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Something Old, Something New

Torre di Bellosquardo (1999), top, and The Reading Room (2000) by Karen Stene

The last time I visited New River Gallery, in the heart of the busy Las Olas Boulevard area in Fort Lauderdale, the gallery was showcasing a substantial collection of works, mostly graphics, by Salvador Dalí. The spirit of that ambitious but uneven show still lingers at the gallery in the form of nearly a dozen fairly representative Dalís: etchings, lithographs, and drawings, including one especially pricey ($65,000) original sepia ink drawing.

The residual Dalís didn't come as much of a surprise, but there were other surprises in store. Based on the gallery's promotion of it, I had expected the Karen Stene show here to be more substantial -- not necessarily a full-scale one-woman exhibition but one with a little more breadth than the show turned out to have. Instead, I found a strange but compelling mix of works by artists old and new, famous and obscure.

New River has augmented its modern-masters collection with four Marc Chagall lithographs displayed in the same area as the Dalís: The Angel (1960), Put into Words (1969), Reverie (1970), and Painter with Three Bouquets (1982), the last featuring a pair of trademark Chagall lovers floating dreamily in the air above the flowers.

Nearby, there's a panel boasting nine 17th-century Rembrandt etchings. Included are a portrait of the artist's mother and one of his many self-portraits, this one of Rembrandt as he sits drawing by a window. The most striking are two dark, densely detailed pieces dealing with religious themes -- The Circumcision in the Stable (1654) and the undated Flight into Egypt: Crossing a Brook -- and another larger religious work executed with a lighter touch, The Raising of Lazarus (1630). The remainder deal with more mundane subject matter, such as a landscape with a cow, a man weaving a cap, and golf and card players.

The real treasures among the big-name artists here are half a dozen Pissarros, not by the great Camille but by two lesser but noteworthy members of his large artistic dynasty. Paulemile, one of Camille's five sons, is represented by a lovely undated watercolor called The River Orne at the Moulin DeVey. And there are four pastels and an oil by Paulemile's son, H. Claude, who is now 67 years old and working out of his studio in France. They're painted in H. Claude's highly effective melding of figurative realism and impressionism, with Le Lac des Cygnes (2001) the standout, a delicate, wispy scene featuring a handful of people looking out over a railing at some swans.

The gallery also features pieces by some of its regulars: art glass by Dino Rosin, for instance, and large canvases of stylized, brightly colored figures by Hessam Abrishami. A handful of prints and frescoes are by Pakistani artist Jamali, who incorporates organic materials such as leaves and twigs into his work for texture, and some mixed-media canvases by Markus Billard, whose generally appealing, earthy, gestural brushwork sometimes backfires, as in Joan of Arc #2, which more or less reduces the French martyr to a big set of boobs.

Two of the gallery's most commanding pieces are also among its most mediocre. One is the Museum Guard that greets you near the entrance, and the other is The Safe Cracker, both life-size mixed-media pieces of the sort that made Duane Hanson famous. Their creator is Gary Mirabelle, and you don't have to be a huge Hanson fan (I'm not) to conclude that Mirabelle is no Hanson. (To his credit, Mirabelle has two much more impressive pieces elsewhere in the gallery: small, truncated, nude female torsos, one in something called "hydrastone" and another in mixed media with a black patina.)

New River also highlights a specific artist from time to time, and that slot is currently filled by the aforementioned Karen Stene, a Canadian who studied in Vancouver, British Columbia, and San Miguel, Mexico, before settling in Florida. As her work demonstrates, she's something of a vagabond who draws on her travels for her art. According to a Website biographical sketch, she sometimes travels on a sailboat she built herself.

Most of the dozen or so recent Stene pieces on display feature verandas, gazebos, and the like characterized by ornate columns, arches, and other architectural details. The artist is especially adept at conveying the effects of time and the elements on her settings. Usually a landscape looms in the background. Lush foliage overflows here and there.

Although the titles are too generic to indicate specific places -- Oasis, Quiet Sunrise, My Little Secret -- there's a distinct Mediterranean flavor at work in most of these images. A few, such as Bellissimo and Tuscan Rendezvous, are clearly inspired by Italy. If you're familiar with such Italian-set movies as Enchanted April and Kenneth Branagh's screen version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, you've seen just the kind of vistas favored by Stene.

While most of Stene's pictures seem to pull us through the framing architecture and into those vineyards and hillsides beyond, occasionally the artist's focus remains on an interior. In Tuscan Rendezvous, for example, we can see a landscape through a background window, although our attention is drawn to an elegant fainting sofa draped with a deep-red robe and strewn with books. On the right side of the canvas is a battered sideboard on which sit more books, a bottle of wine, and a glass.

The image is a sort of tease: Has the rendezvous of the title already taken place, and is what we're looking at the aftermath? Is the assignation perhaps happening just out of our sight, beyond the edges of the canvas in another room? Or have the robe and books been carelessly tossed aside as one lover rushed off to meet another?

These narrative possibilities are what give this particular painting a tingle that's missing from some of the other Stenes. Another acrylic, Aprés midi, which features two rocking chairs and a chaise with purple tassels, likewise suggests that, not too long ago, this room was inhabited by people whose presence still tangibly lingers, however faintly.

In some of the other images, by contrast, the absence of human beings is almost unnerving. The architecture has been captured in glorious detail, often enhanced by the application of gold or copper leaf, but the beautiful rooms and verandas are cold and empty, so much so that it's difficult to imagine that they've ever been occupied.

This may well be a conscious aesthetic choice by Stene, and there's no denying that her work, with its endless array of gorgeous views of gorgeous places, has a visual consistency. But her unwillingness to introduce living creatures into her pictures -- animals are conspicuously missing as well -- also suggests a certain artistic timidity. I found myself wishing that she would at least occasionally insert a person, however crudely rendered, into her carefully composed pieces; it would indicate that she was willing to take a risk, a leap of faith into uncharted territory. (An artist I know recently introduced a cat into the series of rich still lifes on which he'd been concentrating, and it seemed to have an enormously liberating effect on his work.)

Even so, it's obvious that Stene is more than just a decorative artist. Her sense of balance and composition and her attention to detail are much more accomplished than the talents of someone who sets out to decorate living rooms. I just wish she would play it a little less safe from time to time. I also wish the New River Gallery had devoted more than just a small corner of its display space to her work.


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