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Bronze Mettle

Step into the first gallery to your left at the entrance to "Sophia Vari: Volumes of Poetry," now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. You'll see pedestal after pedestal, display case after display case featuring the gleaming, curvaceous sculptures of the Greek-born Vari, who typically works in bronze, often with an acid-based patina of black, red, or green applied to the finished piece.

At first the gallery struck me as a sort of hatchery for these strange entities, something like the nursery Sigourney Weaver stumbled upon in Aliens, where row upon row of the gestating title creatures waited to spring from their cocoonlike eggs. But then I thought, no, quite the opposite: Vari's mostly bulbous forms in this gallery, distinctly abstract but also suggestive here and there of the contours of the human body, convey the impression that perhaps they started out as living flesh, then passed through a molten state before suddenly congealing, metamorphosing into the hard, cold surfaces on display here. (Idle speculation: Could it be that Vari's fondness for these shapes is a shared affinity with her husband, who happens to be the well-known Colombian artist Fernando Botero, he of the plump, well-rounded human figures?)

In Tête de Bacchante (1988), for instance, one broad swath of bronze suggests a muscular male back, while another stretch looks, especially from a distance, like a pair of buttocks. But the "anatomy" of this imposing piece has more or less imploded, leaving behind a tortured reduction of the human body to pure form. Likewise Aphrodite (1985), one of the show's rare pieces in marble, takes the female form and reiterates it in a few simple, voluptuous curves of pearly white stone.

With Le Rapt des Sabines (1984), the convolutions are more pronounced. The bronze has been fashioned into limblike forms that fold around and into one another until they become a single tangled mass. Without betraying the abstraction she so embraces, Vari also manages to summon the violence of the rape of the Sabine women referred to in the title. As one of the seven information panels posted throughout the show sums up, "Vari's sculpture seeks to reinvent contours and profiles."

After the sleek roundness of these '80s works, Vari began to introduce angles and sharper edges into her '90s pieces -- some of which are included in this gallery, the rest of which occupy the opposite gallery and the area between the two. Some of the early ones still retain that suggestiveness of the human body, as in the nearly four-foot-tall bronze Ligne de Partage (1992), which from some angles resembles a highly stylized Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his back -- a plausible-enough interpretation, given Vari's tendency to draw on themes from her Greek heritage for so many of her '80s sculptures.

But as the she progressed into the next decade, she moved deeper and deeper into pure abstraction. Les Serpents de la Guerre (1993) is an uneasy meld of sinuous lines and crisp angles, of the organic and the mechanical -- a combination reemphasized by Vari's choice of highly polished silver as the medium.

More and more the '90s work demonstrates a fascination with geometric forms, which Vari stacks, truncates, and contorts. The sculptures become more varied and distinct from one another, but they also lose a great deal of the sensuousness of those rounded pieces from the '80s. They're a bit formal, even chilly.

In the past several years, Vari has compensated by introducing brighter colors into her work. The earlier monochromatic pieces give way to sculptures accented by sections painted with oils. The black-patina slabs and disks of Face Noire (1999) are broken up by white segments. The lean skyscraper form of Les Nuits de la Reine de Saba (1997) balances its blacks with warm yellows.

As one of the information panels points out, the use of color in sculpture is hardly an innovation. But where so many of her predecessors -- including, most notably, Picasso -- used color as a pictorial addition to sculpture, Vari takes advantage of color to alter the way light plays on her pieces. Imagine some of her most dramatically color-enhanced works without the added colors, and you'll quickly realize how crucial the hues are to the overall effects the artist seeks.

Even so, I'm partial to Vari's '80s sculptures, with their soft curves and inviting surfaces. And I'm even more drawn to the 17 assemblages that seem to have been added to the exhibition's 66 sculptures almost as an afterthought. They're really mixed-media collages affixed to canvas, and they emphasize a wonderful interplay of color, shape, and, above all, texture.

Terre Perdue (1996) is a horizontal composition -- the rest are verticals -- in earthy tones made up mostly of what appear to be fibrous handmade papers. Sens Défini, Le Fil du Passe, and Acteon, all from 1995, keep the earthy palette and add rougher texture in the form of strips and sheets of corrugated cardboard. (La Vie Immobile, from 1996, pairs the cardboard with dramatic reds, blacks, and whites.)

One of the information panels from the Boca Museum's executive director, George S. Bolge, beautifully characterizes the power of these deceptively simple assemblages, so I'll let him speak for them: "In Vari's assemblage work, the forms and rhythms in the compositions, while agents of stability, are rarely straight or perpendicular. There is an avoidance of any neatly definable shape -- neither straight lines, ellipses, circles nor strict parallels -- resulting in a thoroughgoing, restless surface tension."

The Vari exhibition is the museum's high-profile show of the moment, but if you go by all means check out "Dreamings: Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert from the Donald Kahn Collection," also on the first floor just beyond Vari's work. The show is less than half the size of the Vari one, but it packs an enormous punch.

In 1971 a group of Australian aborigines living on a government reservation in the Western Desert region, under the tutelage of a white art teacher named Geoffrey Bardon, developed a technique for painting in acrylic on canvas. It came to be called "dot painting" because of its use of countless tiny dots of pigment to build up imagery. (Think pointillism with bigger dots.)

The paintings document the aborigines' religious belief in Dreamtime, an elaborate cosmology in which their most ancient ancestors emerged and literally sang the features of the world into existence. The Dreamings are the songs of creation, and they're full of mysterious secret imagery decipherable by only the aborigines themselves. Occasional literal elements appear -- snakes, trees, birds -- but for the most part the paintings are complex, highly coded, and, at least to nonaboriginal viewers, abstract.

From a distance the lines of colorful dots bring to mind ornate tapestries or mosaics or even beaded fabrics, and some of the pieces have the vibrant energy of op art. One particularly dazzling work, Norah Napaljarri Nelson's Yiwarra Jukurrpa (Milky Way Jukurrpa) (1991), its ebony surface dotted with stars and a dramatic arc of white, could pass for abstract expressionism at its finest.

These pieces aren't aesthetic objects in the usual sense, according to a quote from aboriginal artist Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who says, "They are about cultural, social, and political survival." While we as outsiders will never be able to break through the hermeticism that cloaks these fascinating paintings, we can still revel in their mysterious beauty.

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Michael Mills

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