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Examining art's connection to life

Most of us spend our days trying to make sense and order of this messy thing called life.

I, for example, sit at a computer searching for the lines that will connect you who read this to specific works of art and those who created them. Finding a unifying idea always helps, though sometimes I think tying life's complexities (and a lot of art fits that category) into a neat package is arbitrary and facile.

At other times, the links seem to hold.

So let's look at four exhibitions at the Arts Center that couldn't appear more disparate but, thinking about them, seem to share the idea of mutation, of change that we control or controls us.

Gary Chapman's richly burnished oil paintings make cryptic statements about trading places. A black man wears a crude mask of white skin on his bottom lip and chin; a lithe young woman has traded one of her arms for a heavily muscled male appendage; another man is harnessed into a Daedelus contraption made with only one wing.

So these "enhancements" that would seem to confer some sort of superiority are really handicaps. What, after all, can you do with only one wing?

Babs Reingold made her daily hair loss into a documentary, collecting, bagging and dating it, then manipulating the strands into doodles that she copied in pencil onto heavy paper. Several months of bags and accompanying drawings line a gallery's walls. The installation is given more heft with large drawings incorporating a month's worth of hair doodles into one work.

It's a weird, self-absorbed creation that scores points about women's vanity. Its scrolls, loops and knots of hair are artfully twisted. But it's more lightweight than ephemeral.

A different kind of obsessiveness is at work in the paintings of Melissa Gwynn. She builds up layers of paint, a technique called impasto, into beautiful still lifes that venture into abstractions. Technically, it's an arduous process of molding and manipulating wet paint that, at its best, yields delicate, dimensional forms suggesting flowers or primordial life forms set on smooth, glowing backdrops of modulating color.

Her subject matter, the cycle of life that leads to death, is most obvious in works such as cornbelt/rustbelt in which an ear of corn presides over a landscape with the deep tones of imminent decay. But those aren't my favorites. Respiration and Your Virgin Renewal are less message-laden but lovelier.

Soft-peddled provocation is Jennifer McNeely's metier. She sews cuddly orbs resembling bra cups stuffed or coated with tufts of fur or other suggestive materials; she stacks fingerlike squishies robed in spotless white socks that collectively look less like hands or feet and more like male organs.

A padded belt acts as a kindly cinch - if there is such a thing for any woman trying to define her waistline - and a long string of soft balls looks like a braid of garlic that could flavor a lifetime of spaghetti sauces. Woman's work is never done; nor is our desire to look good doing it, McNeely reminds us.

* * *

A concurrent solo exhibition of works by Babs Reingold is at the Studio@620, 620 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, through July 16. Gallery hours are noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.

REVIEW

"Gary Chapman: Chiascuro" and "Babs Reingold: Fall Out - Beauty Lost and Found" are at the Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, through Saturday. "Melissa Gwynn: Rotations" and "Jennifer McNeely: And Another Thing!" continue through Sunday. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. (727) 822-7872.

ART WALK

The Downtown Arts Association in St. Petersburg hosts its free monthly gallery walk Saturday with venues open from 5:30 to 9 p.m.

Participating galleries:

* Alla Prima Fine Art, 111 Second Ave. NE (new location)

* Artists Gallery Royale, 200 Second Avenue N

* The Arts Center, 719 Central Ave.

* ArtSpace, 10 Fifth St. N

* Augustine-Ludovico Studio, 2851 First Ave. N

* Central Gallery, 540 Central Ave.

* Craftsman House, 2955 Central Ave.

* Creative Clay & Cultural Art Services, 1124 Central Ave.

* Crystal Mirage Gallery, at the Pier

* Davidson Fine Arts, 725 Central Ave.

* Florida Craftsmen Gallery, 501 Central Ave.

* Glass Canvas Gallery, 146 Second St. N

* Interior Motives, 1110 Central Ave.

* Kellusion Art Gallery, 538 Central Ave.

* Lynn J. Merhige Gallery & Studio, 216 Fourth St. N

* Red Cloud Indian Arts, 208 Beach Drive NE

* Shapiro's at BayWalk, 185 Second Ave. N

* Studio Encanto, 209 First St. NE

* Studio Szabries, 1746 Central Ave.

* Trinity Gallery, 214 Beach Drive NE

* T. W. Curtis Foundation Gallery, 331 16th St. N

* Vladimir's Collection, 111 Second Ave. NE, No. 102

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