By LENNIE BENNETT
Times Art Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — Sweet to strange describes the range of ceramics in "Florida Fire: The UF Ceramic Faculty Experience" at Florida Craftsmen Gallery. In a good way. In one corner, Matt Shaffer's life-sized terra cotta wrestler looms. In another, Anna Calluori Holcombe's delicate porcelain vessels repose. In between are Nan Smith's neoclassical busts and Raymond Gonzalez's retro balls. Some of the art looks like clay. Much of it fools you with paints and glazes.
Shaffer's Flounder hogs the attention, 6 feet of macho man dressed in a ridiculous purple and red body suit and goggles. One arm is tattooed; the other seems to be amputated and replaced by a puppet capped with a man's head. And the arrows! His back looks like target practice. Clay gone crazy.
Shaffer's glazed stonewear heads are also startling. Etched into the balding pates are narratives of primitive wrestlers and hunters, frogs and dogs. The facial expressions are modeled as if caught in a moment of surprise at such interesting goings-on (off the tops of their heads, so to speak) and are for us a visual play on reading someone's thoughts.
Decals of flora and fauna embellish Holcombe's delicate little sculptures like decoupaged Victorian valentines. Some function as vases and perfume bottles, others are mounted as wall sculptures.
You just want to play with Gonzalez's ceramic circles either sprouting Sputnik-like protrusions or indented with holes surrounded by rubber grommets like diving bells. The surfaces are smooth and shiny or with a pebbly pattern. Gonzalez uses nubby, homey pieces of flocking as a counterpoint to Swarovski crystals and fun color combinations. These sculptures would look fine on a table or shelf (and probably need a Do Not Touch sign to go with).
Smith's women of modeled clay resemble carved marble statuary of past centuries though they're glazed in a reflective finish different from the cool matte of stone. The difference is more than superficial. Those traditional ones memorialized important people of the time and sculptors' skill in portraying them. Smith's people act as symbols rather than individual personalities.
Linda Arbuckle is the fifth artist in this show and seems both anomalous and underrepresented with a mere two works, lovely but straightforwardly functional majolica bowls.
Don't miss "Picket Fences," a related ceramic exhibition by Sean Erwin in another gallery. The artist starts with life-sized re-creations of tree stumps, glazed white, and inserts copper plumbing tubes into them. Some of the tubes are topped with bland little porcelain houses surrounded by landscaped lawn. The idea in them is obvious, the tension between development and preservation.
It's brought hilariously to life by another sculpture, The Gardener. A guy shows off his six-pack in a scanty wrestling suit, his victorious pose borrowed from traditional paintings of generals and commanders standing heroically in victory. The gardener has just vanquished a tree and brandishes a weed whacker instead of a sword.
Add another quality to clay: irony.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.