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Eitharong: Both sides now 

Paradoxes Portrayed: Drawings and
Assemblages by
Ummarid Eitharong
Through Feb. 28 at the
Museum of Florida Art
600 N. Woodland Blvd., DeLand

Even for his many patrons and fans, who for years watched Ummarid "Tony" Eitharong's elegant large-scale works take top honors at street shows and exhibits and enter major collections, his superb retrospective at the Museum of Florida Art is a revelation.

That's not merely because of the sheer number of works in Paradoxes Portrayed: Drawings and Assemblages by Ummarid Eitharong, brilliantly organized by curator Jeanne M. Dowis. It's also because of the fine balance given to each phase of the Orlando artist's development, and to the choices and the links drawn among individual works from each of those phases.

Still, what immediately overwhelms is the visual impact — about 50 works, enough to fill both floors in the DeLand museum, some so immense that they command entire gallery walls. They span more than 35 years in the Bangkok-born artist's ongoing career, from his accomplished pencil drawings from the 1970s to dry-brush oils on paper circa the 1990s to the recent Military Industrial Art series, densely symbolic mixed-media pieces that resonate on multiple levels. Now 57, Eitharong disappeared from the Orlando eye after weathering ownership of his downtown gallery through 1998; this retrospective is a wowing reintroduction.

Eitharong appears in his earliest drawings as an enigmatic figure, crisply rendered with astonishing naturalism in the 1975 "Self-Portrait With Pelvic Bone," the skeletal structure masking his face. He's a slim, puzzled-looking presence in a drawing from seven years later, "S.O.B.," leaning against a wall holding a paper bag and cigarette while, oblivious, an armed policeman walks past. The drawing, like all others in the museum, is symmetrical, if disturbingly so: The disheveled artist's form contrasts on both literal and more nuanced psychological levels with that of the stiff cop.

Among the monumental dry-brush oils that vividly express emotion are "Journey" and "Steal Life," works from the Family of Man series. Looking sleep-deprived and dazed, her hair tumbled around her shoulders and alert twins on her lap, a woman set against a densely dark backdrop stares out of "Steal Life." To the right, as neatly arranged as in any Northern Renaissance masterpiece, a table displays meaningful objects: a pitcher, a broken loaf of bread and a blooming potted lily.

"Journey" is more animated, if equally alarming in its implications of the destructive pressures of family life. Eitharong presents himself in its center, head thrown back in a full-throated howl and a plump twin sprawled in each arm. He too is set against a dark void, but one in which luminous nails float. Wrinkled jeans hang around the man's hips, and he crosses one foot over the other; Eitharong's brush offers a super-reality, one that seems to penetrate the skin to reveal the inner pulsing of blood and nerves. Painful and liberating, his scream is silent but terrifying accessible.

At the opposite end of the emotional scale, included as if to demonstrate Eitharong's virtuosic ability with graphite pencil and brush on paper, is "Still Life VI," a drawing from 1987. His technique, dazzlingly photo-realistic, captures reflections from a set of silver coffeepots, the gleam of glass liquor bottles, the grain of a sideboard's wood and, in sharp contrast, a delicately ornate lace table-runner. It's a reminder of what Eitharong can do; at the same time, it's worlds away from the retrospective's most recent, powerful works.

They dominate the more intimate second-story gallery, but only after the viewer faces Eitharong's latest project, the mushroom-cloud installation made of more than 1,000 white origami peace cranes. "Winds of Change: Totem for Sadako" sets the stage for another origami-based work, "Camouflage" of 1998. Set in a gigantic shadowbox on small white rectangles, arranged in a grid of 11 up and 11 down, 121 miniature destroyers form a regular pattern.

Playful yet grimly pointed, the outer battleships are made of folded dollar bills, each with a matchstick "gun" glued to its turret. The design is momentarily dizzying, but quickly allows the viewer to pick out the reason for its title. Those toy boats obscure the "real" boats, dark, neatly sketched mono-prints of destroyers on a mission, as part of the Military Industrial Art series. It's an engaging device, a technique that Eitharong uses to disarm and inform his viewer subliminally. Now you see it, now you don't, and now you do again — this time very seriously.

It's a remarkable and remarkably chilling approach, one that is the thread that links every aspect of Eitharong's body of work. Visually balanced, exquisitely detailed and realistic, his art subtly sparks associations on multiple levels, from the mundane to the sublime. Drawn in by his bravura technique, the viewer is seduced by content so nuanced, so sly and subtle, that it acts directly on the emotions. Nothing, but at the same time everything, happens in the 2008 "MIA Series (Shirley Temple)," with its juxtaposition of a plastic action figure and the saluting child actress, in a World War II—vintage photo.

It doesn't have to. The pieces are all there, in place and waiting to be set in motion by each viewer to complete the process. Eitharong's are nearly complete statements, visually and tactilely gorgeous but also armed: They invite, provoke and welcome the reactions they deserve, and achieve.

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