Art Finds a Way

Nobody portrays entrails as beautifully as Carol Prusa. Stripped of all their bloody messiness, pale organs float in a sort of stylized heavenly realm in her mixed-media paintings, a reminder that the words ether and ethereal share a common root. Ducts trail away from body parts, curling into plantlike tendrils that intertwine improbably to form what looks like decorative trim. From a distance, by contrast, the round wooden panels that bear her paintings summon up the mottled surface of the moon.

Even the artist's descriptions of her media and her technique have an otherworldly beauty: "Silverpoint (a thin wire of silver) is deposited in hatching marks on the gesso layer to create the under-drawing, then deepened with graphite and heightened with titanium white pigment bound in acrylic polymer to create obsessive and delicate forms that visually coalesce and simultaneously dissolve in the washed matrix of ground graphite."

I would dismiss it as so much self-indulgent artist's talk if it weren't so on the mark. Obsessive and delicate are exactly the right words for Prusa's visual poetry. In the years I've been looking at and writing about her work, I have rarely run across an artist with such a remarkably consistent vision rendered in such an instantly recognizable style. It's as if she has devoted her career to getting what she does so well into sharper and sharper focus.

Prusa is one of the lucky 13 artists featured in "Thirteen/08: The South Florida Cultural Consortium Juried Exhibition," now at the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale, and hers is the best of the very fine batch of work included in this 20-year-old annual group show. If there's a bit of disappointment here, it's that her nine pieces are presented somewhat carelessly, as if they didn't deserve any special treatment, which they emphatically do.

Not so the rest of the exhibition, or most of it, anyway, which has been assembled with exceptional care. Take, for instance, nine mixed-media collages by Janet Gold. They function so well together that it's hard to imagine any one working in isolation — they work as an organic whole. I ran into Gold at the opening, and she credited Freddy Jouwayed, the museum's in-house designer, with the inspired juxtapositions.

I had been familiar with Gold mainly as the creator of small, serene canvases that are almost like miniature color-field paintings. Here, she reveals herself to be a habitué of the flea market and the thrift store as well, a collector of found objects that make their way into uncluttered, meticulously assembled collages with evocative titles such as The Influence of Influence, The Goddess of Graceful Curves, and Document of Modern Art. For several of the works, she has been drawn to book covers and spines, which she literally rips from their context and combines with other ingredients like parchment, vellum, cardboard, lace, tissue paper, suede, and found drawings. The results are starkly gorgeous.

The two artists whose work brackets Gold's couldn't be more different from each other (and from her too, for that matter). Robert Nathans incorporates fabric collage into the four medium-sized canvases on display, but he's primarily a painter with a love of densely packed imagery, in this case built around the birds of his titles — Robin Red Breast, Hooded Oriole, Black and White Warbler, and Woodpecker — birds that seem only nominally related to the jumble of objects, including flowers, surrounding them.

Lou Anne Colodney works these days in video or derivations thereof. She's represented here by four luminous digital images that look like video stills, presented in Duratrans mounted on Lucite, so that they appear to glow from within. But her real showstoppers are two larger-than-life videos suspended in a darkened space, one focusing on the artist's hand, the other on a foot. Colodney takes simple, straightforward footage and then digitally applies a mirror effect to create her dancelike video vignettes, which are mesmerizing.

Around the corner from Colodney's videos is another large, darkened space in which a bomb seems to have gone off in a mirror factory. In what is perhaps the show's most inspired presentation, it contains three mixed-media installations by Wendy Wischer, each making use of tiny mirrored tiles that shatter the illumination from strategically placed spotlights and disperse it into countless shards of light. One especially imposing piece, Angels Ancestors III, is suggestive of a medusa, while The Magic of Melancholy takes the form of a sort of altar.

Beyond the Wischer and the Prusa are a quartet of sly oil paintings of various sizes by Harumi Abe, who comes from a family of consortium artists: Her husband, Thomas Nolan, is a previous winner, and her mother-in-law, Peggy Levinson Nolan, a two-time winner. Abe comes into her own here, especially in X'mas + Harumi x 3 and Harumi x 3, in which she multiplies herself, the better to participate in her own enigmatic little narratives, and in Backyard, which features a jellyfish rainstorm straight out of classic surrealism.

Another standout is Ivan Toth DePeña, whose handful of works line an entire wall in the exhibition's first gallery. The most commanding are two large-scale mixed-media pieces that combine collage with wood, enamel, and pencil to create big grids of square panels with varying textures and patterns. The eye instinctively tries to make sense of these compositions, which remain resolutely abstract. If there were a secondary prize for most flamboyant titles, DePeña would snag it with these two: It looks like the clocktower is signaling the end, The mirror is marking the light from the sky, and The meandering through reverie (it is an endless day).

I dwell at length on the show's most bravura artists and works, but that's not to minimize the contributions of the remaining participants: Paul Aho's abstract paintings emphasizing ovoid forms; Michelle Weinberg's suite of crisp gouache drawings; Marie Mennes' 10-by-10-inch series of panels using acrylic and embroidery floss to create idyllic but also borderline disturbing images of childhood; and especially Jen Stark's exquisitely fashioned, wall-mounted cutouts, some in wood, some in paper. Even the heavy-handed sociopolitical commentary of Diane Arrieta's trio of illustrations and the enigmatic meanderings of David Pollitt's silent video The Final Run share with the rest of the works a high level of craft. As Carol Prusa opined when I saw her at the beginning of the show, such craftsmanship seems to be the common denominator of this year's consortium.

Having co-curated the 2005 South Florida Cultural Consortium exhibition, I can appreciate what a challenge it is to create a seamless show from works by artists who may have little or nothing in common. The artists, who receive $7,500 to $15,000 from the consortium, which consists of arts agencies from five South Florida counties, are winnowed from more than 350 competitors, first by a regional panel, then by a national one.

Having served on the regional panel that made the first round of recommendations in 2006, I can also attest that it is a rigorous task to look at so much art before narrowing the field. This year's panels did a first-rate job of homing in on a set of outstanding artists (five of whom, by the way, have previously won the competition). And the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale rose to the challenge of presenting them in a context that makes as much sense as possible given the disparate nature of the work on display. It's an enormously satisfying group exhibition.

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Michael Mills