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whimsy work

A corporate art collection is a noble thing. It says to the world: We are a business that values more than lucre. It says: We believe in culture and are willing to pay for it. It says: Our employees deserve more visual stimulation at work than wall calendars, motivational posters and signs that remind them to wash their hands.

But while corporate collections are noble, they are not always good. The owner or partners tend to play things way too safe, amassing work that may amount to little more than expensive wallpaper. Or the decision-by-committee approach can become so eclectic that the collection looks like a child's flip book with horizontally cut pages that lets you match a chicken's head with a donkey's torso and lizard's feet.

The Neuberger Berman collection, which is about 13 years old, seems to be both noble and good. I qualify with "seems" because the exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art is a selection of only 70 works from about 600. What's there shows a discerning focus, probably because management hired a full-time curator in 1997 to oversee its growth.

It exists in large part because of the personal passion of Roy Neuberger, the New-York-based financial management firm's centenarian founder, who instilled his passion for collecting into his partners and the corporate landscape.

The works selected for this exhibition are neither blandly decorative nor didactically confrontational. While the show takes no risks, it manages to be interesting if not provocative, providing an interesting slice of contemporary painting and photography with an emphasis on emerging artists, many of whom have become well-known in the past decade.

Within those media, it's diverse, though sculpture is all but absent from the collection because it takes up too much real estate in expensive urban offices. There's no video, either, for the obvious reason that it would be distracting in a workplace. To their credit, the leaders of Neuberger Berman put the art all over the walls of various headquarters for everyone to appreciate. And let's hope they do.

In its sheer variety, the exhibition defies classification, though curator Michael Danoff tries to group figurative work in loose counterpoint to abstract pieces, and most of the photography is given a separate, small gallery.

One theme the show addresses is whimsy, which in the art world means work that departs from the irony or deep self-involvement of much 20th century art. While lightness-of-heart is not necessarily its operative tone, it is a major component of "whimsical" art.

Anime, the Japanese-based genre that's closely associated with cartooning, is an example, represented here by Takashi Murakami's Chaos. A large, closely cropped portrait is full of fragmented facial features _ a big-toothed smile at one end that, if the canvas were inverted, could be bangs on a forehead balancing another mouth, red-lipped, that sits at the other end of the face. Lots of eyes dance around both. In the corners of the canvas, smaller multi-eyed faces float like bubbles released from the central image. You could interpret it as a self-portrait of split personalities. Or not. It's cute and odd.

Vik Muniz, too, plays with our perceptions in Babe (from Pictures of Chocolate). It's a color photograph of a drawing of a photograph of an old crowd scene featuring baseball legend Babe Ruth near the middle of the two-panel work. The drawing is rendered in chocolate syrup that, when photographed, looks like glossy paint. It's fun, too, and a nonthreatening mind game about the reality we assume a photograph reflects back at us.

The photography selections are solid, with some marquee names such as Thomas Struth, whose large-format color prints of vast spaces were the subject of a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a year ago. Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, is classic Struth, a panoramic scene of a large city intersection with people randomly going about their business, dwarfed by buildings and advertising signs, under a neutral sky. The eye is guided back, back, back into the center, where individual faces and postures blend into an indeterminate mass of humanity.

It compares well to an interior scene by Jane and Louise Wilson of a richly paneled door in the House of Lords in London's Parliament; a mirror is angled to give us a disorienting funhouse effect. In this case, an inanimate object is a standin for people. The door, presumably like the people who pass through it, is solid and of consequence when taken straight-on, but who knows what angles are really being played?

And both are counterpoints to Andreas Gursky's Stock Exchange, New York, like Struth's, a scene of teeming activity flattened into a one-dimensional plane that reinforces the singlemindedness of the frenzied traders.

Photography not as a medium but as an influence is seen in several paintings. They are not in the style of 1970s photo-realism, but more like suavely executed trompe l'oeil works, such as Marilyn Minter's Solo, a large painting on metal of a woman's mouth open to reveal white teeth capped by metal braces. Next to it hangs Robert McCurdy's double portrait of a man and woman, a more psychological work if you want to go there, with subtle but revealing details in the body language.

And that seems to be the point of most of this show. It revels in technique. It can offer plenty of ideas, more usually in the photographs, such as the intriguing narrative set up in Anna Gaskell's woman, almost cropped out of the picture, lying face down on a blood-red carpet in a position that could be supplication or rigor mortis or exhaustion.

Idea-driven work is rare, but good when you come upon it, such as Willie Cole's Domestic Shield XI, an ironing board bearing a design in brown and black that recalls African weavings but is really from an iron burning its way through the board's fabric. You could say it deals with "branding" on multiple levels.

More often you get the overall message delivered in the catalog by Danoff: "Expectations of gloomy, apocalyptic, fin-de-siecle works of art largely did not materialize," he says, hence the predominance of "whimsy."

I'm not sure I agree with that, though he makes the point with paintings that range from the Pop sensibility of Michael Bevilacqua's Do You Remember the First Time, with lots of inside jokes, to Ingrid Calame's colorful splashes that pay homage to abstract expressionists and Jackson Pollock without the angst.

This is a good exhibition, full of very fine art. If I sometimes question that it's a lot longer on form than content, perhaps I've seen too much conceptual art lately, the kind that asks too much of us, expecting us to be engaged by people we don't know doing things we know nothing about for unknowable reasons.

A cigar, Sigmund Freud reminds us, can, on occasion, be just a cigar.

"Crosscurrents" serves up, for those wanting to partake, a goodly helping of contemporary art that requires some chewing but won't stick in your craw.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lenniesptimes.com.

Anna Gaskell, Untitled 36 (Hide), 1998, C-print, edition of three.

Takashi Murakami, Chaos, 1998, acrylic on linen on board.

Marilyn Minter, Solo, 1999, enamel on metal.

Review

"Crosscurrents at Century's End: Selections from the Neuberger Berman Art Collection" is at the Tampa Museum of Art, 600 N Ashley Drive, Tampa, through April 11. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $7 adults, $6 seniors and $3 students. (813) 274-8130.

Playfulness pervades the bottom line in "Crosscurrents," a corporate-sponsored exhibit that demonstrates that artistic creativity and commerce can coexist.

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