Monday, March 1, 1993

An Underground Art Tour

Fun stops and fresh sights on Sarasota's arts scene.

Sarasota's legendary arts scene could seem a bit intimidating to the neophyte, or stuffy to the young and restless. But beneath the polished surface there's a world of quirky surprises and welcoming charms, if you only know where -- or sometimes how -- to look. All you need is an open mind, a willingness to have fun and an informed and entertaining guide or two. Who better to lead our offbeat art tour than Su Byron and Marty Fugate, the engaging young editors of that lively upstart newspaper, The Sarasota Arts Review? Everybody onto the bus, now!

Let's start with the big one. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, just off the North Trail near the airport. Even if you've already toured it, there's a whole new way to experience this sprawling bayfront complex. In addition to the renowned collection of Baroque art, what's amazing about this place is that it was all once part of the private estate of John and Mable Ringling. Next time you visit the museum, try to put yourself in their shoes. Stroll in imagining you own the place and that's your private collection hanging on the walls. The Ringlings were known for high living and swank glamour, and thanks to the recent renovation, the museum looks fabulous enough to fit right into that image.

But as you wander through the elegant galleries, you may find yourself reflecting that the Ringlings definitely had a taste for flesh and violence. There's that bull with the naked woman strapped to its back at the entrance, and painting after painting shows panting couples, piles of food and even bloody limbs being torn from bodies. This is the Addams Family of great European collections: violent, sexy and a little bizarre. Wonder what Sen. Helms would think of all these swooning maidens and severed heads. Or worse, those paintings by William Pogony on the ceiling of the game room (no longer open to the public) in Ca' d'Zan: grotesque figures indulging in gluttony, back-stabbing and other bestial decadence.

Whew! Once outside, take a deep breath and hit the road. Head south on the North Trail -- U.S.41 -- our very own version of Route 66, complete with pastel motels sporting romantic names like The Cadillac, Sunset Terrace, Paradise Motel, a jumble of '50s and '60s architecture combined with some contemporary buildings and weed-choked fields. Check out the statues on the median strip. Cement lions stare gravely at you, unmoving as you zip by.

There's art all over the Trail -- or at least, stuff that wants to be art. The grinning golden Buddha at the Sai Woo restaurant near Mecca Drive. Rows of gleaming white nude figures grace the roof of Cafe Onesti, across from the miniature golf course (jungle art) near the corner of Myrtle. Greek gods and goddesses as seen through a tangle of wires and streetlights, poking up against the blue sky in a rim of arches.

Quick! Make the next left at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That teetering blue and white cube suspended above the corner signals the entrance to the Ringling School of Art and Design. Budding talents and dangerous hairdos. Park and walk around the campus, greatly expanded and improved in recent years. Founded in 1930, the school has been singled out by U.S. News & World Report as the most up-and-coming art school in the U.S. for the past two years. Explore the campus and admire the new buildings. And while you're here, visit the school's Selby Gallery. There's always a good show on, whether it's an exhibition of ethnic tribal masks or Japanese-inspired computer art. This month, gallery director Wally Mason is presenting "The Everpresent Moment," featuring contemporary drawings by several artists.

Continue south on the Trail; just before Sixth Street, look right for the Sarasota Visual Arts Center. If you'd been here in December, you could have met Peter Max himself in that building, the '60s guru of psychedelic, spaced-out art. This month the exhibition space and artist's cooperative is exhibiting works a little closer to home in its "Artists of Florida" show.

Back on the Trail going south, turn left onto Second Street and check out Vicky Randall's stainless steel sculpture, "A Clockwork of Convergence," in front of the ADP building on the corner of Second Street and Cocoanut Avenue. Randall, a Sarasota sculptor, created the site-specific work with the idea of symbolically "bringing together" the group of planners, architects and designers who share the building. The sculpture is a convergence of interweaving faces and sides of metal reminiscent of a Mobius strip.

Just down the street is the newly restored Sarasota Opera House, where the town's only imp snugly sits on a tiny shelf in the corner of the building. There used to be another imp, but back in the late '70s when this was a fundamentalist coffeehouse they knocked it off with sledgehammers, thinking he was too demonic. Poor little guy. Some cities are stuffed full of statues of gods, goddesses, angels and devils. We have our one ice-cream-cone-headed imp who's just a little too cute to be taken seriously.

That brick-bordered grass triangle across the street is the new Selby Five Points Park, where one of our more recent public art projects is housed. What? You don't see anything? Oh. Park your car in front of the Limerick Junction Pub, get out and walk out onto the green triangle. See? Down there. Blocks of Texas red granite, engraved with images of Sarasota's past zigzagging through the green. Not gravestones, but fragments of Sarasota's past called "Memory Path," a sculptural piece by Ohio environmental artist Athena Tacha, completed last year. Controversy about the work began before anyone even saw the finished piece. This was the first piece of public art that was approved by the then newly formed Public Art Committee, and folks were muttering all over town. The people who wanted sea horses and dolphins were angry, boosters of avant garde art were red in the face, and those who didn't believe in public funding of art at all were foaming at the mouth. Everyone had his own idea of what kind of art belonged in the park. And local artists were peeved that Tacha wasn't from around here.

