Driven to Abstraction

The owners of Las Olas Fine Arts have a knack for displaying their contemporary wares

Many things grabbed my attention on a visit to Las Olas Fine Artsin Fort Lauderdale; the first were several sculptures by Niso Maman. What caught my eye was not the subject matter, which is conventional, even conservative by the standards of most contemporary sculpture: the headless human torso, its arms truncated Venus de Milo-style, its legs likewise ending a few inches away from the body.

It is the artist's choice of medium that gives these pieces their presence. Maman works not in stone or plaster but in metal. And again, it's not metal we're probably accustomed to seeing in sculpture -- no dense forms in bronze, no sleek steel constructions. Instead each of these torsos is made up of countless small pieces of various everyday metal objects, fused together to create the contours of the human body.

One female torso is constructed of nothing but Brazilian coins (reals), each with the head (female, of course) facing outward. Another female torso consists entirely of ordinary keys, all painted a uniform brassy color. A third female torso has been fashioned from various odds and ends of metal, some recognizable, some not. The one male torso on display when I visited was made up of large nails, all painted a gleaming silver.

Pierre Chénier's la Chute d'Ycare and the sculpture of Niso Maman make for a striking combination
Michael McElroy
Pierre Chénier's la Chute d'Ycare and the sculpture of Niso Maman make for a striking combination

This approach to the human body might, in the wrong hands, seem gimmicky -- a heavy-handed attempt to comment on dehumanization and objectification. Or else it might come across as overly whimsical (the phallic implication of those nails comes close). But Maman wows us with technical virtuosity, with the amazingly fluid grace of organic forms that have been re-created with something hard and unyielding.

The torsos are nearly life-size but not quite, which pretty much precludes the possibility of their having been somehow molded around living models. And they're not supported by any sort of internal structure such as wire frames or skeletons (although I did detect what looked like a brace deep within one piece). They simply stand shrouded in mystery on their pedestals.

The rest of the sculpture scattered throughout this seven-year-old gallery -- a few oversize pieces of fruit, some thin and angular human figures -- is mostly unexciting. But Las Olas Fine Arts has a wealth of good paintings on display. The best of these are abstract to one extent or another; many of them are executed in mixed media. And owners Bud Greenbaum and Stephan Rioux have obviously paid close attention to how the paintings are displayed, so that groupings of works by different artists complement one another.

A trio of large mixed-media pieces by Pierre Chénier, for instance, plays nicely off the trio of Claude Saint-Jacques oils opposite. Both artists draw on earthy palettes, with Saint-Jacques favoring metallic gold and bronze hues. Chénier's largely abstract Fossils #3 combines dramatic, gestural brushstrokes with thin dribbles of paint and, here and there, strange shapes that look to have been sketched or stenciled onto the canvas. For Thebes and la Chute d'Ycare, he inserts vaguely human forms into the compositions.

Saint-Jacques draws more directly from the human body for her work here. Both Le voile au vent and Le temps des fraises make use of headless female torsos, the former set off by a thick vertical border on the left side of the canvas, the latter distinguished by childlike doodles surrounding the figure.

The glossy-surfaced mixed-media works of Sylvain Tremblay also summon human shapes -- especially the thin, elongated figures of the great Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti. Tremblay's predominantly featureless figures are suggested by thick swaths of flesh-colored pigment on a dark field that's then apparently coated with a shiny, transparent resin or fixative of some sort.

Red Oscar, for instance, slyly evokes the stylized form of an Academy Award statuette, streamlines it even further, and sets it against a vivid red background. Black widow departs from the artist's typically attenuated forms by focusing on an amorphous blob with a tiny head, positioned on a field of black and brown. As in many Tremblay works, a thickly applied shape extends into the image from one edge; in this case it's an ominous bony-looking thing that justifies the piece's title.

The "purest" abstracts on display during my visit were a pair of oils by Viviane Case-Fox. A large untitled piece fairly dances with dramatic splotches of color and swirls of texture. More impressive is a smaller square canvas, Le blues d'une diva, executed almost entirely in a rich range of blues, from a pale powdery shade to one so deep and dark it's almost black. The paint has been applied in a thick, turbulent impasto that contrasts with all those cool blues and the tiny markings of yellow, pink, and white that accent them.

The works that kept drawing me back for second and third inspections were the mixed-media canvases of Dominic Besner. The dense imagery in his most arresting pieces appears to have been built up layer by layer into a collage-like accumulation of forms, as in Pied-bot des meccanos.

In some of these paintings, which draw indirectly on such influences as Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch, a ghostly white face presides over the crowded compositions. These death-mask faces are relatively small but disproportionately commanding. In La 8e Citee des lions, for instance, the layered imagery includes a dense, architecturally varied cityscape anchored in the foreground by a pair of lions, but it's the pale, cadaverous face on the figure that appears to be astride the lions that holds everything together.

Rather than opting to represent dozens of diverse artists, Las Olas Fine Arts concentrates on the ones I've mentioned and a handful of others, which gives the gallery's holdings a focus and some internal consistency. If you like one of the artists here, there's a good chance you'll go for the works of at least one or two of the others. (By the same token, if one artist leaves you cold, you may find little of interest in the others.)

My main quibble with the gallery has to do with what could be perceived as carelessness. Many of the works on display have small I.D. panels posted alongside them -- the kind typically used to specify the artist, the medium, the title and size of the piece, and sometimes the year it was created. But many works go completely unidentified. Likewise the capitalization used in the titles, many of which are in French, seems at best haphazard.

When I checked the gallery's Website to resolve some questions, the waters were further muddied. The site includes a page devoted to a biography of "Vivian Case-Fox," for example, but if you link to that page you'll find the artist repeatedly referred to as "Viviane," while the I.D. panel next to one of her pieces in the gallery spells her name "Vivien." (I settled on "Viviane" simply because it appeared most often.) Another artist's name has similar variations: "Fabien Jean" in some places, "Fabian Jean" in others.

This is nitpicking, of course, and as I indicated earlier, gallery owners Greenbaum and Rioux have clearly put thought and care into the placement and juxtaposition of their art. But with so much good work at their disposal, it's easy to think that the art -- and the artists -- deserves a little more attention to detail.

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