Gina Phillips' I Was Trying Hard to Think About Sweet Things retrospective at the Ogden is almost like a tale of two places. Taking up most of museum's top floor, it is divided between works inspired by her native rural Kentucky, and others dating from her move to New Orleans in the mid-1990s. Phillips bridges the difference between her old Kentucky home and the Lower 9th Ward, where she now resides, in storytelling scenes typically crafted from colored thread and paint and installed on the walls like so many irregularly shaped throw rugs. An exception is her vast, gallery-dominating tapestry, Fort Dirt Hole. Over 27 feet wide by 13 feet tall, it's a flashback to a childhood spent with friends in a hillside pit they dug as a stage for mock battles and science fiction escapades. Rural Kentucky and her guitar-strumming father also star in this monumental collage tapestry, yet her narrative views of her Lower 9th Ward neighborhood and other local environs are linked by her almost literally homespun stories in fabric, paint and occasional found objects. Fats Got Out is emblematic. Here her fellow 9th Warder, Fats Domino, arises like a beatific vision over the troubled waters of the Industrial Canal in a classic Phillips masterpiece of virtuoso needlework.
The nearby Mythology of Florida photography expo, featuring some classic vintage works by Marion Post Wolcott (Picnic on the Beach, above, and Carnival Posters at Strawberry Festival, left) as well as Joseph Steinmetz among others, provides an intimate yet sweeping and bizarrely insightful view of Florida's evolution as America's tropical escapist fantasy. But the adjacent show of Annie Collinge's documentary photos of the lady mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs extends the sideshow flavor of Florida's past into the present. Here freakish finned ladies swim like sadly gorgeous deep sea specimens under glass, or else incongruously greet visitors in anonymous lobbies where the soft white underbelly of the American Dream evokes uncanny comparisons with the grotesqueries of Hieronymous Bosch. ~D. Eric Bookhardt
I Was Trying Hard to Think About Sweet Things: Mixed Media by Gina Phillips; The Mythology of Florida: Photography Group Exhibition; The Underwater Mermaid Theater: Photographs by Annie Collinge, through January 5th, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.
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