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Review: Sad Tropics at The Front

A portrait of “Florida Man” in his environs



Besides heat, humidity and serious coastal erosion, Louisiana and Florida have long been linked by a flair for imaginative extravagance. As New Orleans evolved into an unlikely multicultural gumbo, Florida parlayed its mythic paradisiacal history into an appeal to the American Dream as a Southern Shangri-La with a permanent vacation lifestyle. But dreams are elusive, and the South was always gothic, so Florida natives Cristina Molina and Jonathan Traviesa based the title and contents of this Sad Tropics multimedia installation on noted anthropologist Claude Levi-Srauss's Tristes Tropiques study of life in the Amazon jungle. Both places have surreal flora and fauna and peculiar natives, but this shows how Florida's uniquely extravagant dreams and peculiar realities coexist.

  Like Louisiana, Florida is a multilayered environment, a quality epitomized by a wall-size photomural of palm fronds studded with smaller images of ferns that come across like botanical family portraits on a wall of foliage. What lies beyond the fronds ranges from crazed real estate hucksters to small-town psychics, misfit mermaids and renegade taxidermists in a landscape that mixes rampant invasive species, Confederate artifacts and prolific tourism promotions — which the artists lampoon via their own satiric tourist booth. But it is the photographs that most fully evoke the fever dreams of the Florida psyche as expressed in homely yet fantastical structures, including a bleak concrete bunker partially painted to look like a cleaved watermelon, or a retro-futurist geodesic dome shack. The latter reappears on a joint self-portrait of the artists (pictured) standing dazed on a beach like a shipwrecked Adam and Eve. Personifying the essence of an entire state is never easy, but this piece comes close, as does a stop-animation based on news headlines for the preposterous crimes for which Floridians are infamous — stuff like "butt dialing 911 while cooking meth" — crimes so deranged that some Louisianians will be jealous.

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