The West, both real and romanticized, is celebrated in a big way at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. Paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, jewelry and ceramics populate the galleries of the Hazel Hough Wing, organized under the equally sprawling rubric, "New Mexico and the Arts of Enchantment Featuring the Raymond James Financial Collection." The title does three things: It identifies the origin of most of the art; it plays with New Mexico's nickname, the Land of Enchantment; and it acknowledges the exhibition's major lender.
Paintings make up the majority of the show. Among the oldest are John Sloan's Cliff Dwellers' Country and Georgia O'Keeffe's Grey Hills Painted Red, New Mexico, which were created near the same time, 1925 and 1930, respectively. They couldn't be more different with Sloan's jaunty jalopy and vivid colors in contrast to O'Keeffe's austere palette and abstracted landscape. But the majority are contemporary, by masters in the beloved genre known as Western art, who paint landscapes, cowboys and American Indians in a style that's realist but with portrayals that are often more idealized than real. One of the most riveting is Billy Schenck's Canyon Waters with its fauvist pop of colors.
The exhibition doesn't have a lot of jewelry, but what's there is fabulous. It's all owned by Mary James who, with her husband, Tom, has spent decades assembling the massive art collection, a portion of which is in this show. The reversible inlaid Bear Necklace by Jesse Monongya is loaded with lots of little charms and talismans, a thing of crafted beauty. Lots of silver and turquoise, too. The bolo set made me rethink my aversion to that form of neckwear. The concho belt was more sculpture than accessory and its size and heft made me wonder if Mrs. James, who is petite, can wear it.
The ceramics are the big stars here. They range from painted pre-Hispanic Pueblo works to modern and contemporary reimaginings of traditions. The older objects have a spiritual (not literal) kinship with antiquities. The oldest is a bowl, circa 950-1100, considered rare both for its figurative decoration of a flute player and design elements on the inside and outside. Another, circa 1400-1625, mixes techniques, using a stippled background and the drawn outline of a hand. A 20th century artist appropriated that hand as her signature on the back of her bowl. Diego Romero's charming Broke Car Landscape also mimics ancient patterns and stylized images and adds a modern narrative of a man sitting on top of a car.
One of the more famous names in the ceramics group is Maria Martinez (1887-1980), a potter who specialized in the old craft of black-on-black ceramics. She used an iron-rich clay, shaped it and applied a slip (or coating) that she burnished with a stone. A design was applied with another slip and the work was fired. The result appears to be etched glass.
A water jar (2002) by Angie Yazzie seems anomalous among the earthier ceramics. It resembles a huge bud vase and is a delicate pastel color. It too, looks like glass because she uses a micaceous clay that shimmers. I read the wall label and learned that this is a coiled pot with thin, thin walls I thought were the result of a pottery wheel. What technique.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or [email protected]