On a recent excursion, I saw three concurrent exhibitions. Two are largely negligible, while the third showcases a breathtakingly gifted artist. Let's consider the more modest talents first.
"Michael Della Penna: Images of China" consists of fewer than a dozen color photographs, most of them large in scale, and a handful of acrylic paintings. All are inspired, according to a handout, by Della Penna's 1998 visit to China.
The paintings combine flat, neutral backgrounds and generic Asian images conveyed with an almost childlike simplicity. Buses on Nathan Road, for instance, juxtaposes three small, colorful buses with blocks decorated with Chinese ideograms, all set on a sea of pale green pigment. Ancient Pagoda, Two Bicyclists in Cheng-du, and Entrance to Po Lin Monastery use the same formula.
Most of Della Penna's photos are likewise as generic as their titles: Young Girl in Factory, Young Girl in China, Paperboy. They're not much more than travelogue pictures, outtakes from someone's "Scenes from Our Vacation."
The exceptions are Dirt Road and Old Man Fishing. The former presents a grainy, strangely affecting image with a trio of goats dominating the foreground and clusters of people receding down the road of the title. The latter is a painterly, beautifully layered composition with the fisherman on a pier dwarfed by a ship and a bank of towering skyscrapers in the background.
Della Penna shares the museum's side galleries with a second show. "Paul Chang: Influenced by Nature" features a dozen or so oil paintings by Chang, who was born in Surinam, studied in the Netherlands, and is now based in Plantation.
As the show's title indicates, the artist draws on organic elements for his imagery. Flowers and the leaves and branches of trees pop out here and there, though they are combined with other colorful shapes to form essentially abstract compositions. A dish of bananas, a pineapple, and other fruits creeps into the right side of the swirling visual stew of Scene from a Tropical Island, while animals contribute to the mix in Bird Returning to her Nest and Creatures of the Sea.
Individually Chang's canvases have their own modest charms, but taken together they accrue a sameness. I couldn't help but think that this is the sort of decorative art on which interior designers thrive: So many colors and shapes come into play that any given piece could be made to work in a vast array of environments.
Not so the works in the third show, "Dalva Duarte: Natureza Viva," which takes up the bulk of the museum's display space. The show includes only 18 pieces -- most in oil, a handful in watercolor -- but each is powerful enough to suggest a distinctly original sensibility at work. The works are also so intense that they require plenty of breathing space, which the museum has provided.
The human figure, usually naked, is at the center of each of these paintings; the gestural fierceness Duarte uses to represent human flesh in many of the pieces owes a great deal to Francis Bacon. The features aren't as highly distorted as they are in Bacon's work, but Duarte smears and dislocates them; a blankly staring eye shifts to either side, or an upside-down head seems ready to melt off the bottom of a canvas.
When museum director Barbara O'Keefe told me Duarte works very quickly, I wasn't surprised. Most of these paintings have an urgency, an intentional messiness to them. And like Bacon, Duarte also makes use of seemingly arbitrary elements to break up the imagery. L'attente (Waiting), for instance, includes an inexplicable, large squiggle of maroon on its left side, along with an equally mysterious slanted white line running the length of the painting.
Other works have dribbles of paint and/or spatters of pigment that the artist has evidently flung at the canvas. (Bacon called such interjections "accidents.") And in many pieces, you can see where Duarte has pressed various unidentified items onto the wet paint and then removed them, leaving their imprints behind for texture.
But one of her most striking techniques is a sort of conflation of dimensions. In a piece such as L'étranger (The Stranger), which could have been inspired by the bleak Albert Camus novel of the same name, a brooding man stands smoking a cigarette among a cluster of chairs. But the chairs, along with other visual elements such as some netting and metal bars, seem to be simultaneously in both foreground and background. The image seems unstable, unfixed, as if objects are floating alternately toward and away from us.
I had already made my way through the exhibition twice when O'Keefe told me Duarte's subject matter includes mental illness and abandonment. But by then I had picked up on the artist's dark themes. The show includes six linked paintings -- dramatic, often highly distorted female nudes from a series with a title that speaks for itself: Folies et douleurs (Madness and Pain).
Another three oils portray haunted-looking orphans: Le jeux (Time for Games), Je ne cache jamais rues larmes (I Never Hide My Tears), and L'orpheline à la robe rouge (Orphan in the Red Dress). These last three evince less distortion and more realism, though they're as intense in their own way as the more violent images.
Two of the most powerfully disturbing paintings are tucked away on adjacent walls in a small side gallery, not far from the aforementioned L'attente. Le manipulateur (The Manipulator), a portrait of a blindfolded man sitting in a chair and holding some papers in one hand while two dogs stir at his feet, exudes an inexplicable air of menace; Le temps de dire je t'aime (Time to Say I Love You) in which a weeping man, his face contorted with grief, stands at the feet of a corpse laid out with a white sheet draped over the body, aches with both poignancy and black humor.
All the artist's paintings are hung identically, in wide wooden frames made of pau-brasil, a dark red wood from the artist's native Brazil that's also the wood used to make most violins. This unifying element, combined with Duarte's distinctive style and eerily fascinating subject matter, tie the whole exhibition together beautifully.