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By John Thomason
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Last year, the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood "went to the dogs" with its exhibition of works created by a Jack Russell terrier named Tillamook Cheddar. Now the Coral Springs Museum of Art goes all zoological on us with "Hunt Slonem: Birds, Butterflies & Bunnies" and "Donna Long: A Survey of Recent Works," which focuses on horse-related subject matter. At least in this case, the art on display is about animals, not by one.
The museum's executive director, Barbara O'Keefe, says it was just coincidence that the two shows ended up overlapping. Both are curated by Palm Beach-based collagist, gallery owner, and independent curator Bruce Helander, and both artists in question take a somewhat whimsical approach to their material. There, the similarities end.
Let's start with New York-based Slonem, whose work is far superior to that of Long. A Maine native with a peripatetic childhood as a Navy brat, he acquired a passion for birds and maintains a personal aviary with a hundred or so species. A generous selection of his bird paintings is included here — but I'm willing to bet it's his rabbit art that will win you over. I went in a skeptic but came out a convert.
Actually, Slonem doesn't so much portray rabbits as suggest them. Pause for a few moments in front of the first piece in the exhibition, a big oil called Cuniculus, and you'll see what I mean. The dozen-plus bunnies in the painting are really just very roughly delineated outlines of rabbits, with little detail and few distinguishing characteristics.
This is in keeping with the handout's observation that Slonem "is fascinated by the manipulation of paint" and its characterization of him as a neo-expressionist. The artist seems preoccupied with the idea of rabbits more than the reality of them — he's in love with the way a few swipes of pigment executed just so can summon up bunnies and their myriad connotations.
His canvases crowded with multiple bunnies, for example, can't help but allude to the rapid reproduction rates that make rabbits symbols of fecundity and subjects of randy humor. And Slonem's rabbits — some of them, anyway — carry a whiff of innocence as well. It's not difficult to imagine the contours of the Easter Bunny among the artist's swift, sinuous brush strokes.
I don't mean to slight Slonem's paintings of birds, which are seductive in their own way. These he limns with the same lack of attention to detail but with a much greater emphasis on the substance of the birds, which come across as fleshier, more corporeal. Compare any one of the rabbit pictures with one of the bird paintings and you'll immediately pick up on the differences. Maybe his avocation as a keeper of birds comes into play here, but it's as if he perceives birds as more physically imposing than bunnies.
There's a contrast too in his handling of the paint itself. The rabbit paintings are characterized by overpainting, in which the artist applies layer after layer of pigment and lets the layers show through here and there. The canvas of Cuniculus, for instance, was at one time blanketed with red, which still peeks through the top layer of white. The bird paintings are more likely to show intense manipulation of the pigment in the birds themselves, which are sometimes heavily worked over. Slonem also often applies an overlay of crosshatch patterns typically used to indicate that the birds are enclosed in cages. It's a risky move that, like most of the artist's other gambits, pays off.
There's little such payoff in the horse-inspired art of Donna Long, who was born in New York in 1937 but didn't start painting until she was well into her 60s and living in West Palm Beach, where she still resides. I kept trying to get a handle on what she's up to as I made my way through "A Survey of Recent Works," but the impression I was left with is that her work is mostly pastiche, a cannibalization of other styles she has never quite made her own.
Take the urban landscapes that are the settings for Muse Meets Poet and Tuscan Carriage Horse 1. Those semideserted piazzas evoke Giorgio de Chirico all right, but to what end? It's as if Long has simply plopped horses into them and then moved on. Elsewhere we see other influences such as the Fauvists and Marc Chagall, but they seem mostly superficial.
Occasionally Long hits pay dirt, as in some of her images of horses in conflict with one another — an oil pastel called Sovereign Powers comes to mind — which feel has if they have been created more instinctively. Otherwise, her anthropomorphic horses come across almost like caricatures.
As a sort of palate cleanser between Slonem and Long, museum director O'Keefe has inserted a small but bracing selection of abstract photographs by W.F. Withers. Some of these set the graceful curves and abrupt angles of big Richard Serra sculptures against what looks like the wild blue yonder; others look almost like sand paintings, displaying a fascination with color and texture that make this little show a refreshing break from the menagerie surrounding it.