Friday, April 12, 2024

Web Extra: Sarasota Art Museum Makes An “Impact”

In the April issue of Boca magazine, I recounted a trip to Sarasota, one of the Gulf Coast’s longtime havens for arts and culture. Before departing the city, I was able to squeeze in a visit to the Sarasota Art Museum (SAM), one of its premier venues for contemporary art. The building is unmissable from its downtown location off Tamiami Trail, thanks to its massive size and 1926-vintage red brick foundation—a former high school, in fact—designed by M. Leo Elliott, one of the totemic figures in Sarasota architecture.

Inside, the SAM has the distinction of being just one of 12 museums in the country without a permanent collection, which means its focus on the visitor experience goes toward mounting year-round special exhibitions. (The 15,000-square-foot space also hosts classes and workshops for all ages.)

Through July 7, you can catch “Impact: Contemporary Artists at the Hermitage Artist Retreat,” a sundry and ambitious group exhibition, most of whose artists work in grand scales. The 10 artists don’t share a thematic or stylistic connection, but rather an institutional one: All are alumni of the Hermitage, another jewel in Sarasota’s cultural crown, an arts-incubator nonprofit that invites artists of all disciplines for creative residencies in the city.

From Chitra Ganesh’s “A city will share her secrets if you know how to ask”

The Hermitage graduates on display in “Impact” range from Kukuli Velarde’s earthen ceramics to Sanford Biggers’ patchwork quilts. Each creates a world, and a worldview. Highlights among highlights include Diana Al-Hadid’s sculpture “Seed,” a tangle of bronze vines, seemingly wind-whipped and frozen in time, their tendrils reaching toward the sky in suspended animation, implying any number of symbolic interpretations about progress vs. stasis.

I lost myself—in a good way—amid Chitra Ganesh’s “A city will share her secrets if you know how to ask,” a series of six panels reflecting contemporary urban life in mostly black-and-white, drawn with graphic novel-style expressiveness. Included in the motley bustle are images of 36 trans and gender-nonconforming people who were violently murdered in the tumultuous year of 2020. The panels also present, or allude to, cryptozoological creatures, cyborgs, space travel and UFOs, offering the cosmic richness of psychedelic art without the color. Their signature, zeitgeist-capturing image may be that of two people in face masks, kissing, while emerging from a lotus flower.

A roomful of works dedicated to the satirical and confrontational art of John Sims—a powerful figure in the Sarasota art world, whose unexpected death in late 2022, at 54, sent shock waves through the community—is another must-see for the SAM visitor. Much of its multimedia content is rooted in the reconfiguration of racist history and symbology. It’s one thing to expose the Confederate flag for the hate symbol it is—Sims’ most cutting, and darkly comic, example is “Confederate Gothic,” a staged photo of the artist in farmers’ overalls, posing next to a noose. But Sims goes further, essentially rehabilitating and recontextualizing its brand. His work in “Impact” includes a reimagined flag more in line with an Afro-centric color scheme, and the ability to listen, on vinyl, to “The Afro-Dixie Project,” the artist’s 13-year project enlisting Florida musicians in Black idioms to reinterpret the longtime Confederate anthem “Dixie.”

John SIms’ “The AfroDixieRemixes”

Some of the grandest conceptual works in “Impact” consume entire rooms, including Michelle Lopez’s tellingly titled “House of Cards,” an abstract assemblage of wire, bungee cords, cloth and repurposed rocks, like an infrastructure project put on permanent hold. Some of the structures vaguely resemble ladders ascending to nowhere, ultimately suggesting the structural fragility of our environment.

And I’ve never seen anything quite like the mutant functionality of Ted Riederer’s “Never Records,” a pitch-perfect simulacrum of an independent record store built within a museum gallery, complete with weathered, graffiti-painted brick storefront. Walk inside, and the art on the walls is partially constructed from vinyl-record detritus: In “This Is a Declaration,” for instance, repurposed text from album art forms new sentences, as in a hostage-letter collage from an old movie.

“San Cristóbal” by Kukuli Velarde

But the room also functions as a pop-up recording space; a musician was, in fact, performing in-studio with Riederer when I visited the museum. Thirdly, the space is a factory of sorts: Riederer cuts the song(s) his participants record directly to vinyl, and provides each artist with a free LP of their music to take home. Nothing else is for sale, not even the tantalizing array of records from largely unknown artists, cut to vinyl by Riederer, that fill the bins in the “shop.”

As a vinyl nerd, collector and reseller myself, I could probably spend an entire article just on Riederer and his high-concept not-really-a-record store. But that’ll be for the next visit to the art-filled oasis that is Sarasota.

Sarasota Art Museum is 1001 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. General admission is $15. For information, call 941/309-4300 or visit sarasotaartmuseum.org.

This Web Extra is from the April 2024 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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