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The Master of Alabaster

The owner shows the camera his pearly white, Key to Occlusion
Melissa Jones

After circulating several times through the art on display at Gallery 421 in downtown Fort Lauderdale, I began to feel a little like the matriarch in the lavish Martin Scorsese adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. Taking to her bed in a swoon, she declares: "A stroke? Ridiculous. I told them all it was just an excess of Thanksgiving."

There's enough art at Gallery 421 to qualify as "an excess of Thanksgiving" as well -- enough art, indeed, to fill a gallery two or three times larger. The Tshape main room is dotted with sculptures by owner Joel Shapses along with dozens of works by other artists, including paintings, photographs, ceramics, wooden boxes, and jewelry. There's even more art in the tiny foyer at the gallery's rear entrance and along the narrow hallway that branches off the foyer.

Just off the hallway is a classroom/conference room Shapses uses for his management-consulting business. But instead of flip charts and easels, the room's décor boasts a handful of oversize canvases and a few more of Shapses' sculptures. (One piece, Key to Occlusion, is of special significance. It's a white marble sculpture, about seven inches tall, of a tooth, made when the artist was in dental school.)

Peek into the two offices off the gallery, and you'll see even more art. And while you're at it, excuse yourself to visit the restroom, which is currently home to a large mixed-media piece.

This overabundance of art would hardly be worth noting if it were run-of-the-mill stuff. But most of what's on display at Gallery 421 ranges from good to excellent, and much of it also has the distinction of being art that has been used for worthy causes. Shapses, it turns out, isn't just a sculptor/dentist/management consultant, he's also a fundraiser.

"It's more of an event gallery," Shapses modestly says of his showcase facility. "I do benefits for different organizations."

Since Gallery 421 opened in February 1997, its beneficiaries have included the Northwest Health Center (a local AIDS organization), the Humane Society of Broward County, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Greater Fort Lauderdale, the American Society For Suicide Prevention, the Science of Mind Center in Wilton Manors, and Points of Life, a cancer-research program initiated by photographer and ovarian-cancer survivor Ginny Dixon.

But back to the art. The gallery's main room is peppered with pieces left over from, or thematically linked to, some of Shapses' themed shows. The large Allison Massari acrylic The Spirit in Me was part of the Science of Mind Center benefit, "Art and Spirit." Four large oils on canvas by the Spaniard Ed Wardo Setien -- Rebirth, Eve and Maria, Corpus Spiritus, and Window to the Soul of the Spirit -- are similarly spiritual pieces that use bright, supersaturated colors to lend a hallucinatory intensity to traditional subject matter.

Several pieces from Gary Baker's Gods and Goddesses and Dancing Gods and Goddesses series -- a ceramic bowl, three ceramic plates, and seven framed drawings embellished with gold leaf -- are reminders of the "Hot Summer Nights" show of a couple of seasons ago. Their sexually explicit imagery draws on the sort of stylized eroticism featured on ancient Greek pottery, although there's also a distinctly modern feel to the works.

Elsewhere in the main room are a couple of large, straightforward color photographs by Alan Deutsch, Old Boat and White Post; several ornate wooden boxes by Barry Kaufman, some of which have been painted to re-create the look of tarnished metal; four intricately detailed pendants by Paul Goodrich -- three in sterling silver, one in bronze; and Diane Lublinski's South Beach, an atmospheric beachscape in giclee (a dye-on-silk medium) that's nicely executed but essentially decorative, the kind of thing you'd expect to see hanging above the sofa in a photo in an interior-decorating magazine.

Nan Griffin's Intercoastal (is the misspelling intentional?) is a jaunty abstract acrylic in which the artist reduces her subject to a vertically stacked series of squarish blocks and irregular shapes painted in a variety of bright colors, with large stretches of pale blue snaking among the shapes to suggest the watery South Florida landscape. Nearby is the dramatically different Earthbound. This vibrant pastel-on-paper work by Herbert Davis portrays a muscular man, clad only in shorts and a Tshirt, who is more or less flapping in the tropical breeze anchored only by strands of knotted white fabric. It's an arresting image, made even more powerful when you get close enough to see that the entire picture is an accumulation of countless tiny, delicate crosshatched strokes.

