Go West, Art Lover

Goldman's original ambition was to make people laugh.

If an expedition into the far reaches of Broward County can be thought of as a safari -- and sometimes I think it can -- then I bagged some big game on a recent adventure that took me first far west, to the Sunrise Civic Center, then south to the new Seminole Paradise complex at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

My finds are as different as night and day. One is a "serious artist" from an academic background who draws on abstract expressionism and collage for her mixed-media works. The other is something of a pop prankster who stumbled through the back door of the art world by re-creating his designs for T-shirts and other merchandise on canvas and in lithographs.

I learned about "Dimensions & Discoveries: The Artwork of Elizabeth Chapman and Sid Walesh," now at the Sunrise Civic Center Gallery, thanks to one of the artists. I had singled Chapman out for praise in a review of Oakland Park's now-defunct Art on the Edge gallery last summer, so she alerted me to her show. I'm glad she did.

A quick note on Chapman's exhibition partner: Walesh is a sculptor working in wood, stone, and clay. He's one of the founders of the New World School of the Arts in Miami and now teaches at the art schools of the Boca Raton Museum of Art and the Lighthouse Center for the Arts. His dozen or so sculptures in "Dimensions & Discoveries" range from appealingly sensuous and sinuous (clay forms featuring layer upon layer of curves that suggest abruptly frozen liquid) to flat-out awful (a ceramic of a melted snowman).

Walesh is clearly talented, although his work here is wildly erratic. At its best, it enhances Chapman's paintings, which are another matter altogether. In her letter Chapman reminded me of my earlier characterization of her work as "elemental and earthy, as if the artist had ripped raw minerals from the ground as the medium for her expressive scratches and manipulations." Having now seen nearly three dozen more of her pieces, I stand by that statement.

With few exceptions, Chapman sticks to her earthy color scheme. A few works have accents of blues, greens, and purples, but those colors are always subservient to the rich browns, grays, and golds. Her imagery is almost exclusively abstract -- it's the "almost" that can be problematic. She sometimes seems unable to resist the pull of the representational and works realistic details into pieces that are otherwise just glorious studies in color, texture, and form.

The occasional tree or silhouetted hand or scrap of newsprint isn't a problem, especially when Chapman deftly weaves such an item into the overall look and feel of a piece. But sometimes her representational elements are jarring. The fragments of reproductions of Renaissance paintings (including the Mona Lisa) in Angel Aware, for example, jolt us out of the abstraction. And she uses the image of a nest full of bird eggs so often that it seems to have become a crutch.

She's much better off when the ingredients are things she seems to have an intuitive feel for. Take the irregularly shaped "islands" of rusted metal that float on the surface of Let Me Know -- they have a just-rightness to them. The same is true of the rune-like markings and indecipherable scribblings that dance across several paintings. Or the areas where Chapman has used mesh of some sort to leave impressions in the pigment.

A statement on the artist's website, www.elizabethchapman.com, includes a laundry list of her media, which include acrylics, photos, drawings, hand-made papers, fabrics, ink, charcoal, and pastels. I thought I also detected encaustic here and there and a hint or two of wood. This embrace of such diverse raw materials, combined with the balance she strikes between gestural spontaneity and careful deliberation, is enormously appealing. Her best works simultaneously seem thrown together and meticulously worked over. They make me hear music.

People who don't "get" the sort of abstraction Chapman excels at might be tempted to dismiss it as something any average child could do. The same can be said of most of the art included in "Todd Goldman: Stupid Factory," now at Jack Gallery at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. A flier for Goldman's show even includes a cartoon character sneering, "You call this art...This stuff stinks! My little brother can draw better than this!"

You've probably seen Goldman's designs on T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, and the like, that are sold through his chain of Stupid Factory stores and from a website, www.davidandgoliathtees.com. If all goes as planned, you will also eventually see his work on two animated television series, Stupid Factory and The Ugliest Family in the World, both of which are now in development.

Goldman's improbably swift rise to fame and fortune was apparently prompted by a now-famous image of a cartoonish little boy with a big head, big round eyes, and spiky hair, accompanied by the words BOYS ARE STUPID THROW ROCKS AT THEM. That character, named Todd, is the artist's alter-ego and reappears in other works, along with a stable of other cartoon characters, including Trendy Wendy, Stickboy, and Dumb Blonde, soon to be joined by Donna the Dork. They are inevitably accompanied by smart-alecky verbiage (and I won't even attempt to capture Goldman's idiosyncratic punctuation and mix of upper- and lowercase type). A forlorn-looking dog laments, "Some days I just wanna pee on everything!" Dumb Blonde cluelessly volunteers, "I was raking leaves when I fell out of the tree." Todd warns, "Don't put a cat on your head it hurts real bad!"

For his second, slightly more sophisticated style -- one that vaguely recalls Roy Lichtenstein -- Goldman uses retro imagery. A glamorous-looking woman brandishes a cigarette alongside the text "Smoking kills... but at least you look cool." A '50s-style family gathers around the computer for "Internet porn is fun." Barbie's Beauty Salon bears the tagline "We can't make you smart, but at least you'll look good."

Goldman has dabbled in art since his childhood, but it was only when his merchandise designs took off that he realized what he had hit on. Now he re-creates those designs on canvases that sell for thousands and finds himself being likened to Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf or described as a "post-pop" artist.

All this might be galling if Goldman were some pretentious poseur, but he's disarmingly self-effacing. He happened to be at Jack Gallery the day I visited, and he seemed surprised and amused at his sudden success as he walked me through his show. He also admitted to a twinge of guilt over the attention he has gotten when many more gifted artists go unnoticed.

It's hard to begrudge Goldman his lucky break, however, especially given that his original ambition was pretty much just to make people laugh. At that, he succeeds spectacularly.

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