For evidence that great things can come in small packages, check out "Pleasure From Their Presence: Chinese Bird and Flower Paintings," a micro-exhibition in a tiny side gallery at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. It includes only seven works, all culled from a University of Michigan Museum of Art show: fans, hanging scrolls, and album leaves with self-descriptive titles, presented with as much care and attention to detail as any larger exhibition (the space is painted a somehow-perfect brilliant red). The earliest item is The Peach Blossom Spring, a 1542 fan mounted as an album leaf; as the wall text notes, the painting is by Qiu Ying, with calligraphy by Wen Zhengming, both from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). A Ming piece from just 70 years later, Chen Zun's Cat Under Flowers, is a dramatically different image of a ghostly cat nestled among rocks, flowers, and grasses, all portrayed in swift, broad strokes that are more suggestive than illustrative. From the 18th Century, Li Shan's Day Lily and Bulb is an album leaf mounted on a hanging scroll, a starkly beautiful small rectangle that seems to float on its pale-blue silk backdrop. Perhaps most exotic of all is Bird on a Bamboo Branch, a fan painting with imagery on one side and calligraphy on the reverse. It's attributed to Lang Shining, the name adopted by Giuseppe Castiglione, an 18th-century Italian Jesuit who was assigned to China and became court painter to three generations of Manchu emperors. There's a novel's worth of intrigue in that one tidbit of information. (Ongoing at the Norton Museum of Art, 1401 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, 561-832-5196.) -- Michael Mills
Now on Display
As the title indicates, "Georgia O'Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction," now at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, is a tightly focused look at a very specific component of its subject's output her highly varied use of more or less circular forms in more or less abstract works. That may sound like a gimmicky premise, but curator Jonathan Stuhlman, formerly of the Norton, has put together a small but disproportionately thrilling exhibition that provides new revelations about one of America's most important 20th-century artists. It's an abbreviated retrospective, really, with apt examples from all major phases of O'Keeffe's long, prolific career. The work flows both chronologically and thematically, with text panels that illuminate the artist as well as her connections to (and contrasts with) other artists. There are nearly 50 pieces, mostly oils, supplemented by watercolors, charcoals, pastels, graphite drawings, and a pair of white-lacquered bronze sculptures. The subjects run the full O'Keeffe gamut: flowers, leaves, rocks, pieces of fruit, bones, landscapes both urban and rural, and other items that defy classification. And amazingly, the artist was no less daring at the start of her long haul she was born in 1887 and died a year short of her centennial than she was near the end. It's an exhibition full of high points. (Through May 6 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1401 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, 561-832-5196.)
"Pleasure From Their Presence: Chinese Bird and Flower Paintings"
You might think you've stumbled into a taxidermy exhibit of stuffed birds, they look so damned real. Many are flocked together, but "The Brilliance of Birds: The Sculpture of Grainger McKoy" isn't birds of a feather. Nope, despite the realistic appearances, these fine "feathered" friends are just painted wood and metal. Some, like Carolina parakeets, allow us to appreciate the beauty of a now-extinct species. Others allow us to consider mortality in another way as you enter the exhibit, a tiny bronze "Dead Bird" lies crumpled, legs and beak heavenward. As morbid as it sounds, the South Carolina artist celebrates life in all its moments and stages. Honoring fight and flight, Red-Shouldered Hawks and Copperhead Snake displays the birds of prey both clasping their ill-fated squiggling supper as they rise above dry grass. McKoy's sculptures are also about a connection other than the food chain. Many of the sculptures are flocks, and the individual birds are subtly linked to hold them aloft as they rise from their sculptural bases. McKoy's art transcends the literal. Recovery Stroke, a commissioned work by Hollings Cancer Center, is a giant wing depicted in its weakest and most beautiful position. The same poetic approach is evident in his reflection pieces, where birds perch or fly above a body of water. In each of these, the doppelgänger is an impressionistic version of the original. Black Skimmer, for instance, offers an exquisitely detailed orange-billed bird with its beak open, and where the lower mandible grazes the water's surface, the bird is joined to its reflection in polished hardwood. The reflected figure is larger, less detailed, and more fluid. (Through April 14 at Society of the Four Arts, 2 Four Arts Plaza, Palm Beach. Call 561- 655-7226.)
