To the Manors Born

Wandering into a neighborhood art gallery can be a demoralizing experience. What begins as a quest for a rising star or an unsung talent usually turns up wall after wall of the same dreary art readily available all over South Florida. Interior designers may like art that's nondescript enough to let them freely work it into their decorating schemes, but that kind of thinking is disappointing for those who believe art and decor are distinct categories that should overlap only occasionally.

What a pleasant surprise, then, to discover the Moore-Lin Galleries, an unassuming little place in Wilton Manors that's part art gallery, part gift shop. This relatively recent addition to the rejuvenation of Wilton Drive consists of two small rooms, and the art gallery section is still a little unfocused, as if the owners -- Kathy Rena-Moore and Henry Lin -- haven't yet figured out how to display the art to its (and their) best advantage.

But the basics are in place, at least in terms of the art itself. Available in the gallery are works by both local and internationally known artists. Sculpture, painting, and original prints are on display, and some of the art is suitable for mass consumption, some for more rarefied tastes.

Moore-Lin's find of the moment is a recent South Florida arrival named Dorran Ruben Russell, who has half a dozen or so works on display, with another handful slated to join them in the near future, according to Lin. When I visited, a 66-by-86-inch Russell canvas was prominently displayed at the entrance, as if the pretty young woman in the painting were being used to lure people into the gallery.

Unfortunately the piece, titled Quiet Moments, calls attention to Russell's weaknesses as much as his strengths. It's an ersatz classical composition in which a pensive woman in gauzy dress sits on a balcony railing, among greenery and grand columns and draperies, posed against a landscape that includes a sparse courtyard, a small boat on a lake, and a hillside dotted with buildings. Russell's fascinating technique is in evidence (more on that in a moment), but in this case it serves subject matter that's not really worth the trouble. Another Russell piece near the rear of the gallery, Flower Scents, has almost identical problems.

But just inside the gallery, to the right, are a couple of Russell pieces that deliver on their promises, although they're dramatically different from each other. One is a huge wall-mounted sculpture (about 15 feet wide and several feet high) titled Coming Back to You. It's an abstract mixed-media piece that combines several elements: a few long, wedge-shape pieces; some thin vertical slats; a semicircle with a pair of blunt protrusions; and a large, curved piece that looks like a reverse S curling in on itself.

There's a just-right feel to this strange composition, a sense that Russell has intuitively hit on a perfectly balanced combination of shapes, colors, and textures. The soft, muted colors flow almost imperceptibly together, with the odd splash of a brighter shade standing out here and there, and the artist has a fine feel for texture.

Texture plays an even greater role in the nearby View From the Cafe, a deceptively subtle 1998 triptych with panels that measure about two by two-and-a-half feet each and maybe three inches deep. At first glance they look like three heavy slabs of wood to which images have been applied, but the panels turn out to be ordinary canvas that has been stretched and mounted on unusually thick wooden frames.

The illusion is compounded by the painting itself, which comprises a series of views of a city with a distinctly European air. We see streets, a bridge, and many buildings viewed from a variety of angles. Except for a few items -- some church spires, the railing along the bridge -- the cityscape is portrayed with little detail, as if the artist sketched it quickly in order to capture a fleeting moment. It's also an oddly unanimated scene, unpopulated except for a handful of cafe patrons and their waitress in the left panel.

And yet the image is far from static. First of all, it appears as if Russell turned his impressions of the original scene into a series of drastically compressed images, so that layers of imagery bleed into and overlap one another. He also made use of the cubist technique of presenting several views of a subject simultaneously by painting numerous thin, vertical lines that slice up and down the canvases, further skewing our perceptions. And by attaching unidentified substances to different areas of the panels, he added a striking array of textures. Although most of his palette is limited to pale earth tones, such as tans and golds and greens, it's set off by the occasional patch of blue. And, finally, the surface of each canvas is coated with a dull varnish or glaze that reinforces the illusion that we're looking at an old, weathered piece of work.

The gallery's other featured artist is Philip Hulsey, another South Florida painter whose work couldn't be further from Russell's in style, subject matter, and temperament. Hulsey works in oil on medium-size canvases -- squares and rectangles ranging from three to four feet per side -- and he paints in bright, saturated colors. (He's also represented by a pair of low, hand-painted tables.)

Most of the Hulsey pieces are from "The Orb Series," and together they form a little science fiction saga or an obscure allegory. In the first image, Orb Shaman, a fleshy male nude who's as skinless as one of the characters in Clive Barker's Hellraiser films, appears to be ingesting a long, blue, snakelike creature. In the next (and best) canvas, Sowing the Seeds, shimmering white orbs emerge from an aqua-tone tube of some sort that reappears in the other pictures, which convey the vaguely unsettling feeling that we're peering inside someone's body.

"These surrealistic paintings depict a journey from the Orb's introduction into the Shaman, [and] each internal landscape shows a different environment," reads an unsigned explanation posted nearby. "The Orb's appearance is suggestive of an egg, which reinforces the idea of reproduction. In the final scene, their release into an astral world represents birth." Mumbo jumbo notwithstanding, I have to admit that Hulsey's bizarre images, for all their garishness, exert an odd pull.

The same can't be said for the fired-ceramic sculptures of Virginia Howard, who's identified by a stack of business cards as a Fort Lauderdale psychotherapist. As soon as I'd passed a couple of clunky Howard pieces, Male and Female Torsos and Menage à Trois, I assumed I was safe, but no such luck. Almost everywhere I turned in the small gallery, I was confronted with more of the sculptor's graceless hunks of clay, which appear to have been dragged from her studio long before they were ready for public consumption.

Another local artist, Elaine Cohen, has a handful of canvases on display at Moore-Lin. Most are competently executed but not very exciting floral still lifes. A couple pair Cuni Indians with parrots. Cohen's Pelicans gives these usually comical creatures an almost ominous edge by zooming in on nearly a dozen of them, and her Snowy Egret rises a notch or two above the typical tropical bird painting by virtue of Cohen's attention to the delicate details of the preening bird's feathers, as well as a saturated-blue sky that's vibrant in its intensity.

Moore-Lin rounds out its fledgling collection with a handful of signed, limited-edition lithographs by brand-name artists. There are a trio of passable Dalis, a Chagall, a wittily tasteless Alexander Calder, and a surprisingly easy-on-the-eyes Leroy Neiman titled Polo Lounge, a 1988 print that provides the parlor-game appeal of trying to pick out the Hollywood celebrities.

The owners of Moore-Lin still have considerable work to do if they want a reputation as a first-rate gallery. More attention needs to be paid to the placement of the art so that there's a greater sense of flow among the works of several artists. But the operation is still young -- it opened less than six months ago -- and any gallery that can turn up an artist as provocative and promising as Dorran Ruben Russell deserves patience.

Moore-Lin Galleries is located at 2161 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors. For more information call 954-566-7484.

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