The Naturals

"Elements: Steel, Wood, and Paper"

Although nearly 100 pieces of art, some quite large, are on view in the fall exhibition at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, the works have been placed so strategically throughout the museum's 10,000 square feet that there's no sense of clutter or overkill. The spacious, airy, light-flooded main gallery, in particular, makes a wonderful sculpture garden of sorts for the show, offering plenty of room to walk around and take in the pieces from all angles before you head into the series of interlocking spaces to the left and the small, intimate galleries to the right.

"Elements: Steel, Wood, and Paper" features the work of six artists based in South Florida, and museum director Barbara O'Keefe has loosely organized the pieces by medium. Most of the main gallery is devoted to steel sculpture, leaving the partially open spaces to the left for wooden sculptures and a series of acrylic-on-paper paintings. Watercolors occupy most of the smaller galleries, the ones in which former museum benefactor Max Schacknow used to display his own work, and some acrylic canvases hang in the far reaches of that section.

The acrylic canvases are the work of Pat Rosenstein, who's more or less the "odd woman out" in terms of the show's theme. There's no steel, wood, or paper in her pieces, which are trompe l'oeil paintings that toy with light and shadows and textures to create near-photographic illusions of reality.

Bird-pecked wood serves as the "canvas" of Katherine McCauley's Paleo Prayer
Bird-pecked wood serves as the "canvas" of Katherine McCauley's Paleo Prayer

Details

On display through November 28.
Coral Springs Museum of Art, Coral Springs City Centre, 2855 Coral Springs Dr., Coral Springs, 954-340-5000.

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Rosenstein's best two pictures here, Divided We Stand and Cosmic Boxes, offer a disorienting aerial perspective of plain cardboard boxes, of all things. In the latter piece, she achieves an especially surreal effect; it's as if we're airborne above an urban landscape in which the skyscrapers are made of tall, narrow boxes. The remainder of her work is clever in varying degrees, but I wish O'Keefe had included another artist more in keeping with the exhibition's elemental theme.

I also have only lukewarm feelings about most of the watercolors O'Keefe has chosen, which make up roughly a third of the show. Some of Sylvia Judkins' pieces are appealingly playful (they look almost like assemblages of brightly colored paper cutouts), but the only time she comes up with anything out of the ordinary is when she drastically limits her color scheme, as in Moonlight, a dreamy chiaroscuro glimpse of a village landscape, and in Early Morning, an atmospheric beach scene drenched in fog.

The other watercolorist, and the show's only male artist, is John Bowen, who has an excellent eye for color but not much imaginative verve. His pieces are competently executed but about as generic as their titles -- Joseph Young House, Hollywood; Barrel Planter, Key West; and Vizcaya Stairway, Miami, for example.

Which brings us to the three artists who are the real reasons to see "Elements." Genie Appel is represented by only ten pieces, from a series also called "Elements," which focuses on stark, unpopulated landscapes. Her artist's statement brims with the sort of floridness that often emerges when artists try too hard to explain themselves: "My work deals with the issues of intimacy and isolation. In this current series… I am exploring the theme of intimate relationships in nature. As it is for human beings, natural components define each other when viewed together."

Fortunately Appel uses techniques that yield far more fascinating results. As she explains in that same artist's statement, she starts by applying modeling paste to 300-pound Arches watercolor paper. When it's dry she brushes thin layers of acrylic onto the paper, then uses a palette knife to apply more acrylic in thicker layers.

In a painting such as Facets, Appel ends up with a near-abstract composition of a rocky hillside rendered in vivid earthy browns, oranges, and greens, set off by unexpected purplish accents. She has a great sense of texture, too, here evidenced by a sky so dense it seems to have congealed. In Shadow Valley she gets the opposite effect, with an orange sun and a red sky so vibrantly painted that they look like volcanic lava flowing through the valley of the title.

The exhibition is dominated, at least in volume, by the sculptor Barbara Benezra, whose 22 pieces of various sizes dot the main gallery. Benezra moved from painting to sculpture about seven years ago, when she learned how to weld using an oxyacetylene torch. For some of her pieces, she attaches tropical leaves fashioned in steel to simple steel frames, which are then mounted on plain steel panels.

With Tropical Paradise Benezra takes those interlocking metal leaves, etches their surfaces to provide texture, and then wraps them around a large boxlike structure, perhaps six feet tall, to create a little room of sorts, inaccessible except from the top. Is she offering an ironic comment on the tradeoffs we engage in to live in the subtropical paradise of South Florida?

In the more whimsical Walking on High Heels, Benezra stacks sharp triangular pieces of steel on top of more steel triangles, ending with a frazzle of thick steel filaments that suggest the title activity is not nearly as smooth and sexy as Madison Avenue might have us believe. And in Tongues she serves up a jagged conglomeration of slivers of steel jutting from an irregularly shaped plate of metal perched on four thin legs. The piece both repels and attracts.

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