Paradise Found

My favorite SaYl here is perhaps the most atypical: a still life of a boat overflowing with fat bananas, stalks of sugar cane, clusters of grapes, and other fruits and vegetables -- a sort of tropical horn of plenty. The ubiquitous butterflies hover above, although there's nary a canine in sight.

Bancel also has a handful of pictures by Joël Gauthier, whose Garden of Eden paintings are sometimes mistakenly considered to characterize Haitian art -- for example, jungle scenes populated by a potpourri of animals rendered with childlike crudeness, often staring at the viewer with wide, innocent eyes. This primitivism is distinctly Haitian and has countless adherents, but it merely leaves me cold. The narrowly stereotypical image it projects is a drastic oversimplification of an art that's much more complex and varied.

Among the gallery's treasures are a couple of paintings by Claude Dambreville, a well-educated, formally trained artist now in his early sixties. (He's also a popular fiction writer in Haiti.) Dambreville's meticulously composed group portraits of ordinary Haitian workers crowd the canvases with silhouettes, their jet-black, featureless skin in vivid contrast to the intricate folds of their clothes, which pick up on and reflect the scorching-white tropical sun. (Bancel confides that the wife of former French president François Mitterand is a Dambreville collector.) The gallery also has a trio of fine works by Raymond Lafaille, a Dambreville disciple who uses slightly bolder colors but whose style is otherwise uncannily close to his mentor's.

Right now Bancel has only two pictures by the well-known Henri Bresil on display, but they're prime examples of the painter's distinctive style. The smaller one (measuring about 16 by 22 inches) features some elegantly stylized flamingos craning their long necks down to drink from a stream; Bresil has set the scene in a lush tropical jungle, the kind that dominates so much of his work. The larger one (measuring at least three feet square, and maybe larger -- hard to say because it's so high on the wall) captures a similar scene of flamingos and egrets flanking a long, narrow waterfall. In both paintings the surrounding foliage seems to explode like fireworks in bursts of the artist's trademark palette of yellowish greens.

There are also a couple of excellent pictures by Mario Montilus, a younger artist whose market value has steadily risen in recent years. Montilus' relatively small canvases transform the Haitian landscape into a dreamy maze of small, rounded islands that seem to float on the surface of tranquil waters. I always get the feeling from a Montilus that a chunk of the Shire -- J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional land from his book The Hobbit, with its low, rolling hillocks -- has been magically plopped down in the tropics.

The one selection here from Abner Dubic, who comes from a family of established artists, is an impressive, ambitious triptych that chronicles an elaborate wedding procession in the foreground. In the background a sprawling village recedes into the distance, drawing you toward the remote horizon the way so many Haitian landscapes do.

Bancel clearly cherishes the remaining few works he has by some of Haitian art's biggest names. A medium-size Wilson Bigaud -- a primitive depiction of a reception of some sort -- hangs over the door to the gallery's private rear quarters, commanding one of the highest prices in the room. A small painting by St. Louis Blaise, known for his Fernando Botero-style portraits, is so valuable it's kept in the back. And Bancel laments that he no longer has anything at all by the almost 80-year-old Seymour Etienne Bottex, whose already pricey pictures Bancel is certain will continue to soar in value.

The few other paintings here by major artists are first-rate works that almost get swallowed up by the busy environment. A picture of a Communion ceremony in a pastel church by Guy Joachim seems lost without other examples of the Cap-Haitien "school," which typically turns out formally structured scenes of city life. The same is true of two 10-by-47-inch panels by Inatace Alphonse: Lively market scenes jam-packed with workers, they're painted in bright primary and secondary colors and are full of angular geometric shapes that are just this side of cubist.

After absorbing this small but vibrant collection, I agree with Bancel's instincts to pare down the number of artists whose work he shows: By concentrating on only a handful, he'll provide greater depth for his patrons. Now if he only had a space devoted solely to displaying Haitian art.

Needlepoint Originals and Paradise Gallery is located at 702 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-463-1900.

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