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By John Thomason
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I would be hard-pressed to come up with two artists as diametrically opposed as Sheila Elias and Stan Slutsky, whose work is presented in a mismatched pair of solo shows at the Coral Springs Museum of Art. Maybe that's the point.
Elias, whose "Sheila Elias: Somewhere — Anywhere" takes up the museum's main galleries, is a Chicagoan who has also worked in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. Perhaps not surprisingly for someone whose mother was an interior designer and whose grandmother designed clothing, Elias began studying art at an early age — 8, to be exact, when she started attending the children's division of the Art Institute of Chicago. She went on to study at the School of the Art Institute and later went to Ohio's Columbus College of Art and Design, where she received her BFA.
The exhibition handout starts with such basic information and then veers into attempts to define her style that I find mostly impenetrable. (No source is identified.) What, for example, are we to make of a statement such as: "In contrast to the concept of 'concrete expressionism,' a harder-edged, more brittle devolution of abstract expressionism's engagement with the self, Elias was finding a kind of urban figuration visually energized by a sense of socio-political urgency — a 'gesture Pop.' "?
If this is just a fancy way of saying that Elias creates densely layered mixed-media works that flirt with abstraction, so be it. Granted, the artist's style is tough to characterize. On the one hand, she is fond of large-scale canvases with thickly congested surfaces that appear to have been heavily worked over; on the other, she seems equally drawn to small photo collages about the size of an index card that are minimally embellished.
I detect a strong whiff of Robert Rauschenberg's influence in those larger, busier works, with their everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic. It's as if Elias is so afraid of leaving something out that she goes for broke, cramming so many ideas into a piece that it groans from the burden. They're far from pretty, but you could never accuse them of being inexpressive.
I much prefer the works in which Elias displays a lighter touch. The exhibition includes a couple of folding screens, for instance, that are buoyant compared with those ponderous canvases. Cosmic Web (2001) consists of three panels of lightweight industrial board on which Elias has painted the featureless outlines of human figures and affixed sections of tape measure. The figures float in space, as if they have become unmoored from gravity, and there's an appealing airiness that's missing from most of those other pieces. Universal Web (2001) is more of the same, this time on four panels.
In those index-card-sized photo collages, Elias achieves a pared-down simplicity that's a welcome contrast to her more manic work. There's the sense in these works that she is picking up on ideas, quickly working through them, and then moving on.
And in a monumental piece like the unstretched, unframed canvas Dream I Had While Awake (2004), which is perhaps seven by 11 feet, we get the best of both Eliases — the scale and compositional complexity of her big mixed-media works and the crisp cleanness of her smaller pieces. She strikes a balance here that eludes her elsewhere.
A bracing antidote to the untamed Elias can be found in the museum's smaller east galleries, where you'll find "Stan Slutsky: The Shape of Things." If Elias' approach is one of unbridled exuberance, Slutsky's is one of meticulous exactitude. He's the yang to her yin, Apollo to her Dionysus.
Slutsky, a Pittsburgh native who studied at Ohio's Youngstown University before settling in South Florida in the early 1980s, is that rare creature these days — a contemporary practitioner of op art, a style that found its heyday in the mid-'60s.
Op art, short for optical art, was a term coined in 1964 by sculptor George Rickey in a conversation with a couple of curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (The designation turned up in print for the first time later that year in Time magazine.) One of those curators, William Seitz, went on to give the "movement" its greatest exposure the next year in a MoMA exhibition called "The Responsive Eye," featuring two of the style's best-known artists, Hungarian Victor Vasarely and England's Bridget Riley.
Op art traffics in illusion — the illusion of movement and of space. Hence it is not surprising to learn that Slutsky, in his artist statement, confesses to a childhood fascination with magicians and magic acts. Like op's pioneers, he uses geometric forms and the precise manipulation of color to create such illusions.
In a typical Slutsky piece such as the dazzling The Four Spheres (1994), the artist generates the illusion of depth by juxtaposing the title solids, which are blanketed with circles of bright colors that seemingly start to vibrate with energy if you look at them long enough. Like the best op art, it prompts a quizzical "How did he do that?" reaction.
An artist friend with a penchant for abstraction admits that op art, which is inherently abstract, leaves her cold and indifferent. I find it exhilarating, and it hardly bothers me that, in the scheme of modern art, the style quickly came and went. In Slutsky's capable hands, it becomes a noble tradition well worth preserving.