His Sky, His Home, and Her Soul

Don't be put off by the clunky title of artist Tin Ly's current exhibition at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, "Morphing Forms: Selection of Dimensional Work (1990-2006)." The show and its components — a few paintings but mostly compact metal sculptures painted in oil — are much more graceful.

Ly, who was born in Saigon, Vietnam, has been a fixture on the South Florida art scene for 25 years. He's a two-time winner of the South Florida Cultural Consortium Fellowship for Visual and Media Artists, and for the past seven years, he has worked as an art conservation consultant for the Broward County Cultural Division's Public Art and Design Program, and he recently curated the program's well-executed 30th-anniversary exhibition at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. He is one of eight artists who maintain studios in the Third Avenue Art District in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

The batch of fairly straightforward abstract oil paintings included in this mini-retrospective are nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps the artist himself recognizes this, because in some cases, he has tricked out the canvases with such paraphernalia as metal rods. In a few, more successful cases, he has enhanced canvases in earthy colors and textures with natural ingredients such as tree branches and bark.

When he turns to his self-confessed obsession with fusing painted imagery with sculptural forms, however, he hits his stride. He doesn't work on a vast scale — the sculptures here aren't more than a few feet in width, length, or height — but he gets vibrant effects. It's as if he has taken the shapes and patterns he wants to work with and distilled them down to their concentrated essences. In the small catalog he produced for the exhibition, he explains that he starts with fragmented forms he finds in nature and that they then "evolve into color studies."

Next comes the fabrication of irregularly shaped aluminum or steel plates that are then welded and bolted together. And finally, Ly paints the forms, usually in bright colors and with highly varied patterns. It all sounds relatively simple, although I bet it's not.

Sometimes the painted sculptures are mounted on the wall, and sometimes they're freestanding, to be placed on the floor or on pedestals. The freestanding ones, in particular, would probably seem somewhat ungainly if the metal surfaces were left unpainted. As it is, they're a virtual explosion of vibrant color.

Three outstanding examples of Ly at his imaginative best are from a continuing series called Tropical Lore. You might not initially recognize that the artist has used the same set of forms assembled in exactly the same way — the components have been painted with such dramatically different patterns that each sculpture looks unique.

What they have in common, aside from their metal base, is a celebration of the flora and fauna of South Florida. Not in any realistic sense, of course. Ly is interested in capturing the look and feel of nature. Circling around these sculptures again and again, I could have sworn I saw tropical fish and exotic birds lurking in lush foliage. It's all an illusion created by Ly's deft handling of his materials.

The exhibition also features striking examples from Ly's Langit ku Rumah ku series. Here, he works with large, interlocking steel shapes with curved edges. Again, he appears to be working from nature, although the title's translation is not provided. The best I could come up with via the Internet was a vague sense that it means, in Malay and/or Indonesian, "my sky, my home," which would be a fitting image for this artist's ethereal work.

As usual, the Coral Springs Museum's executive director/curator, Barbara O'Keefe, has more than one exhibition running at the same time. This time, Ly's work in the main galleries is nicely complemented in the smaller galleries by "Sally Cooper: Experimental Painting." Cooper, a longtime resident of Parkland, has been a consistent award-winner in competitions at the Boca Raton Museum of Art's Artist Guild as well as in national competitions. And as this uneven but compelling show demonstrates, when she's good, she's very good.

Cooper abandoned representational art a decade or so ago in favor of abstraction. I don't recall ever seeing any of her earlier work, but her more recent paintings offer ample evidence that abstract expressionism is vigorously alive. It's best to characterize the works in this exhibition as mixed media, because it's impossible to determine what combination of acrylic, watercolor, pastel, gesso, gels, and graphite she uses for any given painting.

In her artist's statement, reprinted from her website, Cooper writes about creating "thick and thin layers of color which I brush and scumble onto a support of canvas, paper, or board. Mark making with pencil and scrapers is used to create thin, thick, straight, curved, or gestural lines. Surfaces are wiped, dripped, and spattered — all guided by intuition to create movement and feeling in the painting."

Her brushwork is gestural, all right — even her most delicate lines and forms appear to have been applied with vigor, not to mention spontaneity. Paradoxically, this violent approach yields images that are sometimes unaccountably serene. Cooper would point to the influence of the paintings and calligraphy of Zen Buddhist monks. She declares herself "a deeply spiritual person" who prays and meditates on a daily basis, and like many artists, she gets a bit cosmic when she writes of her work in such terms as, "It enables me to reach into my inner being and freely express the deepest part of my soul."

Fair enough. But to me, it's of greater interest to know that she also professes to have been influenced by such abstract expressionists as de Kooning, Motherwell, and Kline. I suspect that, directly or indirectly, she has also been influenced by Francis Bacon's highly gestural and spontaneous handling of paint. Yes, Bacon was obsessed above all with representation, usually of the human body. But his distortions sometimes creep in the direction of abstraction.

After a few passes through "Experimental Painting," I shared my theory of Bacon's influence on Cooper with O'Keefe, prefaced by a warning that she would probably wonder if I were crazy. I was thinking primarily of a number of canvases that share a palette of vivid orangeish reds and pale tans, accented with dramatic marks in black and white. (The paintings dominated by blues and greens leave me cold.)

These paintings are so organically linked that they might be fragments of a much larger image. Together, they form a sort of suite, each reinforcing the other. And that color scheme — so reminiscent of some of Bacon's work that I couldn't help but think Cooper has in effect emptied Bacon's bleak spaces of their representational, human elements and replaced them with her own vigorous abstractions.

No doubt Bacon would have declared me insane. Cooper may well agree. Regardless, her work reinvigorates abstract expressionism more than any I've seen in a long time. I hope she continues on her path.

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Michael Mills