Once More With Feeling

It really was like déjà vu all over again. Stepping into Art Expressions Gallery, I mean. The gallery, once crammed into a cramped space in a tiny strip mall on NE Fourth Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, reopened on June 1 in a space more than twice as large. And while it's in another strip mall, it's a significantly larger one, as well as not far from the heart of trendier, friendlier Wilton Manors.

It's always gratifying to see a gallery survive in the brutal Broward market. And so it's doubly pleasing to see Art Expressions, owned by artist Francisco Sheuat and Ric Antey, do well enough to move to a larger, better site after four successful years in its previous location.

Sheuat says the gallery will resume highlighting the work of individual artists in September. But for the moment, during the summer doldrums, it's focusing primarily on artists whose work it has shown before. Hence my sense of familiarity.

Just inside the entrance I was greeted by a cluster of Sheuat's trademark papier-mâché flamingos, painted in bright colors and patterns not found in nature. Also up front are two found-object lamps-as-art works by Robert Perry, who had a small but impressive one-man show at the old Art Expressions. One, called Cooking 300, incorporates a boxy rectangular food grater, a pair of egg beaters, a fork, and a spoon. The other is an untitled, wall-mounted piece that arranges several forks and spoons in a radiating, sunlike pattern.

Another star from the gallery's previous incarnation, Selene Vasquez, has four acrylics in the main area of the gallery. Vasquez is a virtuoso at using skeletal faces to capture extreme states of emotion or, more commonly, neuroses, as in Phobia #1, which includes snakes that might have escaped from Medusa's head framing a stricken face. A corridor at the rear of the gallery features a handful of Vasquez collages that show a different, less anguished side of the artist.

Throughout the gallery are several light boxes housing works in stained glass by Jackson Hall, who, I was sorry to learn from Sheuat, died not long ago. I wrote about Hall many years ago when he first arrived in South Florida, and since then he built a reputation significant enough to receive commissions from Fort Lauderdale's Sunshine Cathedral as well as a Metropolitan Community Church in Manhattan. Sad to say, his most recent pieces here, apparently inspired by the Tarot deck, aren't up to the quality of his earlier work. A couple of freestanding stained-glass panels, the Art Deco-influenced Ace of Cups and Ace of Wands, are the exceptions.

I instantly recognized one of the styles of another artist whose work I've previously written about, Tim Otte. Like Robert Perry transforming ordinary household objects into strikingly original lamp art, in the past Otte has demonstrated an extraordinary knack for taking odds and ends and creating big, mixed-media metal sculptures worthy of comparison to the work of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Here, however, Otte's other, more commercial style is on display — caricatures of such gay icons as Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, and Dolly Parton that, however skillfully executed, leave me a little cold.

I also had a flash of recognition when I ran across a quartet of canvases by John Patrick Kelly, an acclaimed outsider artist championed by the Razoo Gallery. Razoo has showcased some truly remarkable paintings by Kelly, whose work often combines crudeness and sophistication in near-equal measures. The only standout here is the oil Atlantis, a surreal portrait in which the head, seen in profile, elongates into a fishlike form, with streaming locks of hair metamorphosing into fins and tail.

Among the gallery's newer additions to its roster is the Peruvian artist Carmen Sasieta. Aside from a fairly pedestrian piece in the back corridor, her only significant work on display when I visited was the large painting Escogiendo las Mejores, which is a stunner. Its rectangular space is filled with lush, meticulously rendered tropical foliage reminiscent of Henri Rousseau's celebrated landscapes, punctuated in the center by a featureless woman clutching bundles of heliconia stalks.

Sheuat has also picked up on the work of Danny Babineaux, who recently snagged second-place honors in the seventh annual Starving Artist Competition at the Broward County Main Library's Gallery Six. In his best works here, such as the urban landscape Madrid, he divides the canvas into a grid, then applies a sort of blurring effect by smearing the acrylic in subtle diagonal streaks.

The gallery is currently dotted with quite a few works in glass, none of which is especially interesting. The only other three-dimensional pieces of note are by two artists working in dramatically different media. David Mitchell uses stoneware to create largely realistic partial torsos of male nudes. Gina Skillings makes a variety of vessels using a combination of clay and natural fibers; while some are a bit on the clunky side, her simple cylindrical vases are quite graceful.

For some inexplicable reason, Sheuat has hidden most of the work of one of his most wonderful finds away in that back corridor. There are three nice but unexceptional semiabstract acrylic paintings by the Spanish-born Chris Lopez in the main part of the gallery. But it's Lopez's erotic watercolors in the back that really grab you. The artist has an undeniable feel for the nude male torso, which he renders with clean, clearly defined lines and earthy tones. There are several uniformly fine examples here that make you wish they were presented with a little more sense of drama, rather than tucked away in a corner. In Wilton Manors, of all places, you would think that homoerotic art might be more proudly displayed.

Of all the artists in Sheuat's stable, however, there's one who just cries out for more attention. For the past few years now I've run across the work of Alfred Phillips, who quietly walks away with awards from group shows all over Broward County, including a Best in Show from the aforementioned Starving Artist Competition, and yet never seems to get the follow-up I think he deserves.

The first work at Art Expressions that reminded me how wonderful Phillips can be is a big acrylic called A Smattering of Flora. The simple title is both disingenuous and appropriate — the painting is literally a close-up of subtropical foliage that approaches abstraction with its glorious fixation on patterns and colors and textures.

Two smaller Phillips canvases nearby, Crack of Dawn and Everglades at Evening Time, aren't as strong, despite their inventive matting and framing, nor is the artist's more realistic Surfing Boat. But there's another batch of small works by Phillips back in that narrow rear corridor that indicate that he's nothing if not prolific and ambitious. His range of styles and techniques is wildly extensive, and despite some pieces that just don't quite make it, there are others that have a spontaneous feel that suggests a restless artistic temperament worth encouraging. Won't somebody give this amazing guy a one-man show?

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Michael Mills