The Mennello Museum of American Art continues its decades-long meditation on what exactly "American art" means with twin shows dedicated to young local artists, Our Orlando and American Youth. Both are curated by the museum's Katherine Navarro, and both opened last Friday; both shine a spotlight on the City Beautiful's contemporary art scene. Prior to the exhibition opening, Navarro – whose official title, Marilyn L. Mennello Associate Curator of Education, suggests that she has inherited the founder's mission to discover and share new art – convened a handful of these rising local artists for a round-table discussion with Orlando Weekly.
Navarro and her colleagues at the Mennello conceived the exhibitions last year as a showcase for emerging and aspiring artists. American Youth: Our Future boasts works by seven Orange and Seminole County high school students. Our Orlando: Making Sense of Our World features four working Orlando artists: Sarah M. Bender, Peterson Guerrier, Kelly Joy Ladd and Boy Kong.
"Both exhibitions seek to honor and highlight Orlando artists," says Navarro. "This year we wanted to use American Youth to look at our future, distant and not so distant. Each young artist has presented a vision of what that future might look like. The theme goes hand in hand with Our Orlando, which depicts the world as our featured artists experience it today. It's very present, very now."
It would be impossible, of course, to interpret the present without reference to the past. Bender's work in particular draws from art history and childhood memories. She uses tropes from the quintessentially American genres of Pop Art and Rockwellian kitsch to subvert nostalgic expectations. Across her canvases, the children's storybook character Little Red Hen gradually transforms into a housewife in a chicken mask.
"Every childhood memory eventually comes back to you when you're raising your own children," Bender muses. "The Little Red Hen returned to me when I matured as a woman and a mother, playing all the different roles a woman and mother has to play."
Peterson Guerrier also uses childhood impressions as grist for the creative mill. Not only did Guerrier paint four new canvases for Our Orlando, but he considers them his most intimate works to date.
"These paintings are personal to me, telling my childhood," Guerrier says. "I haven't really put anything of myself into my art until now."
The experience of growing up in Vice-era Miami – indeed, growing up black in the United States tout court – has marked Guerrier's artistic output as an adult in Orlando.
"The yellow line in my paintings represents crime scene tape," Guerrier explains. "As a black male, I'm always aware of having to avoid crossing that line."
Kelly Joy Ladd's works are textural, three-dimensional exercises in colored paper. She first discovered her love for textures as a teenage Disney parade actor, immersed in a world of costumes built from all manner of materials.
The group's most beguiling artist is Boy Kong, an autodidact street artist and art brut enthusiast whose immense avian watercolor, "Bird Watching," is the very first Our Orlando piece to greet visitors in the museum foyer. Like Kong's public persona itself, the work is a masterful balance of slacker ethos and underlying conceptual and technical erudition.
"Everyone around me became a birdwatcher at a certain point in my life," he says, with only the hint of a distant smile threatening to belie his glazed expression. "The gallery I help out at started working with the Audubon Society. My friends started talking about birds, getting books on birds. It was crazy. Plus I wanted to find something else to paint. I had just finished painting lions."
Kong would have us believe that his approach to being an Orlando artist – indeed, participating in the exhibition itself – is similarly pragmatic.
"It's Our Orlando because the work happens to be made here," he says. "Nothing is as complex as we think it is."
The Boy doth protest too much, methinks.