When I was around five or six my older brother and I met 'the man downstairs.' He was a funny fellow, a life long bachelor, who took great joy in playing games. He lived simply in a sparsely lit and minimally decorated apartment in the cellar of a house in Yonkers, New York, that was also inhabited by my aunt, uncle, their three sons and my grandparents.
His name was Chuck. He looked like he was 80 years old, but he was probably more like 50. He was overweight, rather pale and he had a problem with one of his legs so he always walked with a cane. He wore white long sleeve shirts and shiny gray pants, and partially untied lace-up shoes, a zippered dark blue or gray jacket, and a skinny black tie. He smelled like pipe smoke, coffee and something you couldn't quite figure out and it was obvious that he wasn't all that well, but he managed. His and our favorite game had no name as far as I can remember but it kept my brother and me occupied in his bachelor's lair for hours on end. He would hand us a piece of paper with five different lines on it asking us to turn the scattered scribblings into something specific like a sail boat, a car, a dog, or my favorite, a face.
I didn't realize it at the time, but this was one of the most important early developments in my creative thinking. I had seen and was mesmerized by Picasso's Guernica a few years before at the age of three, when I saw a reproduction of that great anti-war masterpiece in the encyclopedia set my parents bought for us. Sure, I did have that one great exposure to modern art seeing Guernica but it was that game, that simple venture of turning abstraction into representation that was so pivotal because it was hands-on and profoundly different than anything else I could have imagined.
From my late teens through my mid thirties I would often play the Surrealist parlour game Exquisite Corpse at parties - experiences that would always bring me back to those quiet, somewhat secretive times playing the picture game with 'the man downstairs'.
Today there is a new challenge at the Morean Arts Center in St Petersburg, FL, involving 74 artists organized by myself and exhibition co-curator Amanda Cooper that will culminate in one glorious and fun exhibition titled Exquisite Porch.
For those who are not aware, Exquisite Corpse is most often played with either three or four participants. The idea is to fold a piece of paper in equal parts so each person has a section. The first person draws either the top or bottom making sure that some of the lines in their drawing slightly overlap the next section. Then the paper is passed to the next person who can only see the few lines that overlap their section and not what the first person has previously drawn. Then, after the second person draws they do the same to the next section, hiding their part and so on.
I thought it would be fun to discus with Ms. Cooper her thinking about the exhibition and the process she used in selecting the artists she added to this diverse exhibition.
DDL: I've been wondering for a while now, since you've been so supportive and excited about our exhibition if you had an experience with Exquisite Corpse in the past you'd like to share.
AC: I've wanted to work with you again since we last had your work in our gallery--which was nearly 10 years ago! The idea for this exhibition really struck a chord with me. As an artsy kid growing up in St. Pete, Salvador Dali and his work always loomed large, since we have his amazing museum here in town. In high school, I read his biography and his diary and was fascinated by all things Surrealist, including the idea of the Exquisite Corpse game. I have played it a few times in my younger years, but nothing as exciting as your "man downstairs" story!
DDL: One of the participating artists, Katy Purtee, told me it was her favorite game when she was a child: "My Mother, one of the first women admitted to the Yale Art School (class of '23) taught it to me ... I think I wore her out asking to play more."
This entertaining social aspect of Exquisite Corpse, plus the curious and even outlandish way shows were installed as with the landmark Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (1938), which was organized by the anarchist and founder of Surrealism André Breton, reveals an art movement that was both erudite and appealing, or at the very least enticingly bizarre to all who were exposed to it. Add the lingering affect of Surrealism in contemporary society, especially as it relates to things difficult to explain or portray and you have a resilient connection between the earliest proponents of the movement: Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Giorgio de Chirico, André Masson, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Hans Arp, Yves Tanguy, Kay Sage, Paul Éluard and Francis Picabia and many of the current day film makers, sculptors, writers, poets and painters.
With all this said, I wonder why many contemporary art galleries, especially here in my home base of New York, rarely if ever use the word Surrealism to describe the obviously Surrealist-leaning contemporary artists they intend to exhibit. Can it simply be the popularity of the art created, and the fact that humor or satire weaves through a good portion of Surrealist Art that contemporary artists that paint or sculpt in a Surrealist way tend to be overlooked or re-categorized as something else to make them out to be - oh I don't know the best word for it - more intellectual?
Since the Morean Arts Center is so close to the Salvador Dali Museum I don't imagine you have that same lack of respect for the current manifestation of the Surrealist movement as we do here in New York.
AC: It's not a stretch for Florida in general to embrace the contemporary Surrealist movement; if you read the news at all, you know that life here tends to be a little weird in the Sunshine State. See: "Woman Sues Philanthropist after Donkey Attack" and "Strip Club Offers Free Flu Shots." Subjects for surreal paintings? Nope, just stuff that happens around here. I say this with great affection for my home state.
