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Mistresses of Metal

The works of four very different female artists are on display in four concurrent exhibitions now at the Coral Springs Museum of Art; in one case, the shows overlap in a surprisingly successful collaboration between two of the women.

The least satisfying of the four is "Ximena Pérez-Ayala: Magic Encounter," which occupies the far reaches of the smaller galleries to your right when you enter the museum. It's essentially a collection of roughly two dozen dolls, and their sameness ultimately becomes numbing rather than magical.

Pérez-Ayala, who was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1956 and now works and teaches in Miami, uses ceramic and textiles to create miniature, faceless female figures that she then places in various poses and contexts. (Their gender is indicated largely by appliques that suggest breasts and genitalia.) Esperando un Beso (Waiting for a Kiss) finds the figurine stretched out on a bed. For En la Ruta (On the Road), the doll sports a bright yellow jumpsuit and sits astride a stark metal bicycle.

A quartet of dolls, each nestled in a bare, treelike metal structure, intends to summon up the four seasons. The doll in Castidad (Chastity) is imprisoned heavy-handedly in a cage. Ejecutiva (Executive Lady) is a halfhearted attempt to inject a little feminism into the show. The overall effect of these pieces is alternately cute and contrived.

Not so the paintings in "Antoinette von Saurma: Seeing the Light," the show that shares the small side galleries with "Magic Encounter." In the one-page handout that accompanies the show, which includes nearly 30 pieces, von Saurma emphasizes her vagabond life. She was born in Africa (she doesn't specify where except to say "close to the Namibian Desert"), educated in South Africa, traveled extensively throughout Europe, and spent time in Mexico before passing through South Florida on her way back to Europe.

The paintings, however -- mostly pastels -- hardly suggest a nomadic existence. Rather, as the exhibition's title suggests, they're about light. Whether she's focusing on a still life or a landscape, von Saurma is most interested in the play of light on her subject. For someone whose travels must have entailed interacting with a vast variety of people and cultures, her work is oddly devoid of human presence.

With the still lifes, the artist typically combines a few basic elements: pieces of fruit, platters or trays, vases or jugs. And the glass and metal items are clearly excuses for her to revel in the reflections they capture. Mid-Day Light, for instance, toys with the shimmering light on a bowl of apples, a vase, and a platter. Sometimes she gets so carried away that she packs up to three large glass vases into an image, the better to send the light reflecting back and forth.

The landscapes let von Saurma play with outdoor light. Most of the handful included here portray a place she calls Whispering Woods, which is almost certainly the Everglades, captured at various times of the day and during different seasons. They're pleasing in a simple, low-key way.

The Pérez-Ayala and von Saurma shows, however, are really just warm-ups for the main acts: "Jane Manus: Of Form and Color" and "Rotraut: Miraculous Life-Forms," which complement each other beautifully.

Manus, who was born in New York in 1951 and grew up in Florida, works primarily with painted, welded aluminum, which she fashions into large, abstract, geometric sculptures. Some of her constructions are wall-mounted, but the most compelling are the big freestanding pieces, which give you the luxury of being able to walk around and see them from different angles.

This is pretty much either/or sculpture: Either you appreciate it for its clean lines and clearly defined shapes, or you see it as boxy and industrial. I confess to the latter view, at least initially. But pieces like the whimsical Mellow, a large freestanding construction painted bright yellow, won me over with their childlike simplicity. Indeed, there's something akin to children's playground equipment in some of Manus's oversize works.

But what really pulls Manus into focus is her collaboration with Rotraut, the German-born widow of the restlessly experimental French painter Yves Klein, who died in 1962. Rotraut also works in aluminum, treated with automotive acrylic urethane, but her forms are more rounded, more organic. Displayed in proximity to Manus's work, as they are here, Rotraut's solo pieces add a more human element to the environment.

Rotraut takes a sort of back seat in her collaborative pieces with Manus, but her influence is substantial. For the two-dimensional works -- acrylics on canvas -- she provides a starry background of white flecks on a darker field, on which Manus situates flattened versions of her angular forms, which take on the air of alien shapes floating in space.

The sculptural collaborations between the two artists are even more dramatic, with Manus's crisp metal constructions wrapping around panels painted with the aforementioned fields of stars. There's almost the sense of strangely shaped vessels enveloping the very space through which they travel.

The museum's four shows reach a crescendo with Rotraut's "Miraculous Life-Forms." This exhibition takes up not only most of the huge main gallery but also some of the landscape surrounding the Coral Springs Center for the Arts, where a few of the larger sculptures, including the imposing Rainbow, sit in surreal juxtaposition with the tropical foliage.

For some of these solo works, such as the large Galaxy 5, Rotraut expands the star-speckled panels she provided for Manus into full-fledged canvases. For others, both paintings and sculptures, she adds what, at least in this show, becomes her signature touch: a highly stylized human figure. Variations of this figure reappear throughout the exhibition, sometimes recognizably human, sometimes morphed beyond recognition.

My immediate reaction to Rotraut's distinctive shapes was that she had merged Matisse's late-career paper cutouts, such as those in the 1952 mural The Swimmingpool, with the misshapen Blue Meanies from the Beatles' animated 1968 movie, Yellow Submarine. Her outlined, featureless figures are paradoxically clunky and graceful at the same time.

The Rotraut works displayed here don't show much variety, which in this case is an asset. The shapes she uses again and again, sometimes with only slight mutations, resonate among themselves in the museum's spacious main gallery. The individual pieces take on a cumulative power that makes this show, all by itself, worth an end-of-the-year visit to the Coral Springs Museum of Art.

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Michael Mills

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