After nearly two shuttered years from its prime location at the southern terminus of downtown Delray Beach, the Cornell Art Museum has reopened, now under the auspices of the Downtown Development Authority. Art fills its atrium and galleries once again, and the mantra for the museum’s new vision seems to be “local, local, local,” in terms of both the artists represented and the issues and passions they explore. Joining the creative and glittering surfboards of the previously opened “Surfing Florida” exhibition is this month’s unveiling of “The World of Water,” a two-room exhibit that re-enforces our sense of place: a beachside oasis teeming with vibrancy and yet continually under threat.
Moreover, in the vein of hyperlocality, all but one of the artists hail from South Florida—mostly in the Palm Beaches—and “The World of Water” marks their first inclusions in an art museum, offering further evidence of the wellspring of talent in every pocket of the region.
Works span from the evocative and detailed figurative paintings of Alicja Kabat, whose “Goddess Exhale” depicts a swimmer in a state of mid-submersion in a swimming pool, the straps of her swimsuit reflecting off the shimmering surface of the water; to the no less impactful abstractions of Jane Lawton Baldrige works like “Storm Surge,” with its enigmatic sense of controlled chaos.
It’s hard not to smile at Kasha McKee’s vivid conceptual photograph “The Celebration,” an aptly titled image of flamingoes, the avian mascots of Florida, cavorting in an installation of water jets. Meanwhile, several of the artists reimagined familiar waterscapes. Ilene Gruber Adams’ Everglades photographs resemble alien planets from the annals of science fiction, while Stacy Lipton’s metal art “Pranam Tree” is distorted into a kaleidoscopic—almost Rorschachian—vision. Wall-mounted artworks such as these are complemented by a variety of sculptures, in stainless steel and blown glass, that pay tribute to the fellow mammals, cetaceans and invertebrates that share our oceans.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the most overtly eco-conscious works that have the most impact in “The World of Water,” and that most point to the more confrontational direction to which the Cornell had pivoted before its 2021 closure. In “Bent Pipe Obstructions,” by the duo known as KX2 (Donna Kleinman and Ruth Avra), hand-dyed, multi-colored canvas strips ribbon outward from repurposed industrial pipes attached to the gallery wall and pool on the floor, evoking the flowing “liquid” in a state of suspended animation. Perhaps we could gaze at this frozen capture of the movement of municipal water with neutrality were it not for the “Obstructions” part of the title, which enforces the fragility of a water supply we all take for granted, suggesting that if we’re not careful, this life-sustaining compound could very well stop its continuous flow.
But if I could name a personal “Best in Show,” it would be the suite of works from Ron Garrett, a Boca Ratonian whose hanging sculpture “Manatee’s Lament” provided the DDA’s cultural arts director, Marusca Gatto, and co-curator Debby Coles-Dobay with the spark for this exhibition. Garrett’s multimedia art mourns the defiled beauty of ocean life. “Manatee’s Lament” suspends from the gallery ceiling as a life-size reminder of our impact on these charismatic megafauna, its fin sliced by a propeller, its body sculpted entirely from the up-cycled debris that has crept into its polluted home.
Man’s unthinking destruction of marine life is rendered even more explicitly on “Fate,” a grimly titled site-specific sculpture of a hammerhead shark, its body dragging a motley assemblage of deadly detritus—a tire, a giant hook, bubble wrap, netting, rope, Styrofoam, plastic bottles, a broken surfboard. The sculpture puts into stark relief the statistics we hear, and then usually disregard, about our garbage’s effect on ocean habitats.
Garrett’s paintings are no less consumed with issues of ocean conservation. The somewhat cartoonish imagery of “Red Tide”—a series of identical fish, dead and upside down and eyes wide open, against a blood-red backdrop—does little to ease its constructive anger. Like the best of Garrett’s work, it’s the watery equivalent of the roadside car wreck: both difficult to see and difficult to look away.
“The World of Water” runs through June 25 at Cornell Art Museum, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Admission is free, but donations are accepted, and the museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, with varying hours. Visit downtowndelraybeach.com/listings/cornell-art-museum.