Imagine a Museum

My most recent foray into the western suburbs of Broward was prompted by news that there was a La Monte Anderson show at the Coral Springs Museum of Art. I had seen some of Anderson's work in a few other shows -- most notably one at the Davie campus of Broward Community College, where he teaches -- and was curious to see what he had been up to recently.

When I got to the museum, which, as I like to remind people repeatedly, boasts one of the airiest most open display spaces in South Florida, I discovered that Anderson's show was one of four running simultaneously. And that doesn't include the artists-in-residence project coordinated by two of the four artists represented in those shows.

Museum Director Barbara O'Keefe immediately ushered me into the small side galleries documenting the artists-in-residence project, "The Everglades -- A Relief Ceramic Tile Wall Mural." It's a massive undertaking in which the artists, Jan Kolenda and John Foster, oversee and participate in the production of the 7,000 tiles that make up the mural, which will ultimately be permanently installed on an outside wall of the Coral Springs Center for the Arts, where the museum is located. Some sections of the 54-by-17-foot mural are laid out in two adjacent galleries, even as others are being worked on in the museum's classroom area by Kolenda and Foster and a small army of volunteers. Each tile is painstakingly cast and glazed and includes such tiny details as insects lurking in the grass. The overall image will be an Everglades landscape that features mangroves, palms, sawgrass, and other foliage on land and in the water.

Installation of this amazing undertaking was originally slated for September, then for November. O'Keefe says that the city is having trouble finding someone willing to take on what she calls "the Great Wall of Coral Springs" and that it may not happen until the beginning of next year. The project will also include an extensive reworking of the grounds adjacent to the mural's final destination.

After taking all this in and meeting Kolenda and Foster, I moved on to "La Monte Anderson: Sojourns," a selection of 20 works, all but three of which are watercolors. They're fairly evenly divided into a "Mediterranean Suite" and a "Latin American Suite," and the specific locale of each piece is indicated. It would be tempting to dismiss the show as merely a travelogue of places the artist has been fortunate enough to visit -- if Anderson weren't so accomplished.

For one thing, he gets a surprising range of effects from the medium of watercolor, which is so often represented by sunny still lifes and florals. At one end of the spectrum, Anderson uses watercolor for highly realistic images, as in Motorcycle -- Paris, which shows a Suzuki bike below an outdoor bulletin board -- simple-enough ingredients made almost tangible by Anderson's handling of detail and light and shadow.

He achieves similar effects with Cat -- Agrigento, which looks down on a dappled cat standing on a manhole at the artist's feet, and with Christmas Wash -- Pueblo, a Mexican cityscape with laundry hanging in an archway. Station by the Sea renders a railway depot with a crispness and sharpness not usually associated with watercolor.

But Anderson can also use the medium for gauzier effects. In Fish -- Mykonos, the title creatures are represented less realistically and more as impressions of form, texture, and color. And Catacomb -- Agrigento verges on abstraction, with a jumble of earthy forms suggesting ruins. Octopus -- Mykonos straddles the line, with the image teetering between a realistic portrait of an octopus hanging out to dry and a study of the play of light on the exotic animal's features.

It's a testament to O'Keefe's curatorial creativity that Anderson's work flows so smoothly into that of the two artists in residence, who use the dramatically different medium of clay. "Jan Kolenda -- Nature Redefined: Works in Clay" and "John Foster -- Substructures: Works in Clay" mingle pieces by the two artists throughout the museum's central area, a large space with big plate-glass windows.

Kolenda is at her best when she incorporates the look and feel of living wood into her work. Her Tree Reflection Pond I is an irregular bowl of sorts, with three legs, a blue-glazed area suggesting a pond, and tree branches snaking around the bowl's rim. Tree Teapot I is similar, with a handle and spout that morph into branches. Tree Teapot II looks further morphed, so that the piece seems to be metamorphosing from teapot into tree right before our eyes, like something out of a fairy tale.

I'm less enthusiastic about Kolenda's "Gourd Series," which includes pieces with graceful lines curving up the sides of what are otherwise ordinary stoneware vessels, topped with various kinds of lips and flaring forms. Then again, there are more variations on those tree-inspired pieces, which display the artist's uncanny knack for capturing the essence of greenery.

Foster's work is from another world altogether. The freestanding pieces scattered in the main gallery's open spaces are either mixed-media towers, with spiky bases and various elements running through the rising forms, or triangular mixed-media works that, in some cases, look like they might be top sections from the towers that have been sliced off and laid on their sides.

These mysterious pieces work best when seen at a distance, in the context of a big gallery full of visual contrasts. But they're no match for Foster's biomorphic stoneware forms, most of which are wall-mounted pieces on the outer perimeter of the museum. Many of these forms remind me of the visual vocabulary of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. They draw on the shapes of the innards of living creatures, then recast them in hard stoneware with speckled glazes and earthy colors.

The title of one Foster piece, Boney Chassis, for instance, is an apt description of his melding of organic and inorganic elements. Another untitled piece has what looks like pincers at one end, while Hooded tapers off into squidlike tentacles. Foster makes these pieces simultaneously repellent and fascinating, like fossilized souvenirs of a world that's both familiar and alien.

There's still room in the museum for another show, "Michael Joseph: New York City Embraced." Joseph lives in Fort Lauderdale, but on what must have been one incredible day in October 2000, he shot all but one of the 16 black-and-white images that make up this small show. (The exception is a soft-focus picture of Towers of Light, the commemoration of 9/11 that featured beams of light re-creating the Twin Towers.)

Joseph's specialty is inventing new ways of looking at things we think we know. Empire gives us the spire of the Empire State Building jutting into the lower right of the frame, juxtaposed with a maze of wires crisscrossing and disrupting the opposite side of the image. Central Park looks at the Mayfair Hotel through a filigree of bare tree branches. Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Plaza, and Rainbow Room -- NBC Studios have the feel of a trio of 1950s snapshots.

I can't think of another South Florida museum that would attempt to pull off four solo shows at the same time, as well as a chronicle of an ambitious artists-in-residence project. And yet the Coral Springs Museum of Art remains one of the area's most neglected arts institutions, perhaps because it's swallowed up by the city's arts center and it's in what seems a remote location. Get over it, and make the trip. It's worth it.

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Michael Mills