Shapses has a real find in the mixed-media artist Rafael Manresa, who combines pieces of picture frames with found objects (rusted metal cans, a tab from a beverage can) for such pieces as Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene at the Crucifixion, Virgin of the Sacred Heart, and Madonna With Child. I just wish Shapses hadn't displayed Manresa's work alongside that of Betty Armstrong, whose greeting-card combinations of feathers, handmade paper, and pop-culture quotes add up to pure kitsch, with titles that say it all: I Love You Dearly, I Cherish You, Let It Be, and I Could Fall. (One of the gallery's front areas is marred by a similarly cheesy work that is identified only as "Angels by Gillian": a series of little pebbles adorned with angels with seashell wings.)

Aside from Shapses' sculpture -- more on that in a moment -- the most impressive work by far is that of Steven B. Clippenger, the former owner of the space that's now Gallery 421. According to Shapses, Clippenger left South Florida for rural East Tennessee and abandoned painting, which is a real shame, because the artist has a distinct flair for abstract expressionism.

In the center of the gallery, for instance, is a magnificent Clippenger titled In a Spin, a large acrylic composition full of jangly, kinetic energy. The dramatic arcs and curlicues and bold brush strokes suggest the improvisational fervor of the early abstract expressionists, with colors that overlap and run together, smears of pigment, and little squiggles that appear to be the results of fingerpainting.

In this and several other pieces scattered throughout the gallery, Clippenger also displays an extraordinary instinct for color and texture. The burnt oranges, grayish plums, mustardy yellows, and sea-foam greens of In a Spin all seem to be a tad off, as if the artist had tweaked the colors to remind us of the infinite versatility of paint. And in the dazzling Activation, one of four big Clippenger acrylics in the conference room, he apparently mixed sand with the pigment before applying it to certain areas of the canvas, which he then raked with various objects to enhance the image's textures.

Only occasionally does Clippenger falter. Two untitled works -- one in the conference room, the other just inside the gallery's rear entrance -- don't quite click. The former is a cluttered mess, the sort of thing that often results when an artist starts with a good idea and then keeps adding to it until the image collapses. And the latter piece, while easy on the eyes, is a little too studied; it lacks the ferocity of Clippenger's more improvisational paintings.

As for Shapses, it's a measure of his generosity of spirit that he has devoted so much of his display space to other artists, because his own work (I counted nearly 30 pieces) is strong enough to merit a gallery all to itself. Most of the owner's works on display are carved in a variety of shades of alabaster, and they range from the realistic to the resolutely abstract. With a couple of exceptions -- Olympian 2000, a muscular male nude torso in gray alabaster created for the "Hot Summer Nights" show, and Female Fragment, a marvelous melding of the contours of the female torso with the lines and veins in a chunk of tiger-eye alabaster -- I much prefer his abstract pieces.

When he sticks to realism, Shapses sometimes ends up with pieces that come perilously close to cuteness. The brown alabaster koala clinging to a chunk of rough-hewn tree trunk in Hangin' in There is way too literal, and the embracing couple with infant that make up the raspberry alabaster piece Family Unit isn't much better.

But when he lets himself go, Shapses can come up with asymmetrical abstracts that are highly sensuous. In such fluid pieces as Dancers and Pierced Form, both done in black-and-white alabaster, he's allusive rather than illustrative, creating gently undulating ridges that seem to fold in on themselves. (Here and there I detect traces of Enzo Gallo, in whose studio Shapses once worked, although he considers himself largely self-taught.) Such gracefulness also carries over to some of the larger, horizontal pieces, including Pisces, in Mexican yellow-gold alabaster, and Genesis, in strawberry alabaster, as well as the neon-alabaster combinations Continuum and Lovely in Lavender.

Although Gallery 421 is open to the public mainly by appointment only, don't be afraid to call up and arrange a visit. Shapses is a gracious host who will gladly guide you through the gallery or let you wander around on your own. Best of all, there is no "Do Not Touch" sign; the artist invites you to run your hands over the cool, smooth surfaces of his sculptures, a luxury rarely tolerated by most museums.


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