While many of us are feeling draggy and listless during the hot, humid days of a South Florida summer, the seemingly tireless executive director of the Coral Springs Museum of Art, Barbara O'Keefe, has assembled not just one but four shows to get us through the season.
The first and strongest of the quartet is "The Light Fantastic: Contemporary Irish Stained Glass Art," which provides nearly 30 works, some of them exquisite, by a dozen artists. This is stained glass approached the way one might approach oil paint — as a highly elastic art form with great potential for creative expression.
An essay in the handsome little exhibition catalog attempts, a bit unevenly, to establish a context for the art with some history and commentary on the making of stained glass in contemporary Ireland. Some of the information is interesting, although it's not essential to an appreciation of the work, which speaks for itself quite nicely.
The least successful pieces are a couple by George Walsh that are closest to traditional stained glass seen in church windows. Both would work considerably better without the vaