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Art by the Square Foot

As seen on TV," the print ads proclaimed. I had not seen these enticing television spots, which made it all the more imperative that I check out the Art Marketplace in person. How could I not visit the home of "Framed Original Oil Paintings From $24.95"?

One branch is in Davie, a few doors over from a Home Depot, and there's another location in Delray Beach near an Office Depot. These are appropriate neighbors, it turns out, for an operation that might be generously characterized as Art Depot.

I went in search of the Davie outpost and found myself navigating one of those huge suburban shopping centers, the kind that seem to have their own road systems. This particular strip-mall-run-amok, called the Tower Shoppes, is just off I-595 close to Nova Southeastern University. I briefly envisioned bored college students wandering over to browse for something to spruce up dorm-room or apartment walls.

Instead, the clientele seemed to consist largely of people looking for a good deal on framing. After all, good, relatively inexpensive framing is nothing to sniff at, and the Art Marketplace ads boast, "We can custom frame anything for less than anyone." That's no idle boast either: The front area of the gallery is full of side-by-side cost comparisons that pit Art Marketplace against its competitors, complete with names, addresses, and phone numbers. It's almost as if you're being dared to call up a framer you've used to demand an explanation for why you were overcharged.

Beyond the framing area is a broad central passage through the cavernous gallery, with about a dozen and a half bays branching off on the sides. Each of these spaces is crammed with paintings, prints, and sculptures, often loosely organized by subject matter. One bay might include mostly floral pieces, for example, while imagery involving musical instruments might predominate in another. These "themes" aren't always rigidly adhered to, however, and so you never know what you might run across.

At the rear of the gallery is a room called the Annex, which is where those $24.95, framed, original oil paintings are supposedly found. But much of the space is taken up by framed prints of posters and reproductions of works by artists as varied as Picasso and South Florida's own Edna Hibel. A few Dalí knockoffs are surprisingly good, which would no doubt please the artist, a master of chicanery and commercialization. There are also movie and sports posters.

Most of the paintings redefine generic. There are stacks of unframed three- by four-foot canvases that seem designed to appeal to people looking to fill a space more than anything else. Some of these pieces have faux frames painted right onto them -- they can go directly from store bin onto a wall. Elsewhere in the annex are stacks of smaller framed paintings that look and feel (yes, I touched a few of them) as if the pigment were applied by machines rather than by human hands.

To the left of the annex entrance is a little counter where browsers can pause and help themselves to coffee. The area includes a few limited-edition offset lithographs by Norman Rockwell that were signed at the plate stage rather than after the prints were struck, and there are prints by Michel Delacroix that mimic the look of the Cap-Haitien school of Haitian painting. Some really heavy-handed oil originals try for the effect of impasto painting but instead look as if the pigment were slathered on with a trowel.

But there are also a handful of limited-edition giclée prints by Keith Goodson that are quite good. The pieces are more or less still lifes of things like cups of coffee and bagels and their paraphernalia, and Goodson has a knack for capturing gleaming surfaces and reflections that reminds me of the work of the great Janet Fish. It's unfortunate that someone was too literal-minded to consider giving these pictures better placement than a serving area.

Then again, the Art Marketplace "collection," which supposedly boasts more than 5,000 pieces, hasn't been curated so much as assembled. If you round the corner from the coffee bar, you'll find yourself in a short, narrow, art-lined corridor that leads to a water fountain and the restrooms, where you'll find... more art. The men's room, for instance, has four pieces on display, including a limited-edition Dalí lithograph that's "facsimile signed," meaning the signature is photo-mechanically reproduced, not original or even signed on the plate.

Along with more Dalí and Picasso prints, there are several Chagall knockoffs, and I spotted at least one signed, limited-edition lithograph by the aging hipster Peter Max. Sports imagery is represented by a selection of serigraphs, both signed and unsigned, by Leroy Neiman, and by some cheesy black-and-white portraits of such figures as Mike Piazza, Jeff Gordon, Walter Payton, and Allan Iverson by lithographer Robert S. Simon.

Surprisingly, among the gallery's most impressive holdings are imitation Rembrandt etchings by an unidentified artist, which just goes to show that if you're going to steal, you might as well steal from the best. The pieces, most of them small, are nicely executed, and they're matted and framed with understated classiness, making them Art Marketplace's best testimonial to its framing department.

After looking at dozens and dozens of mediocre paintings -- gauzy nudes just slightly removed from the ones you'd find in dive bars, landscapes so lackluster they could be interchangeable -- I ended up returning to the gallery's relatively few nonrepresentational pieces. I'd initially dismissed them, but they began to look better and better, especially the ones by Lee White, who has a pleasingly direct take on abstract expressionism.

Scattered among the paintings and prints are sculptures, most of which are small, reasonably realistic representations of the human form. There are more clustered in the center of the framing area up front. Some are helpfully labeled: "I am a fountain." Aside from a handful, including an elegant abstract by Stan Switkes called Bouquet, they're simply ordinary.

There's something about the whole Art Marketplace concept that brings out the skeptic in me. It's not that the gallery looks at art as a commodity. The contemporary art world is nothing if not commercial -- indeed, that commercialization provides a wealth of material for artists themselves to mine. And it's not that the gallery tries to provide a safe, nonthreatening environment for people who (a) may be intimidated by the prospect of buying art, and (b) don't want to spend a lot of money on something they're not quite sure about.

No, I think it may be a weird element of condescension that seems to be built into such an enterprise. I found myself skulking through Art Marketplace as if I were a spy, concealing my little notebook, darting in and out of the bays to scribble a few notes. The customer service representatives roving the aisles -- clad in casual blue shirts that bring to mind Wal-Mart "associates" -- seemed sincere enough, and yet they made me a little nervous all the same.

Maybe it comes down to the notion of art as something so trivial that it matters only if it matches the furniture and costs X amount. (One gallery sign here reads, "Ask About Our Preview and Purchase Program.") I like to think of art as something that matters in other ways. And I'm not so sure that art really matters to the Art Marketplace folks, any more than books matter to the interior decorators who buy them by the foot or yard because they're cheap and take up space.


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