The premise of Visual Unity 2, an exhibit on view at the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, is simple. It would really be fun to make something together — so why not do it? The idea dawned on curator and participating artist Rocky Bridges after years of hosting parties where artist friends would chat about collaborations that never came to fruition.
"Where does a venue exist for visual artists to act like jazz musicians, where they can sit down and jam and have an outcome?" he wondered.
He answered his own question last year at the Morean Arts Center, with the fantastic inaugural edition of the Visual Unity series. A hard act to follow, but Visual Unity 2 rises to the occasion. Like any jam session, the show has highs and lows, but the lows are relative, given that the players constitute a kind of all-star crew of Florida-based artists: from Robert Stackhouse and Carol Mickett (a collaborative duo who work across media) matched with glass artist Duncan McClellan, to Bridges' own pairing with Miami-based artist Edouard Duval-Carrié.
The exhibit bears witness to the relational give-and-take that makes for any successful collaboration.
Theo Wujcik and Kirk ke Wang make for one poignant example. Wujcik, a painter with bold, pop art style whose prolificacy and longevity are legendary in the Bay area, called upon his former graduate student when it came time to pair up. Wang, who studied with Wujcik at the University of South Florida and now teaches at Eckerd College, shares his former teacher's penchant for huge, figurative canvases. Getting together almost every night to talk or trade paintings between their Tampa studios, the artists decided to plumb their mutual interest in China (where Wang was born and maintains a studio) and its increasing presence in American culture. Playing on the idea of a power struggle between the two superpowers, and on the trope of China as a producer of toys, the two created a massive canvas dominated by an angry, muscle-bound figurine, painted with delicious realism. (In the background, Japanese sumo wrestlers grapple with each other amid floating currency symbols.)
In painting together, the artists also reconnected on a personal level.
"We renewed our friendship," says Wang.
Other teams took a less hands-on approach to working together and still produced amazing work. Ceramic artist Tim Ludwig and painter Jill Cannady each essentially did their own thing, as Ludwig explains on the exhibit's cell phone guide — for their collaborative piece, Lidded Florida Water Vessel, he constructed a red earthenware vessel, and she painted it. The outcome is stunning. (Really, I think it's the best piece in the show.) On the sides of Ludwig's tall vessel, not truly functional but functional-enough-looking that a visitor could imagine fluid inside it, Cannady has rendered a pair of bucolic river scenes in luminous acrylic and encaustic. Depicting two women swimming above and below a waterline that splits the vessel halfway up (one reaches out as she swims toward the viewer), Cannady invites us to imagine the sunlight-dappled world as contained inside the vessel. This is the timeless pleasure of trompe l'oeil, accentuated by the painted curtains that playfully enclose the scene.
Another of the truly marvelous pieces in the show stems from the collaboration of Steven S. Gregory and Susan Gott, both based in Tampa. At first Gregory, a photographer known for his evocative landscapes, wondered what sort of common ground he could find with the glass artist, whose totem-like sculptures emit a spiritual presence.
"I thought they were just torturing us," he jokes. "How am I going to fuse hot, molten glass with my paper products?"
But the pair found common ground in the idea of ghosts — and the technical solution of printing Gregory's photos on a decal film that could be adhered to glass. Working with a found window frame, which Gott cast in clear glass, the two created a pair of pieces that function as passageways into another realm, where spirits or memories dwell. Inside the wood window frame, a female figure in black and white (extracted from an antique photo) hovers in front of one of Gregory's landscapes, a dilapidated house under an ominously cloudy sky. Inside the clear glass frame, a different woman peers out. The pieces' titles, This is Not a Window — Body and This is Not a Window — Soul, teasingly allude to early 20th-century Surrealism, a movement that prized forays into the otherworldly.
For Gregory, the process has opened the door to more collaboration. When a poet contacted him recently about working together to make a video, the photographer agreed.
"I think because of how well the pieces came out between Susan and I, I said, 'Sure, let's try.'"
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