Weekly Planet Review by Adrienne Golub 3/1/01 [Full Story]
Tampa photographer Barbra Beeler incorporates elements from popular culture and personalized objects while struggling with the demons of her inner self. Her process is a fascinating combination.

This working from the outside-in and inside-out is evident throughout her current solo exhibition at Ybor's HCC Art Gallery. In particular, "Batgirl" and "Mother's Milk," both selected for Tampa Museum of Art's UNDERcurrent/OVERview 2000, are shown to advantage here.

The exhibition includes 14 large photos within several series: dreams, live-models, and the recent post-cards. Small framed studies demonstrate process and future directions, including an apparently rare phenomenon, female violence against males. Beeler motifs are everywhere, nostalgia, sexuality and aggression, the latter sometimes taking the form of Scrabble letters spelling words like "blood." These are the least effective, not only for their mass-produced concreteness (like Barbara Kruger's overkill lettering), but because they lack the subtlety that Beeler has so ably used in other works.

Like her Polaroid teacher, Florida photographer Anna Tomczak, who shows at St. Pete's Merrick Gallery, Beeler is drawn to the seductive and unique properties of the large-format Polaroid camera. At 6 feet high and 300 pounds, it's a pricey apparatus one rents, in addition to the studio, and by reservation. Only three exist in the world. Beeler is fascinated by super-real clarity where heightened details magnify the texture of the watercolor paper she prints on, fabric threadcounts, even individual strands of hair.

In a process Beeler repeats whether using her 1940s era press camera or visiting Polaroid studios in San Francisco or Prague, she creates small preparatory studies, framing them through a viewfinder before snapping. Included are textured fabrics and actual objects ranging from small dolls, children's books, and framed photos, to fresh flowers and vegetables.

Clues to the photographs of HCC's Suzanne Camp Crosby are evident, especially in Beeler's diorama stage-sets and plastic figurines, something we also see in the work of New York photographer Laurie Simmons. What's different is Beeler's dark side sensibility, seen in photos like "Entanglement." On another level, her new "postcard series" reveals her compulsion to express the emotional turmoil of personal relationships. These images seem less visually resolved or riveting than the complex early pieces.

"Batgirl" exhibits a mature and promising restraint of figures and textures. Draped cloth infuses the overall image with rich texture and design, suggesting an effective collision of ideas and culture. It is neither sensationalized nor screaming, and it leaves room for us to peel meanings away and still enjoy the elegant aesthetic overlay. But what makes it different from other photos in the exhibition is its intelligently staged illusion of depth. We are led into the composition where a red-framed sexually-suggestive photo, somewhat blurry, quietly hints of a dark undercurrent. The image as a whole is very effective.

Though Beeler apparently added abundant wall text after the show was hung, it should have been left on the table. Too much reliance on text, especially when it looks like an afterthought, is not a satisfactory experience to viewers trying to digest visual images. Despite our curiosity, images deserve to stand on their own.

Gallery Coordinator Carolyn Cosar, new to the area and to her job, is doing a super job of developing a broad range of exhibitions. I hope HCC will find a way to extend gallery hours, a requisite if this is to become a stop for artists and art-lovers.