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Light Show

The rooms in the paintings and prints of the young Colombian artist Homero Aguilar are empty -- at least for the moment. Someone may have just passed through, leaving a door ajar or a window open, or perhaps someone hesitates beyond the frame, just out of sight, waiting to enter one of these stark but oddly warm spaces.

The only signs of organic life in these images are typically small patches of landscape glimpsed through those doors and windows or, more likely, reflected in the dauntingly large mirrors that cover the walls of the rooms. And sometimes even these tantalizing fragments of the outside world turn out to be not reflections but rather parts of other paintings.

Mirrors and paintings, in fact, are virtually the only objects in Aguilar's rooms. Although the serigraph Sunset Illusion features a small still-life tableau (table, wine bottle, ewer and basin, fruit), it's off to one side of the picture, almost off the edge, as if it's an afterthought, a halfhearted concession to conventional illustration.

Aguilar's work, a sampling of which is on display at the Apropos Art Gallery in Fort Lauderdale through February 10, may focus on beautiful, empty rooms, but the art isn't about emptiness. These rooms are resonant with energy, an energy that's amplified rather than diminished by the absence of the human figure.

Aside from those shards of partially obscured landscape, almost everything in Aguilar's paintings is man-made, or at least crafted by humans. From the burnished blond hardwood floors to the impossibly spotless mirrors, these environments are entirely shaped by the human hands they so steadfastly exclude, just as the artist's hands have imposed order on his subject matter.

Except for the light. Here's where Aguilar's mastery is fully evident. As far as we can tell, there is no artificial light here, just the honeyed amber glow of sunlight as radiant as that in a Vermeer. The light streaming through the doors and windows enters an astonishing maze of strategically placed mirrors that multiply it and then spread it in all directions. Even as we note the reflections ricocheting through the rooms, we're reminded of an irony that's essential to this art -- the gorgeous natural light is the product of the artist, not nature.

From a purely technical point of view, Aguilar's fascination with mirrored images and paintings within paintings poses an enormous logistical challenge. In any given painting or print, the light may have to be bounced off half a dozen or more surfaces, and the artist has so carefully juxtaposed the reflections that you could probably extrapolate an entire house from the fragments of rooms he presents.

Despite such mechanical precision, Aguilar's work doesn't feel overly conceptualized or sterile. The very lack of a human presence in these meticulous man-made spaces renders them strangely poignant. And this effect is enhanced when you see several of his works side by side. They hint at a vast labyrinth that threatens to pull you into its empty but seductive looking-glass world.

Elsewhere in Apropos is an ongoing display of an art that is built completely around the human figure: the iron-wire-mesh torsos of Randy Cooper. Working from human models, this Arizona-based sculptor specializes in idealized nudes that range from the miniature Precipice Girl -- perched on a chunk of porous black rock and only twenty or so inches tall -- to pieces that approach life size and are anatomically detailed.

In Alan and Melanie, for instance, the spinal columns ripple down the figures' backs with an almost alarming vividness. And the imposing Ken boasts a physique as muscular as any gym dandy's, complete with chiseled abs, biceps, and pecs. (He's also so well endowed he could find work in adult films.)

But Cooper's work is of interest less for its exacting realism than for an effect the artist supposedly discovered by accident. The story goes that he was preparing an iron-wire-mesh frame to serve as the internal skeleton for a plaster sculpture when he noticed that the light passing through the metal threw a dramatic shadow on the wall.

Credit Cooper for seizing the concept and running with it. His "shadow sculptures" transform his physical sculptures into something altogether more arresting. Without their ghostly counterparts, which somehow seem eerily three-dimensional and intangible at the same time, Cooper's constructions wouldn't amount to much more than competent craftsmanship. And yet the shadows make sense only as doppelgängers to the hunks of metal that make them possible. Shift the position of one of the wire-mesh sculptures ever so slightly and its shadowy double will change, too, and not necessarily in the ways we expect. Vary the source of light and the shadow will undergo another permutation.

And yet as mesmerizing as Cooper's work is, it's hard not to feel that he's settled into complacency. He apparently produces countless variations on the same few figures, each differing subtly from the others while adhering to the same basic form. It would be nice to see him expand his repertoire to include, for instance, some less-than-perfect bodies. Or maybe he could extend the torsos to include heads and faces, hands and feet. (Most of them now lack those extremities.)

Better yet Cooper could broaden the range of poses he currently uses. Although one piece, Andrea, seems poised to fly off into space, the rest of the sculptures are curiously static. The creative challenge of animating his figures could open up whole new realms of possibility for this talented artist.

Homero Aguilar's work is on display through February 10, 1998, at the Apropos Art Gallery, 1016 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-524-2100. Aguilar will make a personal appearance on Thursday, December 18, from 6 to 9 p.m. Randy Cooper's work is on continuous display at the gallery.

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Michael Mills

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