Coral Springs Cornucopia

On a recent sunny Saturday, the Coral Springs Center for the Arts and environs bustled with activity. The center's auditorium was hosting a graduation ceremony for a local school, and the surrounding athletic fields were all in use. The sprawling parking lot, usually mostly empty, was so full that several drivers circled slowly, waiting for someone to vacate a spot.

But the most intriguing goings-on were on the grassy knoll that sits like a small island at the entrance to the complex. There, the Coral Springs Museum of Art's trio of 2006 artists in residence — sculptors Armen Agop, Lothar Nickel, and Roy Patterson — were busy transforming more than ten tons of stone into works of art to be installed in the museum's International Peace Garden.

A project called the International Sculpture Symposium brought the three artists to South Florida in early January to live and work for three weeks. Agop, an Egyptian, used black granite from Zimbabwe for his medium. Nickel, a German in his third stint as CSMART's artist in residence, chose Portuguese pink marble. And American Patterson carved granite from Deer Island, Maine. When I saw them, the sculptures had a week to go before they would be finished and installed, but as works in progress, they were appropriately imposing.

Not surprisingly, the sculpture project is only one of the many activities museum Executive Director Barbara K. O'Keefe has in progress. A small display explaining the symposium and offering scaled-down samples of the artists' work occupies one corner of the main gallery, which is otherwise dominated by the handful of metal sculptures in "Keith Bradley: A Way With Animals." Two more exhibitions take up the galleries on either side: "Liana Moonie: Feelings of Nature With Haiku" and "Hanne Niederhausen: Markings and Musings."

Bradley, now based in Plantation, is a former chef and self-taught artist whose life-sized animal sculptures are fashioned from scrap metal and found objects. (He also works in other media, including pottery and airbrush, although this small show focuses exclusively on his sculpture.) The results are highly variable. For Out to Pasture, which portrays a grazing horse, Bradley's lattices of strips of rusty steel display a wonderful feel for the animal's form and body language. Locksmith is a similarly suggestive rendering of a pelican, with the metal strips accented by odds and ends such as bolts, screws, hooks, washers, and a padlock.

The whimsy begins to seem a little forced in a piece like Loony Bird, a roughly five-foot-tall creature dotted with found industrial objects and featuring a little ceramic bird perched on the body. And with Twisted Afghan and Rusty, based on an Afghan hound and a poodle respectively, the whimsy goes full-tilt out of control, beyond merely cute and right into preciousness.

The austerity of Moonie's oil paintings on canvas and paper provides a welcome contrast. The 20 images are essentially variations on a theme, as indicated by the Feelings of Nature title they share, set apart from one another only by such parenthetical designations as "Haiku Series #2" and "Haiku Series #58." In her artist's statement, Moonie, who was born in Italy and now lives in Connecticut, writes of distilling the emotional essence of the scenes from nature that are her inspiration, and her imagery indeed feels pared down to basics.

If you stand in the center of the museum and survey Moonie's paintings from a slight distance, you can readily see what they have in common: an emphasis on horizontal bands of pigment of varying widths that invariably suggest a landscape of some sort, although one without much in the way of distinguishing characteristics. In two instances, she combines canvases side by side to create a diptych and a four-panel composition that are even stronger statements of landscape.

It's only upon closer inspection that the pieces reveal their individuality. Subtle gradations of color appear, and occasionally thin vertical lines and other details emerge from those big swaths of paint. Despite their seeming simplicity, these paintings evoke a serenity that recalls the work of such colorists as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman.

Unfortunately, Moonie has seen fit to pair each painting with a haiku penned by a member of her family. This rigidly codified form of Japanese verse is one of the trickiest forms of poetry, and in this context, it just seems heavy-handed, as clumsy as the artist's imagery is graceful and delicate.

Most of the small galleries on the museum's east side are given over to a variety of work by Niederhausen, a German-born artist who now lives and works in Boca Raton. And variety is the operative word, as the works on display here demonstrate. Her output includes prints, engravings, etchings, assemblages, and installations, and while she's more successful in some media than in others, you have to admire her willingness to experiment.

Niederhausen's assemblages incorporating books, for example, usually fall flat, regardless of whether they're striving for seriousness or frivolity. One prominent exception is a small vertical triptych called Incidents, which combines metal, stone, ceramic, paper, and other elements, including a tiny book, to create a surprising study in shapes and textures.

Even more effective are the etchings and engravings, some of which have an elemental earthiness. Galvanized metal, in Niederhausen's hands, becomes an enormously expressive medium, especially when the imagery remains abstract.

As if all these artistic ventures aren't enough, director O'Keefe has managed to find a few spaces between the Bradley and Niederhausen exhibits to show off some selections from the museum's permanent collection. And she still has the remains of an interactive exhibition, "The Paper Sculpture Show," crammed into the gallery behind Niederhausen's work. The show invited visitors to create their own three-dimensional paper projects using the designs and instructions of 29 artists, yielding a range of creative interpretations.

Finally, O'Keefe couldn't let me get away without showing off a new acquisition, a donation so recently arrived that it was still in its wooden shipping crate in the foyer. The crate contained a huge, ornately framed 1997 canvas by Romanian-born Alexandra Nechita, who turned 20 last summer and has been exhibiting since she was 9. CSMART featured her in a solo show a few years back, and while I don't share O'Keefe's enthusiasm for Nechita's Picassoesque style, she remains a hot commodity and her work a good investment. No wonder O'Keefe is excited.

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Michael Mills