The Tampa Bay area in particular seems to be home to many artists who fly the surreal banner. Being the only place I've ever worked, I take it for granted, but there IS a proliferation here. It certainly wasn't hard to come up with artists for this show, and I'm sure there are many I omitted. One of our better-known and celebrated artists is Steven Kenny, a fabulous painter who moved to St. Pete a few years ago from up north, and the Dali was a large factor in his moving here. He hasn't lived here long, but he has been quickly embraced by our community.
And while surrealism is welcomed here, I believe it may be at a disadvantage to be judged more harshly, only due to its abundance. There is a lot of bad "surrealism" out there that hasn't evolved past the fanciful drawings we all did in middle and high school. You do get a little fatigue from seeing so much of it.
DDL: I'd say that's a universal problem with current day Surrealism. A lack of understanding of it's history, its connection to pre-Dada art and the Dada movement that was anti-war, anti-establishment and radically left leaning. Today, much of the Surrealist art is quite tame and too heavily reliant on the 'dreamscape.' But enough about that, let's get back to our show. One of the things we both felt strongly about is the origin of the iconography used by each artist, and how their age, culture and life experience affects an artist's individual vision. Sure, we are playing a Surrealist game here, but not all of the art is Surreal. Some of it is Abstract Expressionist like Jeanne Wilkinson's Calusa Fish, while other works are Color Field like Michelle Mackey's collage.
Then there are others like Denis Gaston and Alexis Duque who've created very intricate works that are quite magical in their minutia-laden representations. When it's all put together everyone involved and the gallery visitors will be surprised and that's the beauty of this exhibition.
AC: I did include several artists in this show due to their surrealist leanings, but for the most part, I focused on artists who were known for their draftsmanship and/or their interest in the macabre. Sabrina Small, an artist whose work I have followed for nearly 20 years, is an example of this. Her atmospheric yet detailed drawings have been largely autobiographical, tracking her experience in the art world, her love life, medical issues, and the like, all with a menacing, kind of bad-ass quality to them. She's from Philly, and lives there now, but spent many years in Central Florida and then in Germany, which certainly shaped her work. I thought the creaturely aspect of her work would make her an asset to the show.
It's interesting to look at the roster of artists and see that out of nearly 30 Florida-centric artists, only 6 were actually born in the state, and only two of those born in Central Florida--Tampa, to be exact. The rest hail from all over the country, and the world, with artists from Venezuela, Colombia, India, and Great Britain. I guess this is true of Florida's population in general, and no doubt true of your tri-city area.
DDL: It's no surprise that both central Florida and the NYC area have artists from near and far, which is why I thought it important to include date and place of birth for each artist. I think that's why it was best to keep the connecting points between each artists work standard and rigid. We will end up with eight separate creatures that range in total size from 34 feet to three feet in length. The largest drawing has 17 artists, each with two feet of space and contact points 12 inches apart on the left and right had sides sans the ends. The three-footer has three 12 inches square drawings with the contact points at six inches apart. The other six are anywhere from 24 feet to seven feet wide at various sized paper parts per artist.
The exhibition was organized by sending out general diagrams and instructions, with fingers crossed, and we ended up with some pretty wonderful results. For instance, Rieko Fujinami, who lives in Beacon, New York and St. Petersburg, Florida, is dedicating her piece to the one out of six children in Japan who live in poverty. She sites: "In one sad case, two sisters did not have anything to eat, so they ate the tissues distributed free of charge for advertising to keep from starving. When they were rescued, the sisters told the social worker 'We found that the pink tissues were sweeter than the other ones.' I made this work to commemorate the two sisters, and all children, who have created a strong relationship together in their world, bonding together in their sad and difficult situation."
Rieko's husband Dale Leifeste went in a completely different direction: "The creation of my piece began with a black and white photograph of a piece of driftwood I found washed ashore on the bank of the Hudson River in Beacon, NY. I thought it looked like the head of a snake, a dragon, or some imaginary beast. With a bit of digital manipulation I removed some background distractions, added some textures, and helped to make it fit into the proportions needed for the Exquisite Porch exhibition."
Then we have Kevin Connolly Gillespie who also did the head of a seven foot - seven part creature using acrylic, alkyd and oil on paper and clear acetate (vinyl record sleeve) utilizing elements of the diamondback rattle snake to design his wildly detailed and fanciful creation. Another even more incredibly detailed head is Zane York's 12 X 12 inch drawing titled Self-Portrait/Eastern Fence Lizards and Fire Ants. Executed with ballpoint pen and gouache on toned paper, this work of art is right in the wheelhouse of what I had hoped to see and a guaranteed show-stopper.
