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Visual Arts: Hello From Florida  

Lingering under the sun
;Hello From Florida: 
;Photographs of the Sunshine State
Through June 11 at Gallery
;at Avalon Island
;39 S. Magnolia Ave.

There are disturbing images among the more than 100 selected by guest curator Jen O'Malley for Hello From Florida: Photographs of the Sunshine State. A quizzical-looking man, lounging in bathing trunks on a car in Christopher Bolton's 1972 "Jacksonville Beach," points a pistol at his head. Faded remnants of a long-gone land boom are the focus of Louise Erhard's claustrophobic 2009 studies of Lake Worth. Postcard-size digital prints by Kim Vang, grouped in close formation, are a concentrated explosion of color and form that verges on abstraction.

Hello From Florida, organized under the auspices of the May 20-23 Snap! photography event, is at home in the Gallery at Avalon Island, precisely the right place for the 14 area artists' works. The renovated 1886 Rogers Building, with gleaming heart-of-pine floors and stained-glass transoms, echoes and amplifies the warmth radiating from even the edgiest photographs – or, in Adam Dinihanian's case – documentary. His film, Hunted by Prey, plays continuously at one end of the gallery, its soundtrack murmuring as scenes of gators, airboats, sparkling swamps and hunters with their dead game flicker on the monitor.

What quickly becomes clear is that this is a varied, many-voiced overview of the Sunshine State, past and present, even at its darkest. In two of her own pieces, O'Malley explores newfound roots. A fourth-generation Floridian of Cuban descent, she traveled to Little Havana in Miami and ended up with diptychs, two-part images that explore the neighborhood's duality. Posters cover a shop window on the left side of "Maraka Music and Films, Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co.," while to the right, a man in a white hat and whiter guayabera emerges from dense shadows. Is he in the cigar company, or the artist's root memory or just some man on Calle Ocho? 

Hello From Florida doesn't tell as much as it asks relevant questions and leaves the viewer to look, engage and wonder. Most of the images are recent, and many come from series that study a single subject. Les Slesnick's chromatic and textured "Dunedin Project, #18" is initially arresting and then, thanks partly to the text that accompanies the images from his 2007 "Private Spaces: The Dunedin Project," almost impossible to stop studying. In it, Aunt Flo, 105, sits on a floral couch, hair coppery and makeup impeccable; the subject holds an ancient photograph. Slesnick's attention to detail gives the print an amazing impact; it's also a virtuoso display of art basics: form, line, color, texture.

That's true too of Ryan Marshall's exquisitely detailed photos. Like Slesnick, the artist uses text to give crucial context to the new series he just made in Apalachicola. Looking at and through the eyes of Fred, a weathered fisherman, Marshall puts a face on the ongoing tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico. Fred is stoic, looking into the camera in the largest of three prints mounted together; beside his portrait is a view of him in his ramshackle shop and a close-up of his arm, which extends from the upper left to lower right of the small format in a crisp diagonal. Fred is cleaning a fish in another print, an unremarkable activity except for Marshall's note: He is waiting for the oil to come ashore and end a way of life that is already hardscrabble. The viewer looks not just at one face, one place; Marshall gives us a vanishing world.

The past is gone in Erhard's tiny captures, leaving behind rundown apartments, houses, motels – places that appear to have been abandoned and frozen in time. There are people in Josh Erickson's digital prints, but they're only ghosts in old-fashioned bathing suits on water skis in Marineland of the 1950s. Watching a slideshow of his friend, Maria, in her prime, waterskiing at the park, Erickson was struck by how the frames seemed to run together, as if in complex double and triple exposures. 

Inspired, Erickson enlarged old slides to the point of graininess, superimposing water-skiers of different sizes into faux-tourist posters like the disorienting "The Splish Slash Sensation" and the equally unsettling and more over-the-top romantic "Captive Till My Captain Arrives," a solo skier hovering in the air, fading into palm fronds. Witty and wacky, Erickson's photos embody a more innocent time in Florida's history as tourist heaven and tourist trap, a sublime place with an ever-changing sequence of faces – promoters, entertainers, locals, hunters and fishers.

Hello Florida gives us Floridians young and old, in weedy backyards, wetlands, springs and gritty beaches; it gives us overbuilt housing tracts, festivals, kitchens, stockade fencing and pink bathing suits. It's a story that was old when the Rogers Building was new: Florida is a land of dreams, of booms and busts, and a place where being armed at the beach, lounging with your girl and dog on a car at the beach, smoking, is just the place for the joking gesture Bolton shot.


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