Painter Jason Pulgarin could not contain himself when he first walked into Cass Contemporary's gallery. Hanging on the wall was Love Me, his first piece displayed in a professional gallery. Turning to the man who had brought him there, internationally recognized artist Tristan Eaton, he broke down and wept.
The 27-year-old's tearful debut was a positive sign for Cass Contemporary's current show, "Paint It Forward." Gallery owners Cassie and Jake Greatens asked 15 established artists to hand-pick one lesser-known artist of their choice, their work to be displayed as a pair.
Their objective was to give a leg up to artists like the Brooklyn-based Pulgarin. The end result, while thematically and visually scattershot, is knit by a warm sense of bonhomie and mutual regard. It's the look of a community celebrating itself.
In the art ecosystem that Cass Contemporary fosters, there has been plenty to celebrate. Many of the artists in "Paint It Forward," including Eaton and Pulgarin, represent a strain of contemporary painting which proudly claims graffiti and other illegal public arts as forebears. Their work is kissing cousins with the modern mural movement. Several of the show's headliners, including St. Petersburg's Ales "Bask" Hostomsky, have been using the Tampa Bay area as their easel for a while now.
As a result, many of the pieces in "Paint It Forward" share street art's colorful, baldly iconographic style. It's an aesthetic tailored to a modern urban environment. But in its gallery-bound incarnation, the work reveals higher levels of resolution, detail, meaning.
A few pieces, like Magis Habent Virtutem by Mad Meg, stand out for a quietness of approach. It combines zodiacal symbols and intricate lettering, sparsely arranged on what looks like real vellum (as in, fresh off the baby calf). It's not vellum, but the piece's delicacy rewards close examination anyhow. The interlocking symbols trace the outline of a spectral womb.
But the show's emphasis is on relationships, extroverted and familial, and the best pairings illuminate a connection between the artists. Pulgarin's piece hanging next to Eaton's, for example, shows a very natural anxiety of influence. (They've had a bona-fide master-apprentice relationship for a decade.) Others show a gutsy disregard for the pecking order, like the thrilling moment when a guest rapper upstages the star on his own track.
There is, though, a different path to chart — a rejection of any sense of hierarchy or competitiveness. Some pairings look as if they arrived at the opening hand-in-hand, in matching getup. Gregory Siff's Girl and SEK's Untitled both have gold spray paint applied to black-smudged backdrops, with rhythmic chalk scrawls echoing across the two canvases. Together, they work wonderfully. Apart? Who knows. But maybe that's the lesson of "Paint It Forward." You don't have to go it alone.