ST. PETERSBURG — "In a New Light" is a revelation. The exhibition showcases the permanent collection of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, which closed its doors in January and gave its collection to St. Petersburg College.
The college has handsomely installed it in the Florida International Museum, now part of the college's cultural complex on its downtown campus.
To the college and museum leaders who brokered this deal, thank you.
To curator Christine Renc-Carter who organized the show, job well done.
As much as I visited the museum in Largo, I never saw the range of its permanent collection, since most of the space was given over to special exhibitions. Some works I don't recall ever seeing.
Now it spreads through 9,000 square feet. The arrangement is thematic and amazingly cohesive considering that the guiding principle of its formation was to acquire contemporary art by mostly Florida artists. The collection is small, about 450 works total, and only one-fourth of it could fit into this space. But Renc-Carter selected the choicest works, ones that were most beloved or most representative of the museum's mission. The majority of works date from the 1970s to the present, so it's also a young collection, assembled mostly over the past 15 years when the museum, then known as the Belleair Arts Center, was moved south to a site on the Pinewood Cultural Campus in 1999 and renamed.
The collection reads like a history and a microcosm of art as it evolved in the Tampa Bay area beginning 40 years ago. That is when we began investing seriously in culture, with the emergence of museums, arts centers, private galleries and, most important, sustaining a population of regional artists.
The 125 pieces by about as many artists are loosely arranged around themes: the Florida landscape, the human figure and the artist and daily life (which also contains the largest group of fine crafts). Bracketing those three are Influence and Innovation, an introductory survey of the collection, and a concluding section called Beyond Boundaries that contains conceptual work.
The placement of the art invites associations beyond the galleries' broad ideas. A 2001 large-scale color photograph of a beach that looks a lot like Fort DeSoto Park by Robyn Voshardt and Sven Humphrey hangs beside George Inness' small oil painting from 1893. They're completely different yet their colors and composition look like complementary reversals of each other.
Denis Gaston's quirky Close Shave shares an affinity with Sergey Ignatyev's bodies (painted like a kind of homage to Francis Bacon) and an abstract sculpture with hourglass curves by Richard Beckman.
An early self-portrait by Christopher Still is positioned above a mahogany bench by Guy Martin. Still sits in a chair with one leg crossed, his foot extending toward the right-hand corner of the canvas. The gesture mimics the bench's contours. Together, the works lead the eye into the next gallery.
In the final section, large-scale paintings by Rocky Bridges and Rossana Montoya are placed with a view that includes Thomas Koole's and Charles Parkhill's wood sculptures. The sympathetic forms and colors seem to ricochet like an animated conversation.
Anointing any contemporary art as great, or even suggesting it will have lasting importance over time, is foolish. Valid assessment of its worth is for future generations. Still, I can't look at any individual work here and think it soars stratospherically above some of its peers.
The value of this collection is in its sum more than its parts. That's why keeping it together is important. So far, college officials have said that after this exhibition ends on Oct. 4, it will be put back in storage and selectively rotated throughout the college's campuses. Some works will perhaps be lent to other institutions for temporary shows.
My hope is that sometime in the future a permanent gallery space will be found for the collection; realistically it won't be this big but something that allows it to be appreciated as a whole. And, as time goes by, it will exist as a testament to the fragility of art and the strength of it.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or [email protected] She contributes to the Critics Circle blog at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.