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Embler-matic Art

It's easy to miss the relatively new Embler Art Gallery, on the northwest corner of SE 13th Avenue and Las Olas Boulevard. It's a small space in a larger building, with a color scheme -- a warm mustardy yellow with white trim -- that's popular along the boulevard, including at Mark's Las Olas, which is diagonally across the street from Embler.

Despite its blend-in exterior, however, the gallery, which has been open less than a year, is far from ordinary. It caught my eye recently while I was killing time between appointments with a stroll along Las Olas. I was not disappointed when I stepped inside.

The show that was up at the time, a small solo exhibition featuring the work of Broward-based painter Aric Froms, was a knockout. Unfortunately, I had discovered it at the very end of its run and was unable to review it; I hope to track down the artist for a future story. Later, I learned from owner Jennifer Embler that the Froms show would be followed by a sort of retrospective including several of the artists she has featured since the gallery opened.

When I returned to the gallery, the new show was up; it included 27 pieces by nine artists. That first number is likely to change during the retrospective's run -- all the work on display is for sale (at prices in the thousands, not hundreds), and additional pieces in storage may be rotated as needed. The overall configuration of the show may change as well, according to Embler, so that whatever combination of paintings and sculptures she has up works as a whole. That's a nice touch on the part of the owner and not a surprising one either, considering that she also works as a consultant on art placement.

Embler's feel for apt juxtaposition is evident in this current show. The styles of the artists vary, sometimes dramatically, but most of the pieces I saw work together beautifully. Realism rubs shoulders with abstraction; landscapes and nearby still lifes play well off one another.

With few exceptions, the individual pieces also hold up on their own. Four of the nine artists whose work I saw are represented by a single item (again, subject to change). Luiz Paulo's Formica com ponta sech is a small but striking mixed-media abstract with delicate lines in olive greens, dark blues, and black and white on a Formica surface.

The other three artists work on a much larger scale in styles that flirt with abstraction. There's a deceptively simple horizontal canvas called Santa Monica Beach (Wet), Series #3 by California-based Marta Chaffee, who reduces the landscape to long, thin striations of varying shades to suggest, rather than actually portray, a stretch of beach with the sky above and ocean in between.

Tomas Tillberg (a Swedish artist transplanted to Fort Lauderdale) and American Douglas Ferrin take to the South Florida skies for inspiration. Tillberg's Florida Sky is an 80- by 45-inch vertical in which a turbulent mix of dark and sun-dappled clouds dominates the center of the canvas, with vague suggestions of palm trees below and a few patches of blue sky peeking through at upper left. (Too bad Embler couldn't find a better spot to showcase the piece, which was hung behind the information desk when I visited.)

Ferrin uses the same basic material to even greater effect in his Lake Worth. It's also large -- 50 by 72 inches -- although the image is horizontal, and it's painted on linen instead of canvas. And it too captures a large expanse of subtropical sky, with a mass of dark clouds on the left giving way to mountainous white clouds slightly off-center to the right, accented by the rays of the rising or setting sun (with not even a hint of the landscape below, it's impossible to tell which).

The most commanding piece I saw was Sand Crab, an enormous -- as in 70 inches by 96 inches -- oil "portrait" of the title creature on a pale lilac background. The crab is front and center, fixing us so directly in its gaze that the image is simultaneously alarming and whimsical. It's by Clark Prosperi, a Brazilian who goes for immediate impact (and who is Jennifer Embler's husband). He's not much for detail or texture, but his crisp, clean lines and stark compositions are highly effective.

In terms of numbers, three other South Florida-based artists dominate the show, at least in the incarnation I saw. Deborah Bigeleisen, a New York City native and former fabric designer who now works out of West Palm Beach, specializes almost exclusively in richly detailed floral closeups. Her oil originals, based on her own photographs, are reproduced in giclee, a medium that uses state-of-the-art pigment sprayers and printers to create high-quality, limited-edition prints. Bigeleisen's work can be coyly decorative, as in Birds of a Feather, which makes a too-obvious visual gag out of the flowers' resemblance to birds. She's at her best when she concentrates on roses, as in the extreme closeups that emphasize the subtle color variations and velvety texture of the blossoms.

Allyson Krowitz also focuses on foliage, in her case South Florida's ubiquitous palm trees. Sometimes, as in the oil-on-paper Cabbage Palm hanging at the show's entrance, she introduces impressionist-style daubs of unexpected colors into the usual palette of greens and browns.

For a trio of pieces in a little alcove at the back of the gallery -- the oil-on-paper Two Palms and Coconut Palm I and II, both in oil on canvas -- Krowitz moves in closer to the trees and their surrounding vegetation, capturing everything in darker, earthier tones. And with the oil canvases Papaya and Grave, she embraces a fuller sense of landscape. The former is a smaller study for the latter, which expands and loosens up the original image.

The exhibition is clearly dominated by the sculptures of Marc Berlet, a French artist now based in South Florida. The best of these are tall, faintly human figures that are sleek and angular, suggesting a strange hybrid of Brancusi's graceful shapes and the thin, elongated forms favored by Giacometti, for whom Berlet once worked.

Berlet works with a variety of materials for these freestanding pieces. The Award is a gleaming bronze figure perhaps five feet tall, and Bee Unit is its dark double, an imposing obelisk fashioned from jet-black marble resin. Glass is the medium for Eternal, a similar form executed on a smaller scale. And the seductive Standing Silent is made of mottled marble resin so highly polished that it looks (and feels) like a piece of exotic tropical wood.

Three sculptures of fanciful musical instruments rendered in painted steel round out Berlet's contributions to the show. They're so ordinary that it's hard to believe they're the work of the same man who created the other pieces.

Berlet's one painting on display, the mixed-media Hearts Beating, is another matter altogether. It bears no resemblance to the artist's sculptures, suggesting instead an early Jackson Pollock, full of great swirls of white, green, orange, red, yellow, and blue dancing across a surface measuring 44 inches by 96 inches. It's the second-best thing in the show.

The best is a similarly grand, highly gestural oil, Lake Runner, by Beatrice Findley. The canvas measures 48 inches by 60 inches, but there's so much going on in the image that it feels like a much larger painting. Findley draws on a vast, diverse palette that ranges from dark purples and blues and inky blacks to pale golds, yellows, and oranges, all pressed into service to create one of the liveliest descendants of abstract expressionism I've seen since the bold "Fat Painting" exhibition at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood a year and a half ago.

Findley is a real find, and she's in good company in this small show, which makes Embler just the sort of gallery Las Olas, not to mention the rest of Fort Lauderdale, needs in much greater abundance.

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Michael Mills

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