The Sunshine Skyway Bridge connects the communities of the greater Tampa Bay. The “Skyway” exhibition connects the artistic communities of our region – at least in theory.
This art exhibition is a joint effort of four local museums that are launching on a staggered schedule. The exhibition at the St. Petersburg Fine Arts Museum opened on May 22. It expands Thursday at the Tampa Museum of Art; June 14 at the USF Contemporary Art Museum; and June 20 at the Ringling in Sarasota.
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Conceptually, this is one large exhibition in four venues, not four separate shows.
This year’s incarnation showcases the art of 49 local designers across the media spectrum. The hidden agenda of the show? It’s a lure, enticing regional artists and art lovers to mingle and mingle. Launch the virtual exhibition on your laptop? It’s not enough. The organizers want you to get in your car and drive through the Sunshine Skyway if necessary.
It’s a smart idea. In the hangover of the lingering exit from the pandemic, this is strangely revolutionary. This show was to take place every three years. But the first exposure was in 2017 – and COVID killed the 2020 follow-up. A bitter pill for organizers, no doubt. They had created “Skyway” to connect the great artistic crowd of Tampa Bay. Then a random pandemic disconnected him and atomized their viewers. But not this year.
“Skyway” is back with a compelling sample of the art of our time. And it was about time.
Here are some highlights of this ambitious exhibition. We try to give you the flavor, but don’t pretend to capture it. To get a real picture, you will have to see it for yourself.
Eric Ondina’s “Keep the Change” (2016) sizzles with pictorial energy. At first glance, it looks like an abstraction. Then your eyes decode the scene: it’s a crowded interior volume, probably an emptied store in a dead mall. This space is filled with a line of masked people, crawling to a table of masked doctors. A COVID vaccination, of course. But Ondina’s tense vignette goes beyond the threshold of recognition. Blink your eyes, and it becomes abstraction again. A dance of form; a multicolored burst of triangles, rectangles and trapezoids. It takes an effort of will to resolve the visual chaos. Focus and the scene of the pandemic years returns. Blink again, and it all falls apart again. As if reality itself is breaking down.
“Community Bus Painting” (2020) by Carrie Boucher is a joyful glimpse into the life of the moment. (To be clear, this is a photograph of a community bus painting, not a painting of a community bus.) You see three children at a community recreation center in St. Petersburg. Everyone has been holding a brush and painting for a while. The VW microbus behind them is now a joyous explosion of purple, yellow, green and blue. The two girls on the right lean in to inspect the floral pattern on the tires. The boy on the left is standing. He grabs a brush and a pot of green paint. But he doesn’t paint. He thinks. The kid bites his lip in furious concentration. You can tell he made a bold artistic choice and is ready to bring it to life. Although the photographer seems to have interrupted him.
With rare exceptions, visual artists like to be taken seriously. You can test this theory at the next art opening. Go to a painter and say, “I think you are a serious artist.” (Believe me, they’ll take it as a compliment.) Jake Troyli seems to be one of the exceptions. His self-portrait, “The Next Best Thing to Napoleonic” (2018), is deliberately ridiculous. The painting takes place in a children’s playroom. The artist sits on a workhorse, naked as a jay, sporting an Afro as big as a Buick. Echoing “Napoleon crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Louis David, Troyli triumphantly points to the sky. Some triumph. The artist rides a workhorse – and his eyes are crossed. What is happening here? Self-portraits are generally flattering. But this is a portrait of the artist as a goofy clown. Troyli described himself as a laughable fool. Intentionally. Why? Does Troyli invite you to make fun of him? I do not think so. My sense of the spider stings. I am detecting a hidden joke. I suspect the joke is on me. (Or critics like me.)
