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Call of the Wild

Realism is alive and reasonably well at Call of Africa's Native Visions Gallery in Fort Lauderdale, which specializes not in the tribal art of Africa as you might expect, but in wildlife paintings, prints, and sculptures. One owner is from South Africa, the other from Zimbabwe, which is also the home of some of their most prominently featured artists.

A lot of what's on display in this eleven-year-old gallery, which opened a Key West outpost a couple of years ago, is primarily decorative. It's the sort of art people buy not so much for its formal qualities as for its ability to fit into a domestic environment -- tamed exotica for armchair safaris. Still, there are pieces here and there that transcend the general aesthetic conservatism.

Call of Africa's star artist is Craig Bone, a fortysomething painter from Zimbabwe with two dozen or so pieces occupying prime spots in the gallery. Bone's exclusive subjects, to judge from the works shown here, are the wild animals of Africa, especially elephants, water buffalo, zebras, leopards, and cheetahs. A gallery brochure includes reproductions of works featuring tigers and hyenas as well.

Bone's obsessive attention to the most minute details pushes some of his work in the direction of photorealism but stops just short. The images are too carefully composed and balanced to pass for realistic photographs, especially of wild creatures (although I wouldn't be surprised if Bone works extensively from photos when he's painting).

A number of Bone's canvases, essentially portraits of pairs or trios of animals, look as if they've been painstakingly fussed over by an art director. A notable exception is Buffalo in Mud, in which the animal fixes the viewer with a stare so calm and assertive, it's unnerving. Bone's renderings of the big cats don't come across as well, mainly because the mysterious light in their eyes eludes the artist.

Much more arresting are the works featuring larger groupings of animals. Bone imbues these with a sense of drama that doesn't feel forced. In the magnificent 38-by-58-inch oil on canvas Buffalo Ravine, for instance, a sizable herd of water buffalo cascade down a hillside, churning up a ground-hugging cloud of dust. Their destination is a rivulet of water running across the cracked, parched, bone-littered ground. Delicate fragments of reflections play across the surface of this meager stream, and the canopy of green foliage in the background is pierced by glorious shafts of light.

Ghosts of the Etosha, a 39-by-24-inch linograph, is similarly imposing. Beneath a pale sky painted in shades of peach, a herd of elephants faces viewers dead-on. The dust roiling about their feet implies that they've just rushed up to the spot where they stand, and Bone has uncannily captured that uneasy blend of wariness and curiosity that we often see in animals in the wild. He has also re-created the mottled texture of the elephants' gray skin with wonderful vividness.

The dramatic intensity of these pictures is precisely what's missing from some of the others. Bone is at his best when he forsakes stasis for action. This is especially evident in a couple of 24-by-38-inch horizontal oils titled Buffalo Study and Zebra Study, in which scribbled notes and ghostly sketches hovering behind the animals suggest works in progress. It's the kind of studied artiness Bone needs to avoid.

Much of the remaining wall space at Call of Africa is taken up by innocuous but mostly undistinguished work. There are several oils and cibachromes by an artist called Dy'ans, whose pictures of seashores and marine life have such garish, glossy surfaces that they appear to have been made from cheap plastic. The handful of huge closeups of flowers by Michael Gerry have none of the painterly vibrancy of, say, Georgia O'Keeffe's treatment of similar subject matter. And I wish I could get excited about Kim Brooks' oil paintings of birds. They're extremely well executed, but they feel strangely lifeless, as if the birds were stuffed and posed before being painted.

One room features a group of oil paintings of fish by Richard Smith. Most are nothing special, although two called Bonefish -- one a 171/2-by-28-inch on board, the other an 18-by-24-inch on canvas -- use a narrow palette of muted colors to remarkable effect, evoking the dappled look of light playing on water.

Elsewhere are a couple of impressive pieces by Kim Donaldson that perfectly crystallize a moment on the savanna. The aptly titled lithograph Brewing Storm strikes a beautiful balance between calm and ominousness, with a small herd of zebras and a few birds waiting for a storm to break above the chiaroscuro plains. The large (55-by-75-inch) pastel Promise of Rain is a similar composition: zebras beneath an unsettled sky, with a luminescent haze of dust hanging in the air and skeletal trees as a backdrop.

Call of Africa is also dotted with sculptures by several artists -- again, an uneven mix. The bronze birds of the North American sculptors Geoffrey C. Smith and Chester Fields left me cold, and Dale Joseph Evans' functional art (a glass coffee table, the base of which is a sculpture of a dolphin, for example) isn't much more interesting.

Another sculptor, the Zimbabwean James Tandi, fares better with his large busts of African men and women. They're carved the old-fashioned way, with hammer and chisel, from a semiprecious stone called verdite, which consists of exquisite streaks and swirls of greens, browns, golds, and other earthy tones. Tandi is exceptionally adept at giving the eyes of his subjects a haunting, fathomless melancholy.

Just as Bone's paintings are the best of the gallery's two-dimensional pieces, one artist's sculptures overshadow the rest of the three-dimensional works. Loet Vanderveen also takes the animals of Africa as subjects, but he refines and stylizes them. Individualizing details are smoothed away, disappearing into the bronze contours that emphasize line and shape. And almost every piece has a distinctive touch that's inexplicably appealing -- one area that is highly polished to a reflective metallic sheen. On Silverback Gorilla, for instance, it's the face, and on Imperial Elephant and Kudo, the tusks and spiraling antlers, respectively. For the dazzling Bushbacks, Vanderveen positions two graceful animals nose to nose, so that their huge gleaming antlers almost intersect.

Despite the majesty of some of the individual pieces, there's an inherent risk in bringing so much wildlife art together in one space. Ultimately there's not enough variety. Seen side by side, or even across the room from each other, many of the pieces begin to look uncomfortably alike.

Working against the grain are artists like Bone, who infuses his raw material with narrative, giving it a dramatic tension that sets it apart, and Vanderveen, who turns to stylization, emphasizing his subjects' archetypal qualities. The gallery needs to attract more artists like these.

Call of Africa's Native Visions Gallery is located at 807 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-767-8737.

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Michael Mills

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