They Came, They Served, They Blew It

A sense of deja vu hangs like a pall over "Eclectic Collectives," and with good reason. This first group exhibition by the New River Arts & Crafts Association, now at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale, is dominated by the kind of bland, innocuous art so often shown and sold at those neighborhood street fairs and festivals that are ubiquitous in South Florida, and it's displayed with shockingly little regard for the art.

Even under the best of circumstances, ArtServe is a vaguely inhospitable venue. It's housed in a branch of the Broward County Library, with all the traffic such a location entails, and the display space is a sort of fishbowl in the middle of the building, separated by glass from offices on one side, the library on another, and busy Sunrise Boulevard on another. At times the noise level reaches a maddening peak, with the automatic doors loudly clanging open and shut and high heels clicking across the tiled floor.

In these surroundings, an art gallery seems an afterthought, a classy tenant to occupy otherwise empty space. Who cares if an exhibition is set amid clutter that clashes with the art? Apparently not ArtServe. In this case one culprit is a monstrosity consisting mainly of a pile of colorful open umbrellas on the right as you enter the gallery area, a visually noisy distraction from the show. (I couldn't bring myself to get close enough to find out the purpose of the display.)

The first clue that something is seriously amiss, however, lies just inside those rackety sliding doors, in a sort of lobby-atrium where 16 pieces from the show are on display. Not one sign announces that this is the beginning of the exhibition that continues farther into the building, nothing to prepare us for what's to come. All but one of the pieces are labeled with title, artist's name, and medium but without any context the information is meaningless, and the art comes across as mere window dressing.

If you can find it among the piles of literature at the information desk, the exhibition brochure is slightly more helpful, although not much more. It informs us that the New River Arts & Crafts Association is a "Professional Fine Artists Cooperative" and "A Florida based tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporation," and it lists the organization's members, directors, and advisors. One of the six panels of this surprisingly uninspired brochure is devoted to -- God help us -- the group's mission statement. The remaining two panels feature sample reproductions of the artists' work, each not much bigger than a postage stamp. To add insult to injury, five of the fourteen artworks are inaccurately identified.

As for the exhibition itself, it's a highly mixed bag, with each of the fourteen artists represented by four to six works. Included are paintings, sculptures, photographs, and computer-generated imagery.

The digital prints of Dennis Emma are the show's most questionable selections. Two of them -- Moonlight Becomes Her and Center of Her Universe -- are little more than the sort of soft-core porn you might see illustrating a story in Playboy or Penthouse, with computer-perfect babes standing in glistening water, arms outstretched. Eye of the Beholder is moderately more interesting, although its two watery figures composed entirely of eyeballs are essentially just a clever visual pun. Emma's biographical note on the wall declares, "Unlike most of us, Dennis didn't know that he was an artist until he became enchanted with what he could do with 3-D computer graphics." Oh, really?

Most of the paintings and sculptures in the exhibition are also easily dismissed, unfortunately. Among the oils only Rachel Zmurchak's Water Lilies is notable, mainly for the Everglades twist it applies to a subject most famously associated with Monet. And the canvases of the Brazilian-born Naza, now based in Boca Raton, treat familiar material with a fascinating technique. With Florida Panther, Toucan II, and Portrait of Filizola's Children, we seem to be looking at the subjects through veils of distortion. The images are made up of overlapping squares and rectangles, and their surfaces have a tantalizing texture, as if Naza had applied tissue-thin layers of paper to the canvas, then painted over them to create a topography of creases and wrinkles.

Of the two dozen watercolors in the show, most are landscapes that are competently executed but also completely generic, despite titles that try to anchor them to particular places. For instance, Thomas Sullivan's Sunday on South Beach has a lovely feel for a side of that trendy locale that we rarely see, but his other pieces, like those of Peg McShea and Ted Grier, are flat and uninvolving.

The standout watercolorist here is Robert Gross, who, as exhibition curator, had the good sense to give four of his five pieces an enviable display space. The medium-size horizontal paintings entitled McNab, Looking South From Imagination Farm, Last Light, and Dusk are similar in both subject matter and execution. They're mounted on three panels that form a small alcove, and in their isolation they complement one another beautifully. (Too bad the artist's fifth piece, Everglades West, is out in the entry space and not among his others, where it belongs.)

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