In retrospect, I should have seen the storm as a sign. Watching four-foot swells pound the shores of Lake Eola; feeling my featherweight Honda Fit nearly take flight in an umbrella-inverting gust of wind; seeing the city’s signature swans sailing through the swirling air like errant Angry Birds – a sensible person would take these premonitions as permission to pack it in and head home. But I was determined not to miss another Third Thursday, come hell or (quite literally) high water.
I’ve covered downtown’s monthly art crawl numerous times over the course of this column. But I haven’t written about it since before Barbara Hartley took over for Shanon Larimer as executive director of the Downtown Arts District, organizers of the long-running event. So I waited for a slackening in the deluge, slapped the Orlando Sentinel real estate section over my head (hey, it has to be good for something) and awkwardly puddle-jumped my way to the shelter of CityArts Factory.
First stop inside was the Orlando Magic Gallery, home to this year’s Red Chair Project art chairs. Once again, dozens of arts groups donated uniquely decorated midget IKEA chairs, which will be auctioned to support Red Chair’s ticket-selling website and other activities. I stage-managed the annual Red Chair Affairgala at the Bob Carr for several years, so I should be intimately familiar with the organization, but I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know the origin of the red chair iconography, nor understand the exact purpose of the event. And while I feel petty critiquing something crafted to benefit a benevolent cause, I was struck by how many of this year’s chairs looked like commercial billboards bereft of artistic effort. In years past I was always impressed by how creative donors got in assembling and adorning the chairs to reflect their organization’s spirit. (Doug Rhodehamel’s robotic rover for the Orlando Science Center some years back comes to mind.) There were a few chairs in that category this year – a detailed dollhouse from Central Florida Top 5, a cookware collage from Tupperware, Geoffry Sprague’s cartoonish cat sculpture for the Seminole Cultural Arts Council – but I was surprised how many were simply seats with advertisements for the group’s upcoming season slapped on. It’s inspiring that so many people want to help Red Chair raise money, but I’d like to see the chairs treated as more than mere advertising.
My next visit was across the hall to Alterverse, Jessica Singleton’s collection of visually arresting faux-vintage photographs. Singleton’s steampunk aesthetic was apparent in the letterpress relief-printing process used to create one ancient-looking image, while others were digitally manipulated into hallucinatory alternative-color universes. A haunting picture of Big Ben framed by an apocalyptic orange sky was emblematic of Alterverse’s unsettling imagery.
On the one hand, some of her works had undeniable impact, and there was obvious expertise (both analog and Photoshop) employed. On the other, the overwrought ennuiappeared to me somewhat artificial, as if generated by an angst app. In fact, on one wall hung an arrangement of Polaroid-esque prints labeled “Hipstamatic” after the popular iPhone photo simulator. I’m a frequent user of the app myself, which churns out snapshots that look like they’ve been stored in a shoebox since 1972. But I’m unsure if Singleton’s invocation of Hipstamatic is meant as a comment on the commodification of retro-creation, or an unironic exploitation of it. Either way, I left Alterverse equal parts appreciative and unnerved.
Finally, after a bit of fumbling I found the Redefine Gallery in the former home of Nu Visions Photography, which is now where the glass factory once was. (There’s no signage for Redefine from the interior, and the exterior sign is too artistic to include the name in an obvious way; even the guy behind the front desk wasn’t sure where it was.) The current exhibition from Orlando’s B-Side and other local and national street artists focuses on selling signed and numbered prints.
Again, I found the show a double-edged sword. It’s wonderful that visitors can walk away with one of Hydro74’s intricate gray-on-black designs for an affordable price, but I felt odd pawing through art like it was the poster rack at Spencer’s Gifts, and the fetishistic recycling of military and entertainment totems (guns, gas masks and ghoulish celebrities) ultimately exhausts me.
In the building’s back hallway I stumbled across a brief breath of fresh air: a collection of photographs by Douglas Nesbitt that mixed prosaic ground-level humanism (“Homegirls Fishing”) with an eye for urban abstraction (“Architectural Study With Yellow Window Frames”). Save for that series, I left Third Thursday with the soggy sensation that the “Factory” part of CityArts is still alive and well.