made on a cross-country trek. They feature a G.I. Joe action figure, given to her as a protective totem by a friend, posed in locations at angles that mostly give him a full-sized presence. (Except for the first photo of Joe strapped into a seat belt, looking touchingly small, vulnerable and — I'm serious — expectant of an adventure. It's a charming narrative.)

I have ambivalence about other noncoiled work. Good artists always strive to find new ways to interpret themselves, and I applaud her experimentation. But several sculptures, while promising and certainly interesting, lack the refinement we have come to appreciate in Cervenka's artistry.

One installation uses microfiche sewn together and mounted onto ovoid frames dangling from the ceiling like pop art clouds. They're fun but seem crudely, swiftly constructed. Sometimes that process is the point of a work, producing an appropriate spontaneity. I couldn't make that connection in this case.

The same can be said for a wall sculpture made from old dental X-rays, stapled together in a spiral. Again, its uncultivated construction serves no purpose.

But several other atypical works come together conceptually. One resembling a big squid is fabulous. Another group emulating quilling (an old craft employing small strips of rolled paper into calligraphic shapes) is an updated slice of Americana.

Cervenka also shows small framed film fragments from an older sculpture she says broke accidentally. She seals her works with resin and, in this case, the strips of old film have an ossified appearance, a happy accident she says she could never replicate.

The best new work remains her coils, especially those that are elaborate combinations and constructions. One, for example, is built of several dozen slender "legs" invisibly bound together that balance on a pedestal, emitting light like some strange underwater creature.

As often as I have seen her work, I never tire of seeing it again and always look forward to new iterations. And uneven as they sometimes are, her experimental forays into the unknown always intrigue.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.


Nancy Cervenka: Intersect

At C. Emerson Fine Arts,

909 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, through May 30. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. Also by appointment. or (727) 898-6068.

Nancy Cervenka reels us in with coiled art 05/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 4:30am]
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