Maxed Out

"If you build it, they will come." That line from the Kevin Costner flick Field of Dreams could easily serve as the motto of artist Max Schacknow, whose privately owned Schacknow Museum of Fine Art opened in Plantation not quite two years ago. Anyone who has followed the local cultural...
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"If you build it, they will come." That line from the Kevin Costner flick Field of Dreams could easily serve as the motto of artist Max Schacknow, whose privately owned Schacknow Museum of Fine Art opened in Plantation not quite two years ago.

Anyone who has followed the local cultural scene for the past decade will probably recall that Schacknow is the millionaire who endowed his own museum at the Coral Springs City Centre in 1994, only to have exasperated city officials return his money four years later. Undeterred, Schacknow set up in Plantation in a building that was once an accounting firm.

Today Schacknow likes to talk numbers. He boasts that SMOFA, which he says has 8700 square feet of display space, is up to 176 paid members. Unable to resist a slight dig, he points out that he has three full-time employees, compared with the one full-timer -- the director -- currently employed at Schacknow's former haunt, rechristened the Coral Springs Museum of Art.

Schacknow takes great pride in showcasing local artists whose work is not typically represented in other area museums. He's especially pleased with his current show, "The SMOFA Juried Exhibition," which he says attracted a crowd of about 375 people to its opening-night reception.

The exhibition includes nearly 300 pieces by 146 artists working in a variety of mostly traditional media; you aren't likely to find an installation in this museum. As usual for a Schacknow show, the art is just about everywhere: side by side all through the hallways, as well as on the walls of the museum's numerous galleries.

The competition, judged by South Florida artists Carole Post and William Bock, awarded $6000 in prize money to the top three winners in the categories of painting, sculpture, and photography, with four merit-award winners in each category receiving watches emblazoned with the SMOFA logo. The winning works, along with a few dozen other pieces, are grouped in the large main gallery to the right of the front lobby.

Most of the award winners are fairly ordinary. (Merrill Kramer's graceful stoneware sculpture Genesis and Kenneth Chesler's genial black-and-white photograph Cowboy Kids, both merit winners, are exceptions.) The first-place winner in painting, for instance, is the surprisingly dull Emily, a portrait of artist Mariatheresa Arias's daughter.

Fortunately plenty of other works actually are interesting; you just have to sift through the clutter to get to them. Chesler also contributes another black-and-white photo called Yosemite, which features the same crisp contrasts that made Ansel Adams famous. Elsewhere in the show are a pair of small black-and-white photos by Kathy A. O'Neal called Eiffel Tower 1 & 2, which reinvigorate this overexposed subject matter by zeroing in on the structure's intricate metalwork. Two untitled gelatin silver prints by Patricia Reiff document stark, haunting wintry scenes in New Haven, Connecticut.

Among the best color photographs are a trio of C-prints by Venessa Monokian, from what's identified as the "ABC Series" -- extreme closeups of a stubbly-faced adolescent who seems not quite boy yet not quite man. Barbara Bert Silbert's Interior with Pineapples is a simple living-room scene that has been digitally manipulated to give it a wash of color and texture. And Herbert Eisenberg's closeup of a human face that looks as if it has been molded from ground meat has a surreal charge, until you notice the smack-you-in-the-face title: Horror W.T.C. 9/11.

Laura Parker's collage Incognito addresses 9/11 with more subtlety. It consists of a large central panel screwed onto a burnt-looking square wooden base. Within the panel are nine small reproductions of that infamous head shot of suicide bomber Mohamed Atta, each "disguised" in some way. The entire panel has been overlaid with wire screen, string, pigment, and other items, so that one must peer through the outer layers to recognize the chilling miniatures inside.

Some of the most adventurous works in the show are found not in the galleries but on the walls of the corridors connecting them. Two oil paintings by Patricia Saidon, Baile Frances and Cuatro Mujeres, flirt with the boundaries between realism and abstraction to great effect. The basic shapes of human figures are clearly visible, though Saidon appears to have deliberately blurred some of her brushstrokes, giving the figures an ephemeral quality.

One long, narrow hall features, among many other negligible works, two small watercolors, Lake Titicaca and Faerie's Glade, by Kay Stewart. The pale colors and wispy brushstrokes she uses make the near-abstract images highly atmospheric. Another artist, JM Thurman, uses pastel on cloth to add texture to Alone, which portrays the corner of a room with a small table draped with a tablecloth, vase of flowers, chair, window, and wall-mounted planter with a houseplant.

At the far end of that same hallway, near the exit from the exhibition, is a large acrylic, Chrissy, by Fredrik Ax, that plays wonderful tricks with your eyes. If you approach it from the adjacent hall, so that you first see it up close, it appears to be nothing more than a horizontal rectangular canvas divided into a grid of 864 one-inch squares, each unevenly painted in varying pigments. If you see the picture from the opposite end of that other hallway, however, the head of the girl referred to in the title appears. Reposition yourself at various points along the passageway, and you'll see the head either emerging from or disappearing into the grid.

Not far from Chrissy are two similarly deceptive images, acrylics by Stan Slutsky that evoke the spirit of op art. Hexagon is a large, six-sided canvas blanketed with shapes that start out as squares in the center and then become more rectangular as they radiate to the edges. The neon colors, too, gradually shift, from warm yellows, oranges, and reds in the center to cool purples, blues, and greens on the outer portions of the canvas. Virtuoso is a less-effective rendering of colorful shapes that spiral out from the center.

These pieces and several others scattered throughout the exhibition could be assembled into a small but satisfying group show. But as always, Schacknow's aesthetic generosity wins out, prompting him to go for quantity at the expense of quality. For every outstanding piece here, there's also a handful of stinkers: by-the-numbers landscapes, dreary still lifes, maudlin portraits (including an especially hideous portrait of a clown that looks as if it could have been picked up at a roadside art sale).

No one could accuse Schacknow of being an elitist, and I suspect his seemingly indiscriminate enthusiasm has inspired many a neglected artist to persevere. But the numbers that so impress Schacknow can overwhelm museumgoers who justifiably expect a rhyme and/or a reason to an exhibition.

Group shows in general and juried competitions in particular, of course, are almost always highly variable. Even so, I wish Max Schacknow could bring himself to be a little pickier.

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