Thursday, May 23, 2024

From unique portraits to purgatorial boat rides

The lyrical trumps the prosaic and the abstract trumps the literal in Miami-based artist Nina Surel’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” which runs for a few more weeks at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. If the title of the exhibition sounds familiar—especially if you’re an English Lit major—it’s because it’s also the name of a famous W.B. Yeats poem about the spiritual transition from this earthly plane to the next. Surel’s exhibit, too, begins with a similarly evocative poem, co-written with Christina Rossetti, but its copious stanzas can’t help but pale next to Yeats’ more succinct original; pasting that onto the wall instead would have communicated Surel’s vision just as easily.

The work itself though, is hypnotic, beguiling and uniquely beautiful, if bordering on the pretentious: The reflective Mylar foil in Plexiglass boxes, and the empty, crinkled white canvases look only tangentially like art. But for the number of pieces in “Sailing to Byzantium” that don’t resonate, just as many do, offering a feminist response to Yeats’ manly poem through media ranging from photography to sculpture to video. The title photograph features four identical angelic beings drifting on a wooden boat in a monochrome sea: One oars, another gazes into the water curiously and the others lie somewhere between rest and the eternal slumber. Their boat is painted in golf leaf, mirroring Yeats’ “such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/of hammered gold and gold enameling,” and they look like beautiful water nymphs in transition, or explorers of a purgatorial oblivion.

The boat itself hangs impressively from the gallery ceiling, an object as spiritually anchored as Noah’s Ark. And behind the boat, a projected video shows the four travelers, in bleached-out non-color, navigating a Green-screen sea, perpetually rowing their vessel but getting nowhere, as if in a Sisyphean loop.

The sensation seems to suggest a way station between worlds, but beyond that, it poses more questions than it answers. Other images are striking but strain for a connection to the “Byzantium” theme. There’s a heavy “necklace” fastened to a wall with mariner’s rope, and around the corner a video displaying its use: In the minute-long clip, presented mostly in close-up, Surel wears the heavy wooden necklace like a life vest, hanging under her an unadorned face. In a procession of rapid edits, jewelry, leaves, headpieces, makeup and eventually cling-wrap covers her face, smothering her. It’s a powerful video, conveying the feminist wail that exists under the watery surface of the other works.

Two of the smaller galleries in the Art and Culture Center are also worth perusing before all of these exhibits close, on Jan. 24. My favorite show currently running is Santiago Rubino’s “Light Out of Darkness,” a series of mostly graphite (with some charcoal) drawings in shades of gray or sepia. Rubino draws characters suggestive of darkly whimsical fairy tales, with echoes of the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson and Japanese animation. But by juxtaposing them in antique, ostentatious frames, they adopt the patina of historical portraiture.

Drawn with lots of sharp points, serpentine twists and parabolic forms, Rubino’s creations hug the border between mythology, science and metaphysics, like the sword-carrying shepherdess overseeing a field studded with laboratory contraptions, or the children standing in a Holodeck-like space next to a fleet of microscopes aimed at winged insects. Many of the characters themselves have wings, tails and royal headgear, often nude with their naughty bits cheekily covered by butterflies, starfish and seashells, seemingly awaiting a cerebral graphic novel yet to be written.

Finally, Oliver Wasow’s “Studio Portraits” explores the artifice of portrait photography. His subjects are everyday people in commonplace clothing: a teenager sprawled on a sofa, a grizzled middle-aged man with a downcast gaze, a finger-sucking baby, a pair of children staring vacantly into the camera. Wasow places them in front of Green-screen images of classical landscape paintings, countering the banal and modern with the grandeur and the historic.

This approach can feel a bit on the nose, but Wasow is a witty image-maker. And with subjects encompassing a wide swath of contemporary demographics, “Studio Portraits” contains just enough sociopolitical subtext about the relation between beauty’s perceptions and its reality to not overstay its welcome.

“Nina Surel: Sailing to Byzantium,” “Santiago Rubino: Light Out of Darkness” and “Oliver Wasow: Studio Portraits” run through Jan. 24 at Art and Culture Center, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood. Admission costs $4-$7. Call 954-921-3274 or visit

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