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Ghost of a Chance

Not long ago, this paper did a cover story on the plight of three Broward County art galleries that had closed after a relatively short time in business. All three were on my list of to-see places, but I never got around to visiting them. I was pissed.

So I became determined not to make the same mistake with Zagami Fine Art, which opened its doors in early July, had an official grand opening in mid-August, and, I now hope, will be around for a long time to come. The gallery's second show, the current "Hauntings," makes it clear that owner Salvatore Zagami and his namesake gallery are a welcome addition to the South Florida visual arts scene.

Sal Zagami's enthusiasm alone makes him seem a likely candidate for success. A New Yorker of Italian descent, the 49-year-old Zagami has lived, studied, and worked in South Florida off and on for more than half his life. He has had a studio in Fort Lauderdale for nearly two decades, and now he's devoting himself to this small gallery in an iffy neighborhood just outside of downtown Lauderdale.

His enthusiasm was stoked when the opening for his first show drew several hundred people. Cars spilled over from the gallery's modest parking lot into the rear alley, he says, into other empty spaces across the street, right up to the gay strip bar nearby. It suddenly occurred to Zagami that maybe he was onto something.

He was and is. As a themed show, "Hauntings" isn't much more than a halfhearted attempt to tie together a lot of otherwise unrelated works, many of them by Zagami himself (more on that later). But it doesn't really matter, because Zagami has assembled a fine, varied sampling of contemporary art. He doesn't have the luxury of enough space for large installations, although I got the sense that he would eagerly embrace such work if logistics allowed.

Scattered throughout the gallery are roughly 20 acrylics by an artist identified only as Chenco. Some of them are as provocative as anything included in other recent shows elsewhere that were calculated to stir up controversy. In New Skin for a New Season, a headless female nude fondles herself. In the adjacent La Descendencia de Eva (which cites biblical references from Genesis), a skull appears to drip from the crotch of a spread-eagled woman.

That "dripping" effect reappears in other Chencos -- in one case a lightbulb, in another honeybees. An untitled piece from Chenco's "White Meat" series shows a man seated with both his tongue and penis sticking out, while Cosas de Mandinga -- Lucha Placentera con el Pene depicts a couple in bed, with the woman masturbating the man beneath the covers.

A three-part pencil-and-charcoal drawing by Colombian artist Gerardo Caballero doesn't seem especially shocking until you connect the title -- Carnal Violation -- with the images: a straightforward portrait of a little girl, followed by two additional renderings of her, both smudged and distorted to suggest the abuse of the title.

Such in-your-face works are balanced by more nuanced pieces. Portal, a mixed-media piece by Susanna Mucci (who now works out of Sedona, Arizona, after stints in California, Florida, and Maryland), is a simple, austere piece that consists of a long, thin palm husk with rocks embedded in its surface. Nancy Cervenka-McLaughlin's Spindle looks like a tribal spear of some sort but turns out to be a translucent sliver of plastic wrapped with newsreel film.

Zagami's current show also includes some other highly varied works. Three pieces by Peruvian artist Diana Paredes clearly display the influence of Salvador Dalí. A small wall of works by Katalin Sallai, a Hungarian, includes pieces that incorporate holograms into other media. Claustrophobia, which features a face that, when you shift your position slightly, reveals a 3-D head, is especially chilling. Two pieces in watercolor and tempera by Tomas Esson are conglomerations of sexually suggestive imagery.

When I visited, two mixed-media pieces by Stacey Krupa were propped against a wall, presumably awaiting wall space they richly deserve: sketchy black-and-white works on paper that look like unfinished studies for something else but also have an air of completeness. They play nicely off the nearby silkscreen Pizarra by Santiago Cardenas, which features pale, chalklike markings and the image of an unwound metal coat hanger set against a stark, medium-green background.

Zagami falters here and there. Two mixed-media works by Kevin MacIvor, Endangered Species #3 and Hybrid Series #1, both of which are dominated by large animal figures, fall flat. (MacIvor's Beyond Gravity, with a ghostly housecat leaping through the air, seems to have sprung from a different artist.) And the show's photographs -- Zagami's included -- are mostly unimpressive.

As for Zagami's other work, he sprinkles it generously but unobtrusively throughout the gallery. Some of his sculptures display a dry wit. Who Killed Teddy? consists of a crudely constructed teddy bear impaled on a giant pencil. I Once Killed a Frog is a plastic and steel construction that similarly impales a small frog on a long, thin finger. Smile imbues the ubiquitous smiley face with an unexpectedly grave quality by rendering the eyes as tiny skulls. And the wall-mounted Instructions is an interactive piece that invites viewers to elicit audio responses from a modified crucifix.

The elongated-finger motif reappears in Fingers Crossed, which starts out as wooden branches on a little square metal base that become fingers as they progress upward, with one ending in what looks more like a tiny phallus. Tic-Tac-Tow is an enigmatic structure that features male and female torsos marked by pencil on a metal frame mounted on a metal platform; between them is a clothespin topped with a small human head.

One of the most striking pieces in the show is one of its oldest: a 1979 sculpture by Zagami called Sounds of Space, which was part of the artist's 1995 retrospective at Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art. It's a medium-size chunk of cast plastic that suggests a deranged double hot dog from the future. Two cool-blue "buns" sandwich a pair of translucent "wieners," each with unidentifiable shapes floating inside.

Zagami posts biographical information for a few of his artists, a practice I wish he'd extend to all of them. I also wish he would pay a little more attention to juxtaposition. As much as I liked the subtlety of Toro, a freestanding abstract sculpture by an artist identified as Dimitri, I didn't fully appreciate it until I reached the other end of the gallery, where its counterpart, Matador, was displayed. But Zagami's gallery is such a dramatic contribution to our precarious gallery scene that it's easy to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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Michael Mills

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