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The late, late show 

Let's say that you awaken in the middle of the night. The clock beside your bed reads 2, maybe 3 a.m. There's a fire in your belly, a spiritual yearning that a trip to the all-night drive-through at Krispy Kreme won't cure. What you need, you realize, is to experience some art -- and fast. Where do you go?

You go to Artisans Guild of Orlando, the newly opened gallery space on north Orange Avenue that's defying convention by remaining open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. After a monthlong trial run in the old Gallery 6 Eleven location on Brookhaven Drive, the Guild officially settled into its new home last Friday, welcoming the curious to an open-house reception that introduced its around-the-clock services to the public.

We never close

If Friday's event was any indication, AGO has a way to go before it supplants Denny's as Orlando's most lucrative after-hours concern. Even at the active hour of 8 p.m., it was clear that the gallery won't be able to count on street traffic to goose its business. The area just north of the so-called "antiques row" was customarily sleepy, with most stores already closed up and the few parked cars belonging to patrons of the nearby Theatre Downtown or diners at the White Wolf Cafe. The entrance to Artisans Guild is located in the back of its nondescript building, putting new arrivals directly in the center of one of our finer warehouse districts. Anyone who might be strolling through this neighborhood after midnight would not be someone I'd welcome with open arms. I doubt they'd be in the market for an acrylic, anyway.

Richard DeMarco, AGO's executive director, displayed no such misgivings. As he took me on an impromptu tour of the facility's two rooms, the energetic pitchman told of a recent sale that had moved 12 pieces out the door at the ungodly hour of 2 a.m. Adopting the convenience-store model, he said, would bring in a crowd of theme-park employees and other entertainers, whose irregular work schedules often limit their ability to indulge the shopping habits the rest of us take for granted. He also expected heavy interest on the part of European tourists, who he claimed were accustomed to the idea of late-night cultural excursions.

Giuseppe Corrazina had never heard of such a thing. As the evening's featured artist, the Italian fresco painter was on hand to greet guests and chat up his work, but he admitted with a toothy grin that he had never encountered a 24-hour gallery back home in Padua. Would he be staying at the reception until sunup, then, just to get in the swing of things?

"No," his equally friendly wife answered, momentarily rolling her eyes to the heavens. She had to WORK in the morning.

One look at his work was all it took to cement the awareness that Corrazina was a pretty traditional guy. A handful of his large-scale paintings were hung with care in the facility's front room, but their splashes of color were more decorative than challenging, perfectly matching a laid-back environment that was dominated by leather sofas and a Persian rug. A strolling violinist produced some appropriately soothing tones, drawing intermittent applause that occasionally awakened a bespectacled gentleman who sat dozing in a chair. I guess he was already up past his bedtime.

Creature features

The scene was more exciting in the rear, where the lack of air conditioning heightened my appreciation of the "Dante's Inferno" of emotions on view in David Hawkins' troubling acrylics. Shot through with injections of blood-red paint, they included the horrific "I'll Hurt You First," an image of twin fetuses engaged in hand-to-hand combat while still trapped within the cramped confines of their mother's womb. Another, "Piss on Your Corpse," appeared to depict a scarlet-hooded head that was vomiting up some sort of voodoo doll. I tried not to imagine what kind of an audience they would draw at 4 in the morning.

The wit of Raymond Morris' mixed-media sculptures provided welcome balance. A landscaper by day, the dryly amusing Morris seemed particularly proud of "The Cluttered Mind," a work constructed from a miniature bed frame and a series of beer-bottle caps. Elsewhere in the room, a mass of wire and bolts twisted into a fright-wig pattern was quite reasonably titled "Don King." Materials for these pieces, Morris said, had been salvaged from local dumpsters and train tracks.

"I checked out about eight dumpsters on the way here," he drawled, deadpan.

The largest of his offerings, "Two Brains," was made up of two oversized hunks of oak and hickory that resembled a couple facing each other in conversation. Significantly, the wooden piece meant to represent the female half of the duo was slightly taller and more imposing than its male counterpart.

"Women, I find, are a little smarter than men," Morris related. "Have you ever noticed that?"

"Oh, yes," I concurred. "I've been on the losing end of it many times."

The Dream Factory

Through it all, DeMarco -- who preferred to be addressed by his nom de art, "Thunder" -- circulated tirelessly, pressing the flesh and championing the virtues of the Guild. He lauded it as a full-service marketing and promotion effort, one that not only afforded members the opportunity to hang their work free of charge but offered some 33 related services, including employment counseling, legal assistance and even dental benefits. All of it, he said, was available for the low, low fee of $35 a month.

The deal sounded too good to be true, and I wasn't surprised when the pony-tailed Thunder revealed that he had come to AGO from a background in multilevel marketing and insurance sales. Still, I had to admire his forthright honesty when he confided in me his dismay that so many artists were all but clueless when it came to promoting their own work.

"This, to me, might as well be refrigerators," he allowed -- meaning that making money from your labors is no less important if you're Keith Haring than if you're Sears and Roebuck.

Wake-up call

It takes more than a smart sales plan to get me out of bed at all hours, however, and DeMarco has his work cut out for him if he wants to make the Guild gallery a can't-miss destination for the rest of Orlando's culturally attuned insomniacs. Suggested starting point: a spotlight show for painter Andrew Hodges, whose eerie dreamscapes were by far the most mature and thought-provoking images to be seen last Friday. Masterpieces of gloom, they appeared to exist in the twilight zone between waking perception and subconscious fantasy, their literal meanings less important than the collective aura of dread that enveloped their consistently shadowed characters.

Hodges wasn't around when I went looking for him; someone said he had left to drive his kids home but would return shortly. When he finally made it back, I was glad I had waited. The Mississippi-born artist proved to be as affable as his output was frightening, humbly but happily declaring his appreciation of Dali and Michelangelo and his enjoyment of the music-composition exercises that he fits into his schedule whenever he can.

I couldn't believe that such disturbing scenarios could come from the mind of such a reassuringly regular guy, so I decided to go for broke by asking Hodges straight-out where he got his ideas. Without hesitating, he replied that almost all of them were the products of his continuing recovery from narcotics addiction.

To say that I was at a loss for words would be an understatement. I think I babbled something about admiring his bravery in making his nightmares public or the uses of art as therapy. I'm not sure what I said; I was too busy looking at the cross that hung around his neck.

I suppose you can make a lot out of a sleepless night, if you really set your mind to it.


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