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Bugs Are Beautiful

Every once in a while, I like to stop by galleries I´ve previously written about to see how they´re faring. Given the precarious nature of the gallery scene, I find — alarmingly often — that they´re no longer in business. Happily, that was not the case when I decided to check in on some favorites in the Gateway Shopping Center in Fort Lauderdale.

The three very different spaces — Harmony Isle Gallery, Studio 19 Fine Art & International Design, and Frieze — form the core of a sort of ad-hoc shopping district, anchored by the Gateway Theater, that also includes nearly three dozen other businesses. Among the eclectic mix are a pet store, a framery, used-CD and -book stores, a neighborhood bar, a jeweler, a beauty salon, a handbag shop, a day spa, a tattoo parlor, a florist, and a smattering of restaurants and clothing boutiques.

Unlike Las Olas Boulevard, which is linear, Gateway consists of several clusters of businesses. Like some of their Las Olas counterparts, however, many of the Gateway merchants have tried to foster a sense of place despite the fractured terrain they share. The idea is to make the area a one-stop shopping center, so that visitors might spend an afternoon or evening there the way they would on Las Olas.

Last month, for instance, the Gateway merchants launched a marketing initiative called Rediscover Gateway, which includes a raffle to raise money for area children´s charities. Unfortunately, the kickoff fell during the weekend when most people were bracing themselves for the arrival of Hurricane Wilma.

Two and a half weeks later, Gateway, like the rest of us, is still recovering. On my first stop, to Harmony Isle, I learned that the gallery had lost a big plate-glass window during the storm´s furious finale. But the damage was minimal, according to owner Meredith Gaskins, who lives close enough that she was able to get to the gallery soon after the broken glass set off the alarm.

Gaskins has been in charge of Harmony Isle for less than a year, after taking it over from former owners and employers Aaron and Monica Maxwell, who opened the gallery about eight years ago and have moved on to its spinoff, Harmony Ridge, in Lewisburg, West Virginia. Having survived the storm, she´s now waiting for normal business to resume. It has been slow going. The strip of stores on the west side of NE 19th Avenue has lagged behind the rest of the area in having power restored, and that has hurt businesses on the opposite side of the street.

I was pleased to learn that Gaskins is sticking with the Maxwells´ successful formula of focusing on handmade American crafts as art. (She credits the couple as mentors.) A lot of what´s on display was familiar from my previous visits, but the work of a handful of new artisans has been added.

The most unusual are hard-to-categorize pieces incorporating worn concrete and hand-cast glass by Terence Sebastian Dubreuil. Working with small chunks of steel-reinforced concrete salvaged from New York´s Long Island Sound, Dubreuil adds pigments and patinas and then fashions the concrete around inch-thick panels of translucent, brightly colored glass. These hand-made ¨artifacts¨ can be used as hanging window art or mounted on thin metal rods and displayed outdoors.

Among the more utilitarian but aesthetically pleasing items are wall-mounted clocks by Leonie Lacouette and furniture by J.M. Syron and Bonnie Bishoff. Lacouette´s clocks consist of layers of sheet metal cut into basic geometrical shapes and treated for texture and color. Syron and Bishoff´s tables make use of glass, metal, and polymer clay, the latter subjected to an elaborate process that yields exquisitely patterned surfaces.

Also noteworthy: Frank W. Stofan´s hand-thrown pottery, which incorporates a wood-ash glaze to create the sense of an abstract wintry landscape; and the bowls and platters of Joe ¨Monti¨ Montagnino, who transforms large scraps of wood from recently cut or pruned trees into highly polished objects that look amazingly like pottery.

From Harmony Isle, I moved on to Studio 19, a tiny fine-art gallery that has been open just over a year. The door was open, but I found owner-manager Dorina Ferretti in the dark. Other than the power outage, however, her 420-square-foot space suffered no hurricane damage.

Ferretti´s usual inventory includes an average of a dozen or so dramatically different artists, and every time I´ve visited there has been an overlap of old and new work. This time, some of her standbys, including the Florida Highwaymen, were missing, although she had a couple of new pieces by Harry McCormick, whose oils display a wonderful feel for casual realism. A large canvas called Avalon, set in a mostly empty bar, is an especially fine evocation of South Beach languor.

The gallery has also added some lovely minimalist oils by a Colombian, Tata Navia, who floats images of ordinary chairs on vivid seas of rich color; for one vertical diptych, she positions the chair at the bottom of the top canvas and its reflection at the top of the bottom one. There´s also exceptional work by Argentine Adriana Mufarrege, whose medium-sized oil canvases typically feature children in unusually pensive poses.

As dusk approached, Ferretti had to prepare to shut down for the night, so I moved on to Frieze, a combination gallery/home furnishings shop that opened in the Gateway area a little more than three years ago. Last year, owner Robert Ricard lucked into a two-floor space a few doors down from his original location, more than doubling the 600 square feet of display area he had there.

Ricard says Wilma had minimal impact on his operation, which regained electricity an astonishing one day later. But the storm´s supposedly milder predecessor, Katrina, did unexpected damage to his air-conditioning system and roof, leaving him with a flooded upstairs.

With the hurricanes behind him, Ricard anticipates opening the second floor around Thanksgiving, and when I stopped by, he was unpacking a new shipment of merchandise. After my first visit, I wrote about how he named Frieze after a specialized architectural term he thought conjured an appropriate blend of objects that function as both art and dcor. That´s still the case, I was glad to note, and the gallery maintains its serene atmosphere despite the wealth of merchandise on display.

A few new exotic lamps have been added to the lineup, and some wool wall hangings and matching throw pillows make judicious use of designs inspired by the art of Mir, Klimt, and Matisse. There also remains an emphasis on items from the Pacific Rim. Ricard is justifiably pleased with a batch of carved-wood Buddhas from early 20th-century Laos, some with lingering traces of paint and gold leaf. One is even seated Western-style, with legs dangling vertically instead of folded in the familiar lotus pose.

The real discovery here, however, is the work of California-based artist Christopher Marley, whose medium is... bugs. His stunning compositions are made of nothing more than ordinary insects, of all things, displayed under glass in starkly framed, hermetically sealed cases. (Lest one question the ecological soundness of such art, there´s a brochure in which the artist quotes a National Geographic source to the contrary.)

Marley´s presentation of a javelin walking stick from East Java is a bizarre minimalist masterpiece of sorts. And he travels all over the world collecting brightly colored and intricately patterned beetles to create the symmetrical mosaics that reminded me of a great quote from English scientist J.B.S. Haldane: ¨If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation it would appear that God has a special fondness for stars and beetles.¨ I don´t know if Marley´s work qualifies as sacred art, but it´s certainly divine.

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Michael Mills

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