BOCA RATON, FL — One of the first things I see as I walk into the gargantuan Schmidt Center Gallery on the campus of Florida Atlantic University is a wall assemblage that in the aggregate, from a distance, looks like the profile of a fish gaping its mouth to swallow some floating trinkets. I get closer and discover that the “fish” is made up of precisely arranged potatoes, and closer still I see that the potatoes are sometimes decorated with gold pins, and interspersed among them are miniature ceramic bibelots, textured and marbled and playfully colorful. This is Juan Pablo Garza’s “The oddities find each other (After putting together the rose bushes)” (2019). This piece serves as a proper introduction to and a metaphor of the ambitions undergirding the exhibition Under the Florida Sun, which is guest curated by Mikhaile Solomon (founder of Miami-based Prizm art fair).
In the text accompanying the show, which is a yearly production of the South Florida Cultural Consortium, Solomon asserts that she wants to move the conversation on local art making beyond the trite and hackneyed judgments of Florida as a tourist destination. Like my experience with Garza’s piece, the entire show demonstrates that at a finer resolution the artwork here is formally innovative, daring, and in some instances, alluringly beautiful.
There are 12 artists included in Under the Florida Sun, all of them winners of the annual South Florida Cultural Consortium grant. Among them, the painters stood out most. These artists, mostly hung in the Ritter gallery, include Zoraye Cyrus whose “Step To Us” (2019) is arresting. The charcoal, graphite, and pastel drawing depicts a group of Black women, some with their heads wrapped, others with hair freely flowing, tightly gripping each other under their arms as if marching in protective formation toward some conflict. This image could be the heraldic crest for many groups engaged right now in several ongoing civic struggles that threaten the life chances of Black women and their families: voting rights, access to healthcare, racist education policies, and on.
Harumi Abe has several pieces here that are visually seductive. She uses acrylic and gouache on canvas with such a feathery, washy strokes that the paintings read like watercolors. The intricacy of her hand is evident in “Back Roads to Far Town” (2020) where a bird in the upper third of the scene is made flesh with just a dark teardrop shape winnowing up to a whisper of white for the neck over which a dot of bluish gray constitutes the head. All her paintings portray landscapes I could fall into and roam around for days.
With a similar penchant for delicate, detailed handiwork, Mark Fleuridor uses ink and glue on watercolor paper to create portraits that are fantastically embellished. Looking at “Enveloped by the Sun #6 (John)” (2021), I discover that Fleuridor has made John’s trousers a cloudy, diaphanous swirl of orange, purple and white, on which he’s overlaid small calligraphic swirls of purple glue or ink. And the collaged image that stands in for John’s shirt is made up of orange and yellow leaves, and a version of these leaves is reiterated in ink and glue all around the portraits backdrop. What is marvelous about all his portraits is that they use strategies such as collage, and materials, such as glitter that I have seen overused elsewhere (these are quite popular now), but he’s made them feel fresh again.
Lastly, Sally Binard’s “Vesseled” (2020) is a clever take on portraiture, using earthenware clay that’s formed into tiny white pots on the painting’s wood panel to illustrate the alveoli that exist in our lungs. Alveoli are tiny air sacs at the end of the bronchioles where the lungs and the blood exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide during the breathing process. In making this reference to the lungs’ invisible apparatus Binard subtly but potently alludes to the ongoing global pandemic during which thousands of people have been struck down by a virus that prevents the alveoli from working as they should.
Altogether the work of Under the Florida Sun reminds me that I do need to wander away from New York City now and again to see work that will surprise. It also reminds me that the term “regional painting” when used as a pejorative is not a particularly useful term. It dismisses a whole set of perspectives and concerns that one really has to see up close and personally in order to begin to understand.
Under the Florida Sun continues at the Schmidt Center Gallery and the Ritter Art Gallery at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida through October 30. It was curated by Mikhaile Solomon.