Saturday, July 21, 2018

A tour of Leepa-Rattner's 15th birthday exhibit with the curator


Christine Renc-Carter stops in front of one unassuming canvas.

"Do you see this?" she asks. "I know it looks like a blank piece of paper."

It does, at first. Placed among the bold and boisterous works in the new exhibition "Paradise Found: LRMA Celebrates 15 Years," it's almost invisible. But then, with a little peering, a maze of multicolored lines appears out of the white expanse. It wavers, as delicate as a rainbow just beginning to form.

The work is Clearwater by Richard Anuskiewicz, an important member of the Op art movement. "This is the essence of living in this environment," said Renc-Carter, Leepa-Rattner's curator.

"If you walk outside and it's not raining, you will see this. Because of the blinding sunlight."

Suddenly the painting fits in perfectly with its neighbors, many of which deal with visions of the "paradise" outside the museum's walls. A little squint is all it takes.

With "Paradise Found," Tampa Bay is officially in self-examination mode. A royal flush of local art institutions currently have shows about the present, past and future of art in the area. For anyone who hopes to get a bead on the burgeoning scene, this seems to be the summer.

Leepa-Rattner joins the Morean Arts Center's now-closed "100 Years/100 Artists," as well as the mammoth "Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration" spanning Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota's biggest museums. All of the shows feel significant, but Leepa-Rattner's is the most idiosyncratic and personal of the bunch.

A major reason is Renc-Carter. She arrived at the museum one year ago, but her roots in the area run back to her childhood in Dunedin. Her selections feel like a personal excavation of images, relationships and landscapes known since birth.

The Arrival, a large painting by Steven Kenny, could have been created for the occasion. It also happens to be the ironic inspiration for the title "Paradise Found."

In it, a child stands on a pastel-perfect strip of Florida beach. But the boy is wrapped in a huge winter parka. He faces the viewer stiffly, like he has been plopped there by a relative and told to smile. He can't quite manage it.

The image is ambivalent but funny, and totally surreal — a shorthand for the show's tone. And if the poor kid in the parka seems unhappy in his new surroundings, he might be the only one. "Paradise Found" was Renc-Carter's first chance to dig through the museum's extensive archives and create a show from scratch, and there is kid-in-a-candy shop enthusiasm in the results.

"When you're having fun putting something together, hopefully it comes through," she says. It does, and never more so than when she caroms between artworks in the galleries, dispensing knowledge collected over a lifetime.

The true extent of that knowledge becomes clear when she moves to the next painting. In it, two fish coil around a pair of saw palmettos, neither fully on land nor underwater. The luminous painting is Trout Palms by Bill Renc, who happens to be Renc-Carter's father.

Including the piece was not filial piety on Renc-Carter's part. If anything, it shows the intense interconnectedness of the museum's collection and the region it tries to represent. This is true even with the presence of names like Alexander Calder, Dale Chihuly and Winslow Homer.

But for the museum as a whole, there are no bigger names on display than Abraham Rattner, Esther Gentle and Allen Leepa. Next to "Paradise Found" is an exhibition that celebrates co-founder Leepa's work by actually bringing a chunk of his studio into the museum.

"Habits and Habitats" has the man's easel, chair and even a door he painted, uprooted from his Tarpon Springs studio. The walls are covered in pages from his sketchbooks.

"We wanted this to be immersive," says Renc-Carter.

A video in the atrium shows Leepa doing a sort of abstract-expressionist Bob Ross routine from 1949 — instead of happy little trees, a crucifixion scene. Listen to Leepa's raspy voice while looking through his paint-spattered belongings. The effect is immersive indeed.

Leepa was a teacher; the space seems to beg for a place to sit and try to learn from him. Maybe a sketch pad and easel in the gallery is too much to ask — but at least "Habits and Habitats" provokes the question.

Both of the new shows at the Leepa-Rattner are part of the museum's 15th anniversary celebrations — because apparently museums get to celebrate birthdays for a whole calendar year. In October, "Fall Into Greatness" will invite artists to rummage through the museum's archives and help create a show themselves, and "Habits and Habitats" kicks off an entire series about artists' work spaces.

All this hoopla for a 15th birthday could seem almost arbitrary. But given everything that's happening inside the museum and around Tampa Bay, the celebration feels just right.

Contact James Chapin at [email protected]

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