A casual look at "Tableaux, Metaphors and Passages" at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art doesn't yield obvious connections among the three artists whose work is in it. But connections there are, and kudos to curator Lynn Whitelaw for selecting art that slowly and thoughtfully reveals them.
A problem I had is that each group is so different and so arresting. Maria Albornoz is an installation artist, Jack King is a sculptor and Randall Smith is a photographer. Styles veer from spare conceptualism to lush narrative. Seeing the differences was a lot easier than seeing the similarities.
We're helped by the title, which operates on several levels. Each artist's work can be taken as a tableaux within its own gallery from which we pass to another artist in another gallery. Smith's photographs are literal tableaux in which he groups small toys, tchotchkes and found objects into mysterious narratives, then photographs and prints in sepia tones or vivid color. All use objects associated with journeys. Jack King and Maria Albornoz use the immigrant experience as a theme in some of their art.
King is a meticulous craftsman, creating exquisite sculptures such as Maintaining That Delicate Balance in which buckets made from wood are stacked on a stool with water marks on its legs. A life preserver is tethered to it. Life preservers and buckets figure in several more sculptures, as do oars. Saw horses and vises — everything is made by King, not appropriated from a hardware store — are like the highly visible brush strokes some painters use to remind us these things are art made by artists' hands. That, too, is a passage of the materials from one form to another.
His cast-metal sculptures seem more cerebral and elliptical. While also beautiful, the "Portal" series for me was more difficult. The title suggests entry points and gateways, perhaps to literal ports since they include Tampa and Birmingham in their titles. He embeds the metal with cast leaves and words that sometimes suggest risk or games of chance (another subtle theme working its way through much of his art). I don't mind obscure or esoteric references, but sometimes things can be too obscure and esoteric. The "Alighieri's Journey" group was a clear homage to the poet Dante (Alighieri), and, next to the Portals, maybe too clear. Or maybe I'm being cranky.
I can find no fault, however, with Never the Teacher's Pet, which consists of a minimalist dunce's hat on a stool from which is suspended a bucket of "lemons." The otherwise perfectly constructed stool has one crudely made leg and two bent nails, and the reference to disappointment, failure and unmet expectations is well-told.
I totally get Albornoz. Like King, she begins with an idea and then bends her materials to it. For The Path of the Immigrant, she covered 160 porcelain boxes with bits of real immigration papers, then lined them up in a narrowing path, like a disappearing cobblestone street. Near the end of its 27-foot length, the boxes begin to crumble and the path ends in a few shards of rubble. One Day of Work consists of 63 porcelain buckets, the maximum number of buckets a tomato picker can carry in one day. They contain a total of $28 in pennies, what a worker earns in a day. I know this because the information was provided by wall labels. Basically, the artist explained it all to me. Is that good? It certainly allowed for little nuance.
I am glad that this exhibition highlighted the complexities of artistic disclosure. How much back story we need to appreciate art makes for a good philosophical debate. Some art is intended to be an exercise in form and color alone, with no emotional component, no narrative. Other art is ambiguous. Given their titles, all of the works in this exhibition are intended to tell stories.
Do we want the artist's story or the liberty to find our own?
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.