The piece doesn't work for many people because the images are not clear enough to decipher, but we say give the art a chance to grow on you. Hang out long enough to contemplate the piece, to study the fading engraved images of our past families, buildings and pioneers.

Leave your car at the Limerick and stroll over to Palm Avenue to do the Gallery Hop. This stretch of Palm Avenue between Main and Ringling is a block chock full o'art galleries. On good days, you can see anything from a Warhol print or a Cindy Sherman photograph at the Mira Mar Gallery to oversized, brilliant abstracts at the Joan Hodgell Gallery to Sarasota artist Virginia Hoffman's wondrous glass and steel sculptures at the Anita L. Pickren Gallery. If you're here on a Friday evening, there's probably an opening where you can sip wine, nibble on cheese and check out the town's culturati. (And definitely take the Spring Art Walk on March 5, from 6-8 p.m., sponsored by the Arts Dealers' Association.) During season (December through April, roughly), there's always an eclectic crowd of art hobnobbers, the curious, the showoffs, the smirkers, art students and yes, even artists. Intimidated? Don't be frightened of galleries. They love you. Touch the sculpture. Schmooze with the artist.

And don't forget the excellent galleries tucked away on Main Street. Corbino Galleries features the work of the late Jon Corbino as well as works by Latin American artists and others up and coming. Across the street at American Scene, you can take in WPA-era paintings and works by American artists from the early 20th century. Curator Timothy Taubes has an extensive selection of works by his grandfather, Frederick Taubes, a much-collected artist from the '30s and '40s and author of several technical books on the making of art that were popular during his time. There's even a gallery that specializes in native American and Southwestern art, Santa Fe Trails. It features original oils, limited edition prints and sculptures, all by Southwestern artists. If you keep walking east on Main toward Osprey you'll come upon several other small galleries worth visiting.

No downtown gallery hopping is complete without seeing what those avant-gardey folks over at ARTarget are up to. ARTarget is a two-year-old artists' advocacy group and alternative exhibition space at 522 S. Pineapple Ave. You can shake off all that wine, cheese and high seriousness by walking the few blocks to view the latest in on-the-edge outrage. Here's where the town's young turks hang out, hanging the kind of art you definitely will not find on Palm Avenue. Depending on the show, this stuff can be silly, creepy, nose-thumbing or disquieting. Like we said, it's alternative, not the kind of art that works well with your living room sofa.

Take a sidetrip a few blocks east, to the corners of Rawls and Laurel streets, where you'll see artist Jacques Halbert's house and studio. The sign out front says CAFE DESFARTS, and it does look like a quaint outdoor cafe. Colorful, hand-painted signs in French offer real and surreal foods and bright blue and red stools offer instant relaxation. But there's no food here. Halbert, a French Dadaist known for his huge fruit-and-vegetable shaped paintings, salvaged most of the cafe furniture from restaurants he owned or patronized. Inside (knock first!) you'll find more art on the walls, in the walls, even on clothes. Eggplants, cherries, bananas and Florida-postcard flavored art, too.

Back on the Trail, drive a few blocks south of Sarasota Memorial Hospital at the corner of Boyce Street in front of the Schwimmer Chiropractic Clinic. Here you can see a brave gesture indeed -- art by the town art critic, Joan Altabe. As the only art critic for the daily newspaper, her position and willingness to shoot from the hip have earned her death warrants from many artists, who leapt at the chance to criticize the critic's work when it first appeared. It's a piece of sculpture that depicts a cluster of human figures, some standing, some kneeling. The piece is really an outlined composed of strong, energetic lines. Strong like Altabe herself, who stands firm to her mission, like her calm clusters of figures gazing out at Hell Highway, oblivious to the crazed mess of humanity rushing by.

If it's still light out you may want to cross the John Ringling Causeway and watch the sun set on St. Armands Circle, home to several galleries, including the Frank J. Oehlschlaeger Gallery, where the works of sculptor Jack Dowd are exhibited. Lifesize and lifelike sculptures of the crazed detritus of our junked-up society. Consider them satiric, anthropology studies: the tattooed biker woman, the homeless person, the convenience store clerk with condoms and hemorrhoid medicines arranged around him.

Keep traveling south on Longboat Key to Exit Art at the Centre on Gulf of Mexico Drive. There artist and owner Peter Stanick shows his geometric pop visions of familiar icons: Popeye and Olive Oyl, Speedy Alka Seltzer, Marilyn. Bold images exploded in hard-edged, flat acrylic colors.

It's getting late, but there's still more art out there to see. Florida Avenue Studios, another alternative art collective in the downtown area, generally begins its art parties later in the night. Maybe later you could stop in at Coley's on Main Street, where a lot of the artists end up on a Friday night after doing the gallery thing. Everyone's feeling just a little bit flushed and happy to be here. Who needs Soho or L.A.? We've got our own scene. Poetry groups, open mikes, blues festivals. Why, the other night, somebody saw a white limo pull up in front of ARTarget.

Uh-oh. Next thing you know we're going to have folks from the suburbs being bused in for "art tour evenings," rents will go up and local sulphur water will sell for five bucks a bottle. Maybe we should keep this Sarasota "art scene" just between ourselves. Wouldn't want to ruin a good thing.