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So this is paradise? Apparently so, if you take the title and intention of Jeanne Hilary's documentary photographs, "Eden: A New Media Project," as any indication. Both video and stills document small-town America often with playful juxtapositions (like a huge print of five yellow flashlights in the foreground of a portrait of a small building topped with a giant stuffed bear) and other times with poetic narrative (like the diptych images of rodeo cowboys roping a steer fallen in the blood-red mud). The chromogenic prints are displayed in a format so ridiculously huge (some five feet by five feet) for the tiny space in which they are exhibited (squeezed behind the Marilyn Monroe exhibit) that fewer than a dozen are included, which isn't enough to encompass the scope of the project. Thankfully, the exhibit includes a small book of other images that comprise Hilary's project since, sadly, the big ones on the walls aren't the best of the lot. There's a photo of a pool diver was displayed on a nearby billboard (without any explanation or signage) next to another that advertised a gun show. That image is included in an accompanying video ("new media") on a flatscreen TV hung on the wall like a painting. Asserting that "our ground time here will be brief," the video is a composite of images from a basketball game and the landmark Dairy Queen in West Palm Beach. Hilary's goal is to have viewers consider "their place in time and see their environment as a historical place." Too bad a forgettable exhibit doesn't make our time and place feel as historic and remarkable as the artist intends. (Through June 3 at Boca Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Call 561-392-2500.)
The stuff is bizarre enough that you might expect to see it pried from the clinging fingers of a vintage shopping virtuoso on an episode of BBC America's What Not to Wear and tossed into the trash barrel by hosts Trinny and Susannah. It's feisty duck feathers, kinky Moroccan lamb fur, drawstring suede boots, drapes turned into capes, and everything common sense says shouldn't be worn together. But these are far from common part haute couture, part flea market finds paired by fashionista Iris Apfel. So back off fashion fascists it's art! You can too pair chunky coconut bangles with Rorschach-patterned silk without sending an "I'm nuts" message, if you are an eccentric society type. A re-packaging of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibit "Rara Avis: Iris Apfel and the Art of Fashion," "Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel" begins with a mock runway show set-up complete with flashing cameras and the first gallery develops the theme. To the sounds of jazz, the gallery offers virtual Apfels throughout the exhibit, presented as identical, white mannequins, often with the trademark owl glasses of the fashion maven dressed in urban neutrals and posed as if seated in the audience or strutting down the catwalk. Offering more of an installation art experience than just a mere tour of wacky costumes, the exhibit's music and backdrop themes evolve with the fashion trends. So the gallery with the exotic tapestries and animal prints offers tunes with oriental flair and red. The mannequins in the last gallery play circus music for clownish displays of sparkly, ballooned jumpsuits and acrobatically inspired counterparts. If you're inspired to hit the vintage stores and put together your own kooky attention-getter, a video interview with Apfel offers an insight into the method behind her divine madness. Through May 27 at Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Call 561-832-5196.
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.)
Nothing like kicking the bucket to make others appreciate a person and this is doubly true for artists. In May, the death of the Dutch abstract expressionist who helped found an art movement known as CoBrA (an acronym for the initial letters of the founders' cities of origin: Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam) inspired a Fort Lauderdale exhibit "Karel Appel: In Memoriam." As far as memorials go, this is an intimate one, composed of just 11 works from the museum's permanent collection. Despite its size, the exhibit not only honors the artist but provides examples of his work in a variety of media. Though his work may be labeled abstract, it is not strictly so. Even in the ones that come the closest to being nonrepresentational, there is at least the hint of object. Using vivid colors applied in thick swipes and swirls, one untitled, undated oil painting (which is more non-specific than abstract) might be construed as a portrait: dark blue splotches suggest eyes, the rectangle at the bottom could be a mouth. Most works are abstract in the art term's original meaning the reduction of the subject to a simplified form. The works exhibited have a childlike quality in their simplicity, expressiveness, and playfulness. Big Bird with Child offers an excellent example, where the mixed media piece uses wood to give dimension to the otherwise flat forms. (Through May 1 at Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-525-5500.)