Other artists who went with the indigenous creature types with excellent results are Katy Purtee's fun, stain-glass-like gator (I mentioned Katy's story of her and her mother earlier); Norm Magnusson's likeable loggerhead turtle; Susan Breen's beautiful and buoyant ruby-throated hummingbird; and Jennifer Kosharek's fantastical feathered, limpkin inspired piece stating: "It's a solitary and mostly overlooked bird that feeds on apple snails."
At the other end of the spectrum we have some wildly narrative and abstract works such as Bill Gusky's Repeat Repent, which takes a look at environmental issues and lack of forethought made more problematic with skewed principles. Michalyn Monson reveals, using various media, the innards of a gator inhabited by nursery rhyme type characters at a tea party. Yiannis Christakos brings us in close with a network of capillary and neurotransmitter markings, then moves us way back in both a physical and mental sense, with an aerial view of trailways.
AC: I love the narrative quality of Michalyn's piece--and this is the beauty of this project. All of these artists' contributions could stand alone, versus looking like a mere segment of something larger. It's fun seeing all the work come in their individual mailing tubes, unfurling them, and studying them on their own before they are pieced together into a large body in the gallery.
At the time of this discussion, I've only seen a handful of the Florida contingency, and I like the balance of artists referencing the wildlife of our state, and artists who are just interested in forms and shapes, the act of drawing and creating texture with materials. The lizard is clearly going to have a place of honor in this show; I've seen it already in the works of Denis Gaston and Steven Kenny. In Steven's work, a swath of lizards makes its way across the paper, bulldozing through images of people from bygone eras who stare and emote at its movement. This reminds me of my mother, who, though a Florida native, is terrified of lizards and kills them with hairspray when they dare to enter her house. Perhaps she should sit this exhibition out.
Babs Reingold, a St. Pete artist dividing her time between here and the New York City area, is a master draftsman who references poverty and environmental issues in her work. Her contribution to this show is an intricately rendered horizontal tree trunk, an homage to a larger installation called The Last Tree that debuted at the ISE Cultural Foundation Gallery in NYC a few years ago.
Author Jared Diamond's quote, "What do you imagine the Easter Islander was thinking when he chopped down the last tree?" resonated with her and led her to a body of work that addresses how people interact with the environment over a period of time and under certain circumstances. Florida's wetlands seem to always be in the cross hairs of developers, an issue particularly relevant for our state and what it will look like for future generations.
On a lighter note, there's Chad Mize, local artist and St. Petersburg promoter who is known for his fun graphic designs and "Chizzy" lifestyle brand. His MO for making art is to uplift the viewer with work that radiates color and happiness, and this one doesn't disappoint. A graphic homage to the Sunshine City, his print is a visual summary of our state--undulating and alternating patterns that could refer to waves, or fish/reptilian scales, in vibrant colors that dispel the notion that this area was once referred to as "God's waiting room."
I'm excited to see what some of the other artists will contribute, particularly Derek Bourcier and Justin Nelson, who always bring a sense of humor and irony to their work. As a curator, I enjoy seeing our local artists on a "stage" with artists from other areas, and this show accomplishes exactly that. For nearly 100 years ( the Morean celebrates its centennial in 2017) the Morean has been celebrating and promoting the artists of Central Florida while educating our community about artists and trends on a more national scale. I hope that this exhibition will serve as a gateway for dialog among the various artists who may or may not have known each other previously, and, who knows? Maybe more collaborations are ahead.
Right before I submitted this article to The Huffington Post I received the following image and note. Some may know the work of Vicki Khazami as she has done quite a number of Romance Novel book covers. I think her thoughts and process sums up pretty well, the challenges of this show and the fun we all had putting it together.
So, I was fascinated by the lagoon life.. Primordial soup... hidden, deep and scary..
All I could think of was Creature From the Black Lagoon. I looked him up and found out that the lagoon shots were filmed in Florida! (though the legend said the creature originated in the Amazon.) Many of the 'on-top' of the water scenes were filmed at Rice Creek near Palatka, Florida. Ricou Browning played the Gill-Man in the underwater shots, which were filmed by the second unit in Wakulla Springs, Florida. (Wiki) For me, I am satisfied to believe that Florida's lagoons also give birth to more 'Creatures from Black Lagoons and their off spring'.
Thank you for this fun challenge. I got to work outside of my box and push myself to be freer - use techniques I never used before and I let my 'traditional rendering' take a vacation :)))
Thank you !!!!!
Vicki Khuzami, born in Brooklyn, NY
Exquisite Porch is on view at the Morean Arts Center in downtown St. Petersburg, FL, from March 12 - May 1, 2016. The gallery is free and open to the public during regular business hours: 9am to 5pm Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5pm on Sunday.