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What's most striking about the fall exhibitions at the Coral Springs Museum of Art is the uniformly high level of craftsmanship. So much contemporary art favors concept over execution that a presumption of craft is no longer a given. Technical accomplishment, in such a context, is especially worth nothing.
The show that occupies the museum's main galleries, "Three Americans: Berger, Kahn and Rennert," is really three small exhibits in one. The artists share some overlapping subject matter, mainly nautical in theme, but the work of any one of them could stand on its own. All are also represented by the Cavalier Galleries in Greenwich, Connecticut, which extended the loans that make the exhibition possible.
Let's start with Nicholas Berger, a painter who lives in New York's Hudson River highlands, the setting for much of the body of work represented here. He's attracted to the period, roughly the 1930s to the 1970s, when steamships were on their way out and diesel-powered ships were on the way in. His oil paintings are both burnished with nostalgia and varnished to a high sheen.
According to the handout, Berger meticulously researches the workhorse boats he's drawn to — tugs, ferries, and the like — before painting them. When his paintings include a city skyline, as they often do, he re-creates it to be period-appropriate. He also often works out his images in smaller-scale studies, several of which are included here, before executing the final paintings.
The harbor milieus on which Berger focuses have no special significance to me, but I love the way he captures the feel of, say, a warehouse along a waterfront. The peach-colored light that suffuses a piece like Lumber Barge, for instance, is somehow irresistible. I'm less interested in the show's alcove of sailboat paintings — the artist doesn't capture the choppier water with the authority he wields over his other subjects.
Moving on to Michael Kahn, we find someone who does have a feel for sailboats. The handout quotes the artist rhapsodizing about his subject matter: "These boats symbolize more than just basic transportation. They represent the ability of man to work with nature... Rarely has man made a machine that perfectly meets his needs and is as beautiful and graceful as the sailing vessel."
Fortunately for Kahn, the images in his silver gelatin prints live up to his hyperbole. Sometimes he zooms in on a particular feature — the prow of a boat, the sails — to emphasize the perfection of form he sees. Other times, he presents a solitary rowboat in the foreground, with a misty landscape as its backdrop.
Sometimes Kahn leaves out the boats altogether and focuses on pure landscape, as he does with Late Afternoon and Incoming Tide, both of which feature cloud-filled skies pierced by dramatic shafts of sunshine, coupled with ocean water washing over big boulders on the shore. And in a stunner like Ram Island, Kahn goes for the sense of being close to water that lies just out of sight — I get the distinct feeling that the buildings and plank walkways we see are bathed in salt-tinged sea air.
Jim Rennert, a sculptor from the desert Southwest, rounds out the exhibition's artistic triumvirate. His direct link to the other two artists can be found in Next Wave, in which a tiny man in a rowboat tries to stay afloat on a big curving wave of steel.
Although I appreciate the efforts of the museum's executive director and curator, Barbara O'Keefe, to bring the show into three dimensions with Rennert's work, I can't help feeling he's the weakest link here. Not in terms of competency, certainly — his sculptures are nothing if not well-wrought. But there's a certain glibness to much of the work that undercuts the forcefulness of his forms.
That's not the case with the artist who's the focus of the show in the museum's smaller galleries, "Yves de Saint-Front: The Kaufman Collection." Saint-Front, who was born in Paris in 1928, was classically trained, and it shows. He has a seemingly casual mastery of oil painting that comes not just from raw talent but also from the discipline it takes to shape such talent.
Like Gauguin, Saint-Front spent time in the South Pacific, first visiting Tahiti in 1956 and returning in 1967 for a lengthier stay. He appears to have been drawn less to the natives and more to their habitat, which he captured as vividly as the landscapes of his native France.
It is the still lifes and interiors, though, that most captivate me. Consciously or not, Saint-Front seems to have absorbed Matisse's lessons in color and pattern. It shows most dramatically in Isabelle at Telephone in Tahiti, in which the billowy floral gown of the artist's wife threatens to overwhelm her surroundings.
The works on display here come from the collection of Louis and Annette Kaufman, previously the source of nearly two dozen pieces loaned for the museum's 2008 Milton Avery exhibition. This is as good a reminder as any of the importance of collectors to museums, especially in these cash-strapped times.
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