LARGO — With high temperatures and humidity (not to mention frequent thunderstorms) keeping us from enjoying the outdoors, now's a good time for a landscape painting show that gives us our nature hit in indoors comfort.
You'll find a refreshing one at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, not the usual realistic/romantic palms, beaches and glades but interesting interpretations of such vistas by three Florida State University art professors.
"A Mysterious Clarity" features the work of Ray Burggraf, Mark Messersmith and Lilian Garcia-Roig. Their paintings are intermixed to encourage comparisons of the individual points of view. I was skeptical of that decision on first sighting; my immediate impression was that Messersmith's baroque landscapes overwhelmed the cerebral abstractions of Burggraf and Garcia-Roig's more subdued palette. But time in the galleries, getting close and long views of the paintings individually and together, revealed their individual and collective strengths.
Lovely, but frightening
Messersmith's large narratives provoke an immediate in-your-face response. If ever you need an illustration for the cautionary "don't go near the water," look no further. Creatures teem above and below swamp surfaces, murky and dark, painted in clashing, lurid colors lit by everyday sources (sun, moon, lanterns) that shed both focused brilliance and menace on a scene.
The animals and men inhabiting this world are equally strange. Each work has three components. The main one is the painting; below it Messersmith constructs small shadow boxes, horizontally arranged, that reference tangentially the central story. Above the painting is a carved relief of animals encapsulating the story line. Sometimes Messersmith hangs an object, or several, in front of the painting to further emphasize the narrative.
For example, Vespertine Sacrifice refers to nocturnal activities in a cypress swamp ("vespertine" refers to night), and we see a wild-eyed panther in a standoff with several really scary alligators (at least I think they're gators; the scales look more furry than reptilian) while an owl, moths and a blue heron hover about. The moon throws a blue light over all except the perimeter, which glows with an eerie orange from an unseen source, perhaps a fire. The carved overpanel has a rabbit fleeing creatures that are equal parts reptile and mammal. Below, in the shadow boxes, are more instances of the stalkers and stalked.
It's violent, but beautiful, and honors the laws of nature in an unflinching way. A twig ladder that seems an intrusive man-made element is hung in front of the painting, but it refers to the elaborately constructed "ladders" of branches and tree trunks on which the animals perch. Man and civilization make appearances in other works as spoilers even scarier than the animals.
Patterns and hues
Burggraf's sculptural paintings induce an opposite reaction, inviting contemplation with smooth, glassy paint applied to pieces of shaped wood that form a second harmonious pattern. They are mostly abstractions of natural cycles, using colors that modulate to suggest the changing colors of a sunset or the movement of air and clouds. Dead Blue Parrot and Jungle Arc are a visit to the tropics, with sprightly colors and shapes suggesting fronds and feathers and even a bright orange beak diving earthward.
Flashes in the forest
This is billed as a Florida landscape exhibition, but many of Garcia-Roig's paintings appear to portray northeastern woods. She loads up her canvases with thick impasto of muted browns and greens, then leaves an occasional sliver of unpainted canvas that becomes, in the long view, a birch tree trunk or open space. Only in that long view is the order of the scene revealed. She gives us, amid the predictable range of hues, surprises: spots of odd, rich blues and reds that in no way blend with their surroundings, like random sightings of birds or volunteer flowers.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.