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By John Thomason
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When it comes to hype and ego, the New York art world has nothing on South Florida. Consider, for example, Edna Hibel, the 82-year-old artist who currently has a small selection of her work on display at the Cornell Museum of Art & History in Delray Beach, in a show called "Compassion Around the World: The Art of Edna Hibel."
Not that Hibel needs the additional exposure. Since 1977 she has had her own museum, originally located in Palm Beach, now in Lake Worth. Handouts at the Cornell exhibition, as well as Hibel's Websites (she has not one but two -- www.hibel.com and www.hibelspecialist.com), describe the Hibel Museum of Art as "The world's only non-profit, public museum dedicated to the art of a living American woman," which I suppose is some sort of distinction. The Websites also freely trot out such adjectives as masterpiece and breathtaking.
One of those Cornell Museum handouts also has a headline proclaiming this the museum's "Twenty-Fourth Year in Palm Beach County, Florida," although the copy below confirms that the museum opened in January 1977. You do the math. But why quibble with facts when you're allegedly "America's Best Loved Artist" and the "Heart and Conscience of America," as one of the Websites declares, or "America's most loved and versatile artist," according to another handout.
There's also an Edna Hibel Society (read: fan club) that offers members special deals on various items of Hibelabilia, and there's plenty of it to go around. The Museum Shop at the Hibel Museum offers Hibel porcelain plates, music boxes, ceramics, jewelry, ornaments, dolls, books, videos, paperweights, tote bags, "Judaica items," and wearable art (read: T-shirts). And oh, the museum store also traffics in signed, limited-edition Hibel fine art works as well.
One Website even has a logo for the "Hibellennium," emblazoned with the words "Hibel Art for a Greater Future" at the top, "Love, Beauty, Hope" at the bottom. And as icing on the cake, this fall more than two dozen Hibel works are being shoehorned into a handful of cable and network television shows -- Arliss, Seventh Heaven, The Magic Jersey, West Wing, and Manchester Prep -- complete with a sweepstakes that gives away one of the showcased Hibel works every month. Talk about product placement.
Such immodesty and shameless commercialism might be overlooked if Hibel lived up to her own hype (or that of her "handlers" -- it's entirely possible that the hype is generated not by Hibel herself but by her staff). Either way it's unbecoming for an artist who apparently wants to be taken seriously. At worst it's the brazen triumph of marketing over art.
The amazing thing is the Boston-born Hibel is far from untalented. It's just that she appears to have been coasting on her inflated reputation for quite a long time. She also seems to have lost sight of her strengths and weaknesses, so that even her best pieces are marred by a tendency to fall into the same traps again and again.
Whether she realizes it or not, Hibel's gift is for abstraction rather than representation. In her many portraits, for instance, the interest lies not in the humans who dominate the images but in the ornate settings in which they almost seem to float. A piece called Songsi in the Cornell show is a perfect example of Hibel's dilemma.
The picture is ostensibly a portrait of a young, vaguely Asian-looking girl, but the figure is just a distraction from what the piece really is, which is a celebration of pattern and texture. Virtually everything in the piece, from the girl's clothing to the background -- pretty much everything except the girl herself -- is blanketed with layers of tiny, intricate brush strokes and appliques. The little shapes and squiggles never quite come into focus, and so they pull us into the image, into its indistinct maze of form and color.
Piece after piece repeats the pattern, with a central figure or figures commanding our attention when what's most intriguing about the image is the background. The people in a Hibel picture are rarely its strong point. (The exception in the Cornell show is Forever, a large horizontal portrait of a woman and child reclining in a field of flowers and grass that has a dreamy, almost pre-Raphaelite quality.) The subjects almost always have that same glazed look on their faces, so that after a while they begin to seem interchangeable.
Even when the people in a piece are meant to be from elsewhere in the world -- as in Guatemalan Mother and Baby -- they don't look as if they come from anywhere in particular except Hibeland. They evoke not other people in other countries but other people in other Hibels.
The artist's floral paintings fare a little better. Without those pale, ethereal faces to dominate the centers of the images, the flowers start bleeding and blending into the background, and the picture edges closer to all-out abstraction, which, in Hibel's case, would be a very good thing indeed.
After gazing at one Hibel portrait after another, I almost began to resent those wispy humans hogging the limelight. They're enough to make one wish Hibel would just dispense with them altogether and throw herself wholeheartedly into abstraction. A large canvas or paper print given over wholly to those baroquely rich borders and backgrounds would have a near hallucinogenic intensity and beauty.
And Hibel's sophisticated technical skills would lend themselves far better to abstraction than to representational painting. She works using a variety of media, often in the same piece. Songsi, for example, is a canvas to which she has applied pastels, gold leaf, and giclee (tiny droplets of ink sprayed onto a surface).
The gold leaf and giclee turn up repeatedly, and they're a large part of what makes those abstract borders and backgrounds so lush and appealing. Hibel sometimes applies them to lithographs as well as canvases. Little Flower, a small portrait of another Asian-looking little girl, uses gold leaf and oils to accent a lithograph created with ground stones that have been etched and drawn on by the artist. (Hibel uses Bavarian limestone for her stone lithographs.)
Of course I doubt there's much chance that Hibel is about to abandon the style she has spent more than 65 years accumulating and refining -- the style that has given her that highly buffed reputation. And who can blame her, really? At 82 years old, she's a successful artist with a huge following. I just lament the Hibel that might have been.
As an antidote to the maddening unevenness of the Hibel show, you might wander upstairs at the Cornell and take in the one-room exhibition that has been extended at least twice: "40 Years of the Barbie Doll." Just about everything you could possibly want to know about Barbie and company can be found there, including historical information and a Barbie family tree, complete with Barbie's pets.
There are Barbie Dream Houses here, and Barbie cars, clothes, and accessories. And there are Barbies aplenty: the original 1959 Barbie, Malibu Barbie and Ken (1971), Anne Klein and Christian Dior Barbies (1997), Harley Davidson Barbie (1997), Paleontologist Barbie (1997), Olympic Barbie (1996), and Madame du Barbie (1997), with the doll decked out in a Bob Mackie outfit inspired by the 18th-century French royal court.
In the center of the room, there's a huge Christmas tree decorated with Barbies of various sizes, and nearby there's a whole case of cheerleader Barbies arrayed on an AstroTurf football field, including one from the University of Florida. In the Barbies of the World case, you'll find 44 international Barbies, among them Czechoslovakian Barbie, Peruvian Barbie, and Ghanaian Barbie.
Is it art? Of course not. But this show has been assembled with such loving attention to its overall garishness that it's as irresistible as a cheesy grade-B movie.