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What first appears to be a huge pile of debris sits just outside the entrance to the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. If you're approaching the museum from its main parking lot, you might not even notice this mass of vines and tree limbs. But if you're coming east from Young Circle, you can't miss it; in fact, you have to pass through it, because it forms a sort of arch over the sidewalk.
No, the groundskeepers didn't leave their work unfinished. This strange tangle of wood is actually a site-specific sculpture installation by Patrick Dougherty. It's called Easy Does It, and the artist created it from maple and Brazilian-pepper saplings, using little more than his hands and a small set of clippers.
The piece serves as a dramatic introduction to the Art and Culture Center's "The Symphony of Trees: Contemplations of Nature in the Abstract," an exhibit that features 38 works by half a dozen artists. Given the scale and complexity of Dougherty's work -- which he characterizes as "large-scale, on-site, temporary sculptures" -- it's understandable that only two of the North Carolina-based artist's eerily beautiful pieces are included in the show.
For Easy Does It, Dougherty fashioned several spherical shapes and a couple of cocoonlike swirls of branches, some of which creep up the building's facade as if trying to insinuate themselves through a second-floor window. Inside, a piece called Short Cut has literally taken over one of the museum's galleries. A few tendrils snake out of the bottom of the entryway, teasing us into the room, where great arcs and swirls of thickly coiled branches reach from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, leaving only a narrow, winding path.
Walking through the small gallery is a vaguely unsettling experience. The closeness of the dense foliage and the faintly woody odor it gives off evoke images straight out of the fairy tales of childhood. Too bad the overhead lighting is so harsh; although it casts dramatic shadows throughout the room, a dimmer switch would be welcome.
Still, the room is so atmospheric that it's hard to resist its pull. That's unfortunate for Gregory Amenoff, whose abstract landscape paintings occupy the gallery through which you have to pass to get to Short Cut. Amenoff works with bold colors of oil pigment thickly applied on maple board, and he often uses odd points of view to jolt us into looking at landscapes in a new way. But the dozen or so of his pieces at the Art and Culture Center are hard-pressed to compete with those branches beckoning us into the next room.
Just beyond Dougherty's "forest" is another gallery featuring a handful of pieces that both contrast and complement his installation, as well as one another. Positioned at roughly equal intervals are four sculptures by the Miami-based artist Claire Garrett that also comment on the precarious relationship between art and nature. All four consist primarily of rough-textured wooden crates resting on metal bases that resemble cabinets, with generous portions of straw filling -- and almost spilling out of -- the crates.
But there's more to Garrett's pieces. For instance, the crate in When You Can See Into My Soul contains an oval-shaped piece of bronze that has a sexual-looking slit running along its center. Seven Wishes features seven bronze cones embedded in the straw, most of them holding pools of water. And in A Time For Change, seven bronze pieces simultaneously summon up animal snouts, pears, and seed pods. With When I Can See Into Your Soul, Garrett again evokes a sexual charge with a coarsely textured oval of bronze that includes an indentation filled with water and a protruding ridge in its center.
Around the corner in the museum's main gallery, the show shifts to painting and drawing. Two walls are devoted to unframed oil-encaustic-on-canvas pieces by Janet Siegel Rogers, whose work is also on display at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Like her paintings in that exhibit, these showcase Rogers' amazingly subtle brush work, as well as her feel for the shimmering play of light across a seemingly monochromatic surface. The difference -- and it's a dramatic one -- is that the eight pictures here are much larger than the miniatures in the Boca show.
On the other two walls are nearly a dozen works by Jo A. Peterson, most of them executed with charcoal and chalk on white paper. They, too, are commanding in scale. Convergence series is a triptych in which the long, narrow centerpiece is flanked by two much larger pieces. In each of the spare, striking compositions, thick, angular segments represent bare tree limbs, but they also echo human bones and even insect parts. The shapes sprawl across the white spaces, trailing off here and there into smudges of pale gray.
The six pieces in the S.R. series feature thick, gnarled, black lines that more explicitly suggest tree limbs, or perhaps the prop root systems of mangrove trees. Peterson uses more delicate shadings here, and she has mottled the surfaces of the paper to give them the look of granite or unpolished marble.
The exhibition culminates in an especially imposing piece by Toshiko Takaezu called Homage to Devastation Forest, which sits in the center of the main gallery. It consists of half a dozen glazed stoneware obelisks, each roughly five and a half feet tall and a foot or so in diameter, standing in a sea of small, pale pebbles. All but one taper off into nipplelike tips; the other ends abruptly, as if the top has been lopped off to reveal its hollow center.
These strange objects, with their streaks of earth-toned glaze, are enormously evocative in their stark simplicity. They could be big shoots of bamboo or asparagus, and from certain angles they even suggest cigars. More likely, given the exhibition's theme and the piece's title, they're denuded trees, raising the question of what brought about this small forest's devastation.
One possible answer, of course, is nuclear devastation, although it's equally plausible that these "tree trunks" have been scarred by pollution or some other catastrophe. At any rate the likely culprits are humans, forever encroaching on nature.
A clearly articulated statement from the show's curator would go a long way toward fitting Takaezu's work, as well as the works of the other artists, into the show's stated theme. But no statement is offered, and a curator is not identified. This is yet another South Florida exhibit that plunges viewers into the art with far too little context. Small catalogs on some of the artists are available in the museum's gift shop, but no one catalog, brochure, or other handout is offered to tie everything together. Aside from this minor irritation, the exhibition is one of the most provocative of the season.
"The Symphony of Trees: Contemplations of Nature in the Abstract" is on display through January 31 at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood, 954-921-3274.