American politics has pretty much become a mockery of itself, but that doesn't mean that art can't celebrate the sad state of our nation, which founded on truth, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is collapsing into spin, gluttony, and the pursuit of world domination. "John Alexander: New Works on Paper and Important Early Paintings" makes the statement in several ways. The artist paints joker's masks on the fat, ugly faces of his anonymous political subjects, each with an American flag behind him or in his lapel. The subjects of this exhibit are almost entirely male, making us wonder what happened to equal opportunity for those greedy, two-faced female politicians. It's easy to want to hate them, but you can't help but be moved by the pathos, the terror, and the desperation evident behind the masks. Some subjects are literally animals, personified by their greed such as the hog with the gaping mouth trying to swallow gold coins. A series of monkey portraits with expressions that match titles like Shy Teen, The Thinker, and Love Sick suggests the assertion that we really are nothing more than monkeys' uncles (and, even though the alliteration isn't as good, aunts!). Showing concurrently in the back gallery, "Going East: Max Pam" captures the better, deeper side of our kind, where subjects are personal and completely unmasked. Expressing the humanity we are capable of, Pam's gelatin silver prints document primarily the people he has encountered in his Eastern travels their character, endurance, and grit in their environments, some lush and others desolate. (Through March 24 at Eaton Fine Art, 435 Gardenia St., West Palm Beach. Call 561-833-4766.)
Now on Display
Playing on the utopian Golden Age, Mark Twain had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he named the United States' gaily garish post-Restoration era the Gilded Age. A visit to the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach provides a glimpse into the lifestyles during the age that birthed the extravagant excesses of Rockefeller and Carnegie particularly with its current exhibit. "Augustus Saint-Gaudens: American Sculptor of the Gilded Age" offers a view of the work of an artist who was hot property during his day, sought-after by industrialists, publishers, artists, and writers. The artist's work was so highly esteemed that it was commissioned by the United States in fact, you might have some in your pockets or tucked away in a drawer somewhere for safekeeping. Renowned for both his public monuments and his sculpted portraits, Saint-Gaudens also designed some of the nation's early 20th-century coins, some of which are on display. The exhibit isn't just small change, though most of the exhibit is comprised of portraits in relief. Depicting mostly the era's hoity-toity society folks, the bronze portraits (and a few in plaster) range from seven inches to more than three feet. A dozen sculptures in the round pay tribute to esteemed personages from the Goddess Diana to Gen. Sherman. To include those monuments that could not be moved, such as those of Abraham Lincoln and the Shaw Memorial, photo murals have been installed. Also on display are decorative objects created by the artist, including wood panels, jewelry, plaques, and the only surviving sketch. (Through April 15 at the Flagler Museum, 1 Whitehall Way, Palm Beach. Call 561-655-2833.)
"John Alexander: New Works on Paper and Important Early Paintings"
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In case you needed more proof that celebrity gives a person a big head, here's "Gerry Gersten: Face to Face," an exhibit of caricatures by the guy who was once an illustrator for Mad Magazine, capturing the enormous mugs of entertainment celebs and political personages. For instance, Willie Nelson's big melon with a facial expression that's either startled or disgusted is four times the size of his guitar. Unlike the photographs approved by the agents of today's celebrities to show them only at their most flattering, the 52 portraits by Gersten, whose line drawings have also appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Time, and Newsweek, capture the quirks and exploit the unique flaws of their subjects (sort of like the paparazzi but without the fistfights and car crashes). For instance, Woody Allen, drawn in profile, has a schnoz the size of Manhattan. Other images provide, in their artful exaggeration, a sort of public service, like the one of Billie Holiday and her horsy choppers, which reminds us to see the dentist. (Through March 18 at Cornell Museum, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Call 561-243-7922. )
"The Peacock's Feather: Male Jewelry of Old Japan" doesn't actually contain any colorful plumage. It's just a metaphor for how 18th- and 19th-century Japanese men called attention to themselves by displaying their finery (it's only the male peacock that has those lovely feathers). The exhibit displays a fine selection of intricately carved miniatures some just an inch in length of bone, ivory, and wood that were used to attach other fashion accessories to their kimono sashes. The museum's exhibit offers informational cards that explain the imagery of each object and how it relates to Japanese culture so you get to enjoy the artistry as you learn about aesthetics, values, and lore. For instance, Kiyohime and the Temple Bell depicts a figure cowering inside a bell encircled by a monstrous serpent. This references the story of a young woman who fell in love with a monk who refused her advances and hid from her beneath a temple bell, until her passion became hatred and transformed her into a hideous monster and her rage incinerated them both. The show also displays tobacco cases and pipe cases, which might not seem like jewelry to 21st-century Americans, but the symbolically adorned lacquered boxes and carved cases were fashion statements for the Japanese men two and three centuries ago. (Through March 18 at the Morikami Museum, 4000 Morikami Park Rd., Delray Beach. Call 561-495-0233.)
"Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe," a sensory overload of an exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, includes roughly 300 works in various media by more than 80 artists. The emphasis is on photography as befits a woman whose most enduring love affair was with the camera and even the nonphotographic works are inspired by or influenced by either still photos or motion pictures. The show includes the work of such acclaimed photographers as Eve Arnold, Peter Beard, Cecil Beaton, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Philippe Halsman, and many others, as well as the famous silk prints by Andy Warhol and other paintings and sculptures. Some of the artists seem less interested in Monroe herself than in her potential as raw artistic material to be manipulated. Much has been made, and continues to be made here, over Monroe's iconic status as a product of her dramatic rise and fall, culminating in a tragic, mysterious death 45 years ago that froze her at age 36 in our collective memory. We are mesmerized by her, according to this view, because she is eternally young and ageless, her beauty preserved like an insect in amber. No doubt that is part of her apparently perennial appeal. But it's also a bit sad that none of the art included here takes the imaginative leap to envision an elderly but still elegant Monroe (although a couple of artists use the famous photo of her taken just after her death as a starting point to harrowing, even ghoulish, effect). (On display through April 1 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton. Call 561-392-2500.)
Gifted former Art and Culture Center of Hollywood curator Samantha Salzinger returns for a guest stint at her old digs with "Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice," which, according to her intro, "examines the identity of the contemporary woman" by way of "female artists using the medium of photography to investigate the notion of what it means for a woman in a post-feminist society to be a stay-at-home mom, a beauty queen, or compete in 'man's' work." The show includes only three photographers, whose collective take on what might be termed "third-wave feminism" mostly skitters across the surfaces of the subject. Gail Albert-Halaban covers the stay-at-home mom territory with mostly generic images, while Rachel Papo's journalistic portraits of female Israeli soldiers lay claim to women doing "man's" work. The exhibition's real star is Colby Katz (staff photographer for New Times Broward/Palm Beach), whose shots of pint-sized beauty queens are as fascinating as they are disturbing. Katz shoots her young subjects not exactly in closeup and not exactly from a distance. She settles instead on a midrange perspective that yields distinct advantages. We get close enough to see how horrifically made-up and coifed these children are, and we're at enough of a remove to appreciate how their little gowns and bathing suits sexualize them far beyond their years. (Through March 25 at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood, 954-921-3274.)