Degree of difficulty 

At a distance, all one might see is a labyrinthine morass of dark lines and twisted angles. It's only upon moving in for a closer look that Benjamin Goodman's vision of "The Cage Keeper" comes into focus. And a dark vision it is, a zoo keeper's worst nightmare: The lions have escaped from their cage and ensnared in their jaws lies the paralytic cage keeper. No matter whether the artist's intent was literal or symbolic, it's the viewer who is now held captive. Perhaps not unhappily.

The intricate work of Goodman's detailed print is just one of the hundred or so visual creations on display at the University of Central Florida's 2002 BFA Exhibition. The annual event affords "an opportunity for the students to participate in probably their first group show in a formal gallery setting," says UCF Art Gallery Director Kevin Haran. He polishes the process by carefully laying out the artwork, making sure it receives the appropriate dimensions of light and space.

All the better to entice the community to take in the report cards, so to speak, of some of the area's best emerging young artists. Nearing the end of their undergraduate careers, a total of 21 students received the required faculty approval to participate. Goodman may have picked up a "First Place" award during the crowded opening reception earlier this month, but the exhibition as a whole is about talent and hard work, more than it is competition. "In a nutshell, it reflects the diversity and strengths of the department," says Haran, who is also an art instructor.

A walk through the spacious UCF gallery confirms that this is indeed an exhibit with a lot to show for itself. Occupying nearly an entire wall adjacent to the entrance, Scott Barrow's perhaps ironically placed painting, "Ignorance," depicts the eternal First Lady, Eve, her hair splayed out like the tentacles of an octopus as she struggles with the serpent. Nearby, artist Karen Breneman's humble portrait of a Lucerne Towers senior resident, "Of Cavities and Crown," could be "Whistler's Mother" in drag -- and woodcut.

Across the way, Jennifer Stuckey's colorfully wacky porcelain sculptures appear to romp in their display case, and sweet music seems to roll out of Daniel Ortiz's lovingly wood-carved trio of electric guitars, "Almond," "Vanilla" and "Chocolate."

While it's apparent that the students have earned this initial reward in the paying of their dues, many are quick to credit the close mentoring by teachers. Painter Priscilla Valadares says instructors Robert Rivers and Carla Poindexter taught her not only about the importance of maintaining a passion for the art, but of making the work "a force on its own." As artists themselves, teachers like Steve Lotz and Haran assist students in finding their own vision without ignoring the basic foundation it takes to channel that vision onto the canvas.

"As a faculty, we believe in the fundamentals -- that there is a basic art language the students need to know," says Haran. So, when students study drawing with Rivers, they progress through the elementals of sketching still life to the complexities of drawing the nude body and, finally, to trusting their own imaginations from which to create.

If students look to teachers for challenge, faculty look to Ke Francis for strong leadership in chairing the art department. Poindexter, a painting and drawing instructor, says Francis and his international reputation as an artist is one of the reasons she left Texas for a job at UCF. "Ke Francis is an artist first. He is able to take that experience to both the faculty and student body." Lotz agrees: "He came out of a background as a working artist making his way in the world."

Francis not only brought his reputation and 26 years of artistic experience to UCF, he expanded the school's visual arts research facility, Flying Horse Editions (www.cas.ucf. edu/flying horse). As a result of his vision, the fine-arts press now publishes limited edition art books and is growing in notoriety.

But nothing has surprised the veteran more than the explosive population of art majors at the college. He says that in the three years between 1998 and 2001, the number of students in the art department climbed from 165 to 715, with the solid reputation surely tipping the increase. Add in those specializing in digital media for a total of more than 800 majors in a department that currently employs only 20 full-time instructors. "Student growth has just been phenomenal," says Francis. "[It] has outstripped anybody's ability to keep up with it." The department is responding with a plan to add three instructors a year during each of the next five years. That's no small number considering that it equals "20 percent of all the hires in the College of Arts and Sciences," says Francis.

The diversity of work reflected in the BFA exhibition can only improve the department's chances of continuing to attract high-quality faculty. In turn, students will continue to experience the nurturing academic environment that supports such work as the paintings and sculptures of Abrahm Gebremichael.

Honored with a "Third Place" award, Gebremichael's work is among the most thought-provoking in the show. If the artist's surreal oil painting "And" presents us with a fresh, challenging view of Sept. 11, his stunning "Dawning of a New Day" reminds us of our altered future. In "Dawning," a pregnant Madonna clasps a young boy to her, but the faces of both are as featureless and bald as the expectant mother's protruding belly.

If Gebremichael's vision is preoccupied with the human condition on a grand scale, Julia Duresky's photographic memories are more concerned with the deeply personal. In "Her Son," a mother's letter to her dead child is interlaid with photos reflecting both past and present against illuminated Plexiglas -- what has been lost can only be recaptured through the intangible.

But just steps away from poignancy, suspended from silk hangers, are the five slips -- yes, lingerie -- of Alxis Ratkevich. Using a wicked sense of irony, Ratkevich has playfully explored sexual stereotyping through the process of digital print transferring. And so, a pair of door knockers take their appropriate place on the slip titled, "Knockers." By its side dangle "Hooters," "Pussy," "Melons" and "Beaver."

As the BFA students line up later this year to receive their diplomas, the rest of us can only hope for so complete an education.


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