You know those "secret" menu items at places like Starbucks and McDonald's, the ones only insiders are supposed to know about?
I feel a similarity between them and the Works on Paper Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. It's a smallish space on the second floor of the Hazel Hough Wing. The greeters at the front desk will tell you about it and a sign at the bottom of the stairs alerts you to its existence, too. Still, it has a tucked-away quality and charm to it, as if I have discovered something each time I enter it.
Truth is, I do discover something each time I enter it. Right now it's "Recent Acquisitions: Prints, Drawings and Photographs." Since the Hough Wing opened in 2008, the permanent collection has grown by more than 1,100 works. That number doesn't include almost 15,000 photographs in the Ludmila Dandrew and Chitranee Drapkin Collection that came to the museum in 2009 and 2010.
This selection is quite select with about 40 works, and only those on paper so no paintings, sculpture or video. It is, nevertheless, a good assortment. The earliest is a series of small engravings by 17th century printmaker Wenceslaus Hollar, based on an earlier set by Hans Holbein the Younger warning viewers of the wages of sin and the ever-presence of death. But the majority were created in the 20th and 21st centuries.
You see the stylistic variety in the images shown. Edward Steichen's 1907 photogravure captures a pair of wealthy Parisians. He plays with the bright white of their dresses and hats against the dark background. Shen Wei's Matt and Emily (2003) almost a century later presents a different couple and demonstrates how photography's possibilities have grown from Steichen's early efforts at subtle psychological observation into a complex and nuanced form of storytelling. Notice all the details in this visual story, especially Emily's pose mimicking that of a woman in the painting behind her.
Compare the portraits by Elaine de Kooning and Wilmot Emerton Heitland. Both can be called figurative but Heitland's elegant, straight-on, monochromatic representation is far different from de Kooning's, who makes the form part of emotionally charged bursts of color.
Much of the photography is documentary. One example is a late 19th century marriage certificate of a couple married in Duchess County, N.Y. A formal portrait includes a handwritten list of witnesses and copious information about the bride and groom. A group of small photographs taken in Japan during the Meiji period (1868-1912) is a cavalcade of men, women and children dressed in traditional or modern garb set in frames with lids to make them more portable. In a rare self-portrait, Margaret Bourke-White dresses up in a ladylike outfit rather than her standard khakis she wore during extensive travels photographing wars and foreign settings. Only her battered camera case alludes to her peripatetic life. A stunning example of new ways old photographic processes are being used is Sylvie Eyberg's D'eux (Est), a 2009 photogravure made in Tampa's Bleu Acier atelier. The severely cropped image is purposefully grainy, lending it a mysterious aura.
Prints and drawings are equally diverse. Among them is Jeffrey Kronsnoble's montage (and perhaps homage to James Rosenquist?) in which he layers body and industrial parts with tasteful eroticism. One of my favorite discoveries is Kevin MacDonald's pencil drawing. Mexican Cafe (1971) is cerebral in its rigid linear composition of booths in a restaurant. It's all perpendicular intersections that at first look don't reveal themselves as an interior. There is, too, the mirror with its out-of-place filigree in this minimalist space. It is an empty and alone place, too pristine to imagine having a bottle of ketchup or hot sauce. This is a sacred space, its monotones monastic. Yet there waits in its stillness the possibility of people sitting down and filling it with their messy lives and napkins.
This isn't a show with a coherent theme. It's showing off — look at what's here! — and that's just fine. Each work deserves its own independent acknowledgement. What most brings this collection together can be found on the wall labels. Almost all are gifts from individual donors. In accepting art, museums have standards requiring curatorial review and approval by a select committee. Sometimes donors simply provide funds for works museum professionals have already selected. This exhibition seems more personal, a gathering of art loved and admired by a disparate group of people with good eyes and taste. Their discoveries are now ours.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.