Paradise Found

The juxtaposition, faintly surreal, reminds me of a shop I once saw in the rural Deep South, housing both a beauty salon and a hardware store. But Needlepoint Originals and Paradise Gallery (the italics appear right there on the business card), an unassuming little establishment next to the Riverside Hotel on Las Olas Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale, is indeed a combination gift shop and art gallery.

The former is crammed with a claustrophobia-inducing array of needlepoint kits, decorative household items, and other splashy, colorful knickknacks designed to catch the eye of roving boulevard tourists. The latter, against all logic, is home to dozens of pieces of museum-quality Haitian art, including works by some of that island nation's most prominent painters.

Stranger still, the fine art isn't confined to its own space; rather it has been scattered -- seemingly randomly -- throughout the place: a tiny canvas tucked away in a corner, a large one nestled amid clutter high on a wall. You have to wander around the room several times to be sure you've seen everything. It's almost as if the serious art is hiding from the visually noisy merchandise surrounding it.

According to gallery-shop owner Eric Bancel, Needlepoint/Paradise has been in business for more than 25 years, long enough to have seen Las Olas Boulevard pass in and out of fashion and then back in again. (A sister shop in Palm Beach, located on perennially fashionable Worth Avenue, recently closed as a result of high overhead.) Bancel explains that he started dealing in Haitian art "at least ten years ago," adding that "when I started selling Haitian art, no one else was doing it." Now with the recent explosion in popularity of Haitian art, outlets in Delray Beach, Boca Raton, Plantation, Coconut Grove, and Key West sell it.

Although there have been times when Paradise has had as many as an amazing 150 pieces packed into its cramped quarters, a successful summer sale significantly reduced the gallery's current inventory. Bancel says it's not unusual for some of his European customers to walk away with a dozen or more paintings at once. "I don't know what they do with them when they get back home," Bancel shrugs, "whether they sell them or keep them for themselves." Sometimes his supply is replenished directly from the source. "I know a lot of the artists myself," he points out. Other times he buys from Haitian-based brokers and galleries. If you're looking for a piece by a specific artist, he can try to track one down for you. He also accepts selected works on consignment.

Bancel has his personal favorites among the artists whose work he sells, in terms of both their personalities and their styles, and yet he shies away from promoting one artist over the others. "I don't do individual shows," he notes. However, he will offer assistance to customers just venturing into Haitian art, as long as their primary concern isn't finding something to match the living room sofa.

"A lot of people don't know the good artists from the bad," he contends. But rather than foist his own preferences onto patrons, he'll drag out a stack of reference books -- many of them out of print, some of them in French -- and attempt to provide an overview of Haiti's rich variety of art. (The authoritative Where Art Is Joy: Haitian Art -- the First 40 Years, by Selden Rodman, one of the curators of the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art's Haitian retrospective of several years ago, is on hand.)

There are a couple of categories of artists whose work Bancel prefers to avoid. He's wary of those who "overpaint," producing a glut of inferior pictures, often indistinguishable from one another, in an effort to cash in on the continually increasing popularity of Haitian art. Additionally Bancel stays away from painters who, like the New York City-based Mark Kostabi, use a cadre of assistants to execute their ideas.

In recent years the dealer has concentrated on works by a limited number of established artists, and he says he's considering narrowing the focus even further. Bancel maintains that there are now so many Haitian artists at work that it's literally impossible to keep up with all of them.

With seven fairly large canvases on display, Audes SaYl dominates the Paradise right now. His instantly recognizable style typically features anthropomorphic dogs engaged in human activities (no, not playing cards); they're surrounded by tropical fruit, flowers, fish, birds, and, almost invariably, oversize butterflies, all painted in bright colors, with sharp lines that are used more to outline the bold shapes than to fill in the details.

One SaYl painting is of a mother dog in a dress giving her pup a banana, just as a human mother would give her baby a bottle. Another shows two dogs sitting in a chair kissing, just as a human couple would; the female holds a book that seems about to drop from her paw. Huge strawberries and grapes are piled up on a nearby windowsill. A third SaYl focuses on a dog wearing, of all things, a black bikini -- she fishes from a fruit-filled boat as two pups lounge at her feet.

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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