Artists compete for the Florida Prize at Orlando Museum of Art 

Viewers are the real winners at this exciting invitational exhibition

click to enlarge "SELF PORTRAIT" (2013) BY JUAN TRAVIESO
  • "SELF PORTRAIT" (2013) BY JUAN TRAVIESO

THE FLORIDA PRIZE IN CONTEMPORARY ART

through Sept. 7 | Orlando Museum of Art, 2416 N. Mills Ave. | 407-896-4231 | omart.org | $8

About a year ago, prospects seemed bleak for touring shows of contemporary art in Orlando. We feared that there would be no more new work shown in our museums by the likes of Hasan Elahi or Judy Rushin, no more retrospectives on the level of Jess: To and From the Printed Page, no more delightful group exhibits like The Mysterious Content of Softness. Please forgive our momentary crisis of faith. With the recent gift to Rollins of the Alfond Collection and CFAM’s impending Fractured Narratives show, the sun peeked over the horizon – now, with the inaugural Orlando Museum of Art Florida Prize in Contemporary Art, we’ve seen the light.

Glen Gentele, OMA’s new director, established the Florida Prize “to support talented emerging and mid-career artists, while celebrating the vibrant cultural life of Florida.” The work of 10 Florida artists is on display in the museum: Sarah Max Beck, Elisabeth Condon, Vanessa Diaz, Christopher Harris, Brookhart Jonquil, Sinisa Kukec, Ezra Johnson, Jillian Mayer, Juan Travieso and Agustina Woodgate. Orlando Weekly’s arts and culture editor, Jessica Bryce Young, and art critic Richard Reep traded thoughts on the show.

RR: I feel like Rip Van Winkle: I woke up and realized we have great artists making these major statements right here in our state. I love a show that has wrecked furniture nailed to the wall, and recycled Publix plastic bags woven into tapestries, and video art and just all of it.

JBY: Yes, Sarah Beck’s plastic tapestries are delightful – I first saw them in a more undulating form at a Gallery at Avalon Island show; it’s interesting how massive they seemed there, and how petite and almost ladylike here in a museum setting.

RR: One thing’s for sure, our artists aren’t afraid to use intense colors. Did you see Juan Travieso’s paintings? Very intensely colored, as were Agustina Woodgate’s huge organic rugs.

JBY: Well, sort of organic; they were sewn together from the “pelts” of stuffed toys. Those two “eyeballs” made them almost as unsettling as real animal-hide rugs – the cartoony colors definitely suck you in before you know what you’re looking at.

RR: The Sunshine State makes colors extra vibrant, and artists respond to that. I even found Jillian Mayer’s outdoor self-portrait photographs – overexposed, white-hot – a kind of reference to our strong sunlight.

JBY: Mayer! I loved her videos as well, especially “Make-up Tutorial: How to Hide From Cameras.” An amazing piece of social practice art without being preachy or didactic. And the interactive “Swing Space” installation was sweet. Did you swing? I swung.

RR: Not telling. But I found this interesting: Only a few painters! Is the show meant to represent a cross-section of what Florida contemporary artists are doing these days? It suggests we aren’t brushing canvases much and that we have a lot of trash to make art out of.

JBY: Paint and canvas are expensive; trash is everywhere. Not just in Florida.

RR: We do a lot of wacky subtle stuff, too. There was a subtle Rauschenberg reference in Woodgate’s “Beginner’s Maps,” where she obsessively sanded all the cities and country borders off these school maps and left them blurred – Rauschenberg famously erased a drawing that Willem de Kooning gave him.

JBY: Not everyone is sewing together trash and shunning paint, though; we already mentioned Travieso but there are two more painters in the show: Ezra Johnson and Elisabeth Condon. Their paintings are hung next to each other, which makes it impossible not to draw parallels between them, though in fact, their work isn’t similar except in size and a sort of sensory exuberance. Johnson’s muddy fleshtone portraits and interiors and Condon’s superflat streetscapes (with glitter!) kind of grab you, shake you, insist that you revel in their humor.

RR: And I just kept coming back to Vanessa Diaz’s installations.

JBY: Well, you would, Richard; they are very architectural.

RR: No, not really. Well, OK, I found them a little architectural. I just loved the space they created, arching over you like some kind of elegant ruin. Diaz has staged these ruins, what she calls “selected acts of deconstruction and reassemblage.” They work for me as vengeful pieces, breaking up the monotony of the grid ceiling and white-painted drywall.

JBY: Yes, although Woodgate won the prize – $20,000 plus bragging rights, and well-deserved – I have to admit the biggest thrill for me (and I mean literally; I got goosebumps) was wandering through and under Diaz’s installations. Like you, I also thought of an avenging angel while experiencing the spectacular, soaring “Possibility of an Exit” made of fiber, plastic, copper, wood and salt; but her disassembled Victorian sofa, on the other hand, was suffused with melancholy.

RR: She’s working at a scale that OMA can accommodate, staging these spaces you can move into and experience as a frozen-in-time controlled accident. Although they are messy and shaggy, they have a delicate composition. I love them.

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