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  1. Visual Arts

Review: Dual shows at Leepa Rattner map beauty in Florida and beyond

Rick Bravehart, “Companions Through Time,” Badlands National Park in South Dakota, archival pigment print on baryta,
Published Mar. 29, 2017

TARPON SPRINGS

You can't blame Florida's landscape for being a little camera-shy.

The state lacks some of the reliable crowd-pleasers of nature imagery — it's short on snowy ridges and purple mountain majesties. No one doubts its beauty, but some beauty is hard to capture with a wide-angle lens.

So it's risky to run an exhibit of Florida images alongside a collection of majestic landscapes, mostly from the West. But that's exactly what is happening now at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art. And the risk pays off, with surprising revelations for lovers of the state.

"Endangered Landscapes: America's National Lands in Transition" and "AQUIFERious: Florida's Springs" opened together and run through May 14.

First, the visiting team. "Endangered Landscapes" is photographer Rick Braveheart's centennial birthday gift to the National Park Service. Its bravura images are the result of grueling work in some of our grandest national parks: Bryce Canyon, Badlands, Mesa Verde, Zion.

The program describes Braveheart seeking out the perfect light the way a big game hunter might stalk pronghorn. Images like And the Sky Opened are fitting trophies for his trouble: The clouds part, and the Rocky Mountain valley is illuminated as if by klieg lights.

In writing, Braveheart is admirably committed to reminding us that these parks are not static, indestructible monuments, but real places in real trouble. For instance, he explains that Smoky Mountain National Park has lost 80 percent of its long-range views over the past 50 years due to air pollution.

But there seems to be less thought given to the optical consequences of his own technologies. Some images appear to carry the mark of contrast and color saturation filters jammed hard to starboard. Others show the chilly grain of megapixels, out of place in the Great Plains.

Photography is having a particularly tough time assimilating our newer digital tools in a satisfying way. Braveheart is open about his equipment choices. There's always a half-sheepish, half-defensive tone to such admissions, like a food label divulging GMOs.

On the other side of Leepa-Rattner's gallery, an alternate model is on display. A bench is set up in front of Margaret Ross Tolbert's painting Springs for Hiram. The work is over 30 feet wide. Sitting down in front of it, the painting fills the entire field of vision, and the viewer is plunged into Ross Tolbert's colors. You can almost feel the current tug.

Springs for Hiram is a central work of "AQUIFERious." The exhibit is a multi-artist showcase swirling around Ross Tolbert's book of the same name, a genre-less work of poetry, painting and tough, angry prose.

The Leepa-Rattner exhibit takes the book's omnivorous approach and cranks it up by an order of magnitude. Artists and scientists from several disciplines are included.

The exhibit flows from abstract canvases to the underwater photography of Mark Long and Jill Heinerth to the photographed escapades of a shadowy character named Sirena.

It's a playful, lively show — and a profound one, in all senses of the word. Cave-diving legend Eric Hutcheson spent hundreds of hours beneath the surface of the Earth to create maps of the aquifer on display here. His cartography lends the show a grounding sense of location and scale. But his drawings are also strange and beautiful productions in their own right. It seems you can't go down into the springs and not come back up with beauty.

But the eye always makes its way back to Ross Tolbert's canvases. The Well at Silver Springs Glen depicts shadowy fish circling the sun in an immense column of water. It's hypnotic and moving. The painting operates like a mandala, the kind Carl Jung might have recognized: a circle, bringing together light and darkness, stone and water, chaos and order. "The Well is a visual experience of everything," Ross Tolbert writes, and she's not wrong.

"AQUIFERious" presents an opportunity to consider what we have as Floridians. The state's most precious resource, the aquifer, is extraordinarily close to the surface but mostly invisible to eye and lens. It takes a creative feat to render its mysteries visible.

This matters: People can't value or protect what they barely recognize is there. "AQUIFERious" helps us to see.

Contact James Chapin at j.w.chapin.47@gmail.com.

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