Cool, Calm, and Deflected

Banks uses simple lines and geometric forms to establish an atmosphere of order.

The last time I wrote about the work of Aric Frons, it was in the context of Frons/Martin Dynasties, the art/home furnishings gallery he and longtime business partner Joan Martin opened in the late 1990s. They specialized in country Chinese antiques, although the furniture, ceramics, and Buddhas and Buddha heads were increasingly upstaged by fine art, especially that of Frons — big, austerely beautiful acrylics and the smaller, limited-edition prints derived from them.

And so it was with surprise and alarm that I noticed, a few months ago, that the gallery had vanished from its high-profile spot at the busy intersection of Federal Highway and NE 26th Street in Fort Lauderdale. Late last year, however, a revamped version surfaced in Oakland Park, in a little strip mall west of the railroad tracks in the Floranada area, under a new name, Frons/Martin Modern and Contemporary Art Collection.

As that change indicates, there has been a shift in emphasis as well as in location. Aside from a smattering of Buddhas, most of the country Chinese antiques are gone (Frons says the market has been glutted with counterfeits). In their place are paintings and prints by Frons and many other artists.

On a recent visit, Frons/Martin came across as still a work in progress but also as a gallery where art is the main focus, instead of a place where art is simply among the many items on view. It's hardly a minor distinction. Yes, there is plenty of art hanging on the walls (and, in some cases, propped against them), which is to be expected. But there are also lots of art and design magazines strewn here and there and shelves crammed with a pleasingly varied selection of books about art and artists. You get the sense that it would be entirely appropriate to settle into a chair and do a bit of reading to enhance your appreciation of the surrounding art. This is not a sterile or stuffy space but rather one where art really matters.

When I stopped by, Frons himself was in charge, having just met with Ron Banks, the artist whose work currently dominates the walls the way Frons' did in the gallery's earlier incarnation. Banks has been exhibiting his work since the late 1970s and is now based on Florida's southwest coast, although he has studied and worked in areas as various as North Carolina, Atlanta, New York, Miami Beach, and Washington, D.C. His paintings have been compared, favorably and unfavorably, to the later works of American painter Richard Diebenkorn.

The influence is there; like Diebenkorn, Banks establishes an atmosphere of order and calm by using simple lines and geometric forms. For his mixed-media paintings, Banks tends to work on a fairly large scale, sometimes on canvas but lately more often on board. His imagery, primarily abstract, takes the form of carefully balanced and structured compositions that also make use of intricate grids and broad, solid bands of color. Occasionally, he stencils seemingly random letters and numbers or even a word or two onto the surface, and sometimes little doodles and squiggles in pencil seem to have been added as an afterthought.

Frons brings out one of the smaller preparatory pieces that Banks often executes to try out an idea before taking it further on a large scale. It has a cleaner feel and, while still abstract, includes some radiating shapes suggestive of trees, as well as a little boat that's more implied than portrayed. As Frons points out, the artist is working with thinner washes of pigment these days, which only augments the ineffable air of serenity.

Later, Frons shows me a small work on paper in which Banks experimented with material that later formed the basis for a handful of larger paintings, two of which hang side by side here. The big images have an undeniable boldness and vigor, but I can't help thinking the smaller piece is somehow more satisfying, perhaps because its ideas are still in flux instead of completely worked out. The tentativeness works in the picture's favor.

The gallery currently has 40 or so Banks works in stock, according to Frons, but other artists are also represented. There are a few large acrylics by Parkland-based Sally Cooper, whose abstracts are less structured and more dramatically gestural than those of Banks. Cooper has acknowledged the influence of abstract expressionism and Zen calligraphy, which makes her work a sort of yin to Banks' yang.

Frons has only a few of his own pieces in the mix right now, and they beautifully complement the paintings of Banks and Cooper. It seems clear, in fact, that Frons could be pegged somewhere in between his two contemporaries. (That impression is only heightened when Frons brings out a batch of striking medium-sized prints that he plans to reproduce in small editions and also use as the basis for larger mixed-media paintings.) Like Banks, he often anchors his imagery with cleanly defined lines and geometric shapes while incorporating Cooper's Asian influences and more spontaneous forms.

When I ask Frons about what seems to me his obvious affinity with these two artists, however, he deftly deflects the question with a Zenlike non sequitur, pointing out that none of them paint palm trees because they're all around us. Maybe it's because he seems vaguely uncomfortable talking in any detail about his own work. At any rate, I detect something distinctly organic in any approach that brings him, Banks, and Cooper together in the same mix.

That harmony isn't even disrupted by the presence of the kind of big-name art that takes center stage in other galleries. A stretch of wall in back boasts a batch of small, signed 1986 book proofs by Andy Warhol, along with prints by Picasso, Miró, and Dalí and a 1934 graphic by Georges Braque. In the area above one set of bookshelves, there's a pair of elegant Op prints on plastic by Victor Vasarely. And above the bookshelves opposite, there's a trio of knockout Matisse prints from the early 1950s, all rendered in dazzling bright colors and here displayed almost as if they were a triptych, with the two small abstract studies of blocky shapes bracketing a larger image built around three human figures. (Frons casually mentions that provenances are available for all the gallery's art.)

As I mentioned earlier, there's something about the new space that still seems a little raw. My visit was sort of like dropping in on an old acquaintance who has relocated but isn't quite unpacked and fully settled in yet. Text panels with the basics — title, artist, medium, date, etc. — would be a welcome addition, for instance, indicating an attention to small details that demonstrates a commitment to both artists and patrons.

But Frons is a gracious, appealingly low-key host, and the gallery just feels right. There's never the sense that the owners are hovering nearby, waiting to swoop down on you and recommend something to match the sofa in your living room. In short, Frons/Martin is exactly the kind of gallery the area needs more of right now. I look forward to visiting again and again.

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