Agents of the underground

Like atomic particles randomly bouncing around their orbit, artists Tony Garan and Morgan Steele were knocking around the Orlando art scene when they just blew up. That's how their works ended up at Orlando City Hall in the Underground: Orlando's Self-Taught Artists exhibit (through March 19), hanging with distinction alongside paintings by two of their better-known peers, Keith "Scramble" Campbell and Carl Knickerbocker.

The highbrow spotlight at the ground-floor Terrace Gallery is the serendipitous result of the foursome's works falling into the hands of well-respected writer and documentary photographer Gary Monroe, who curated the "Self-Taught" exhibit. It serves as a sort-of preview for Monroe's upcoming book that will profile 50 Florida unknown artists, in keeping with the art world's continuing fascination for -- and ultimate acceptance of -- artists from unschooled backgrounds. A professor at Daytona Beach Community College and a DeLand resident, Monroe recently published "The Highwaymen: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters" (University of Florida Press, 2001). Monroe's clout and careful eye helped to usher the "Self-Taught" project through City Hall.

The show serves as a validation for Campbell and Knickerbocker, who've been percolating on the local scene for years now, as the boundaries of traditional and nontraditional art have blurred. Campbell is ever the catalyst for interactivity and marketability (works by the four artists also are on show in the reopened Evolution Gallery through March 14), and it's through his whirlwind that Garan and Steele were drawn into the "Self-Taught Artists" collaboration, which serves as a splashy formal introduction for them. But they've been a part of this city for years.

"Actual Wounds" is the name under which all of Tony Garan's artistic work is united. That includes his prolific body of paintings, organized into "figures, flowers and faces." And it includes his cast of graphic characters, such as his long-faced, longtime pal Abdul (who Garan says got him through his childhood), and newer friends like the PVC People and the intestinally wretched mechanizations called "guthawks." Garan, who is 39, still lives with his aged mother in Maitland, near the old Seminole Plaza where he skateboarded to public outcry (and some state-championship success) in the late '70s and expressed himself through graffiti as part of his punk rebellion. But he gave up his rebel ways when he was busted behind Barbarella, spray can in hand.

The late '80s found him divulging his performance art on occasion in such outlets as Club Nowhere, Below Zero and warehouse parties. His self-engineered cassette tapes ground out the background to his spoken-word mysteries as he played guitar, or pots and pans, with an industrial-music muse in his head. (Einstürzende Neubauten, anyone?) Garan hooked up with Nickelodeon Studios in its early years, doing scene painting for "Double Dare" and other kaleidoscopic excesses. It's good work, he says, but it never lasts. Of late, his meaningful time is spent holed up in a home camp that's given over to corner-to-corner collections of canvases and personal memorabilia; he's endlessly productive.

In the exhibit catalog, Monroe writes that "Garan's art is a metaphor for our fractured world. ... He would like viewers to believe that the work is just what it appears to be ... a way of keeping busy in which technique is image. ... He is practiced in the art of deception; his flowers, figures and assemblages conceal the artist's pain with their visual charm."

Garan explains that there are two distinct parts to his work. One is the creation, which is very personal and cathartic. Then he turns fearless and sets it free, ready to share. "I want to get it out," he says.

Morgan Steele lets it all hang out -- and lets it all flow in, particularly whatever art style is his study du jour. This week, it's Salvador Dali, thanks to a field trip to the St. Petersburg museum. Browsing through the many finished and unfinished projects that are squeezed -- though orderly -- into his room in a shared house, it's hard to follow what is a conscious effort on the part of this easily distracted youngster of the "Self-Taught" collaboration. Monroe writes, "Much of Morgan Steele's work deals with references that suggest nothing in particular and images that are appropriated without regard to their origins ... an odd juxtaposing of cars, rats, planes, cows, roosters and fish. ... He spends hours-that-turn-into-days patiently transforming imagery borrowed from popular culture and classical painting into a type of contemporary clip art."

Still boyish, Morgan, 33, was more or less raised in South Florida, the son of an unconventional mother (one of her last wishes was that her son read the Koran) and a bebop jazz musician who fathered him late in life. He rejected the cruelties of a formal high-school education, at least the testosterone-ruled one he faced in Miami, in favor of the G.E.D. He spent his teens and 20s wandering here and there, including in and out of Orlando during its "underground" heydays, when Club Spacefish was the party spot on New Year's Eve and Refried Confusion worked the jams for its weekend utopias on the Chicken Ranch.

No surprise he was a Deadhead, working for an enterprising merchandiser, catching on quickly to whatever could turn a fast buck. Glass-blown pipes? He'd burn his fingers a few times, but he'd nail it. He has already written "Road Dogs of the Dead," his memoirs of the down-and-dirty lifestyle and its soap-operatic turns. It is a surprise to find that he's a dangerously passionate L7 fan -- "I pretend to be like a stalker," he says, proudly showing a hand-written note that proves he is on Donita's shitlist.

Orlando's where he's rooted today but that could always change. Take a look at the signature on some of his works at City Hall: Ciccone. Madonna's maiden name? It was just a phase that lasted a few months, he says, standing in front of a work in progress called "Ciccone Palace" that's very Dali-esque. But strengthened by pep talks for the unique talent that earned him his spot in the "Self-Taught" project, Steele has decided to go with his own name for now. And that's as good of an indicator as anything as to what's coming next.

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