Other Ringling ‘Skyway’ offerings include: Ya La’ford’s ‘Unloaded’ (2018), an installation resembling the inside of a massive diorama (where two giant cybernetic eyes inspect you); Kalup Linzy’s “Mood,” a retro Polaroid portrait of an African-American drag queen; and OK Transmit “Overflow”. (To be clear: “OK Transmit” is the artist’s official name.) Transmission seems to be on this artist’s mind. Their multimedia room turns a traffic jam into a flow of data.
Ringling’s share of the “Skyway” pie is strong – but there’s no overall theme tying it all together. The art you’ll see here is idiosyncratic, individualistic, and often inspired. A perfect reflection of our fractured times.
Now here’s a look at the art you’ll see across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
St. Petersburg Fine Arts Museum
This section of “Skyway” has a thematic bone structure. His cohort of regional artists roam the wild side of the Sunshine State. Lynne Railsback creates lovingly realistic watercolors of native Florida flora. They made pretty postcards. The paintings of Ezra Johnson and Savannah Magnolia wouldn’t. They take a grim look at Florida’s aquatic life – and the pollution that seeps into our bays, rivers and blood streams. Jon Notwick’s photographs get even darker. He’s obsessed with Florida’s abandoned military test sites. Most of this poisoned land has been turned into state parks. They are still not sure whether to visit them. But forests and plots of wilderness stubbornly reclaim them year after year. Notwick’s photos of these desolate, empty places have a hauntingly doomed feel. They are Florida’s closest equivalent of the ruined cities encircling Chernobyl. An honest portrait of wild Florida will show off its beauty – and show off its enemies, too. This is exactly what you will see here.
Tampa Museum of Art
The energetic “Francis Schwartz” (2020) by Cassia Kite is a portrait of the famous avant-garde composer based in Sarasota. While she created this image with embroidery floss, her method goes way beyond knitting one, bead two. Kite’s “soundstitching” technique translates color into musical notes. This took the form of digital audio files – which provided excellent raw material for the composer. Schwartz collaborated with Kite to weave these waveforms into an original musical composition to accompany his work. The result is a haunting and hypnotic soundscape in the mind of John Cage. And a portrait of the composer for your ears, to match the one Kite created for your eyes.
For another look, watch John Sims’ live performance on June 3 at this museum. This African-American artist has been leading a stake in the hearts of Dixie’s undead for decades. His artistic vision may be prophetic – but he is not a prophet of doom. The Sims also see hope for new life in our nation. His installation “Restorative Resurrection” will make this hope visible. His interpretation of the spoken word will put him into words. The South will no longer recover. But America could.
USF Museum of Contemporary Art
Kodi Thompson’s “Green Spheroid” (2020) has the appearance of an alien artifact – a Sputnik of another species that has fallen to Earth in one way or another. It is a spherical shape, cracked like an egg, its surface is lined with grids and geodesic lines. The orb’s ceramic surface is shiny and metallic – and incredibly hard. Thompson’s sculpture is beautiful, but clearly artificial. You can tell it was made, not cultivated.
On the soft side of the equation, Cynthia Mason’s art mimics life itself. His spirit “Limp Pricks and Plants in Rising Water” (2021) seems to be a peniferous fern. This soft sculpted multimedia piece is a drooping and soft assemblage of ovoid shapes. These hanging elements look like pods of mimosa or, finally, bites. Mason’s organic art actually appears to originate from Earth. (Truth be told, she didn’t cultivate it. Her pieces are the result of multimedia recipes with long ingredient lists.)
More visual art:Read more art reviews and articles by Marty Fugate
Skyway 20/21: a contemporary collaboration
Runs in four regional art museums on a staggered schedule. The Ringling: June 20-Sept. 26. 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota; 941-359-5700; ringling.org; Museum of Fine Arts: until August 22. 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; 727-896-2667; mfastpete.org; The Tampa Museum of Art: June 3-Oct. 10. 120 W. Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa; 813-274-8130; tampamuseum.org; USF Contemporary Art Museum: June 14-Sept. 1,3821 USF Holly Drive, Tampa; 813-974-4133; usfcam.usf.edu/cam/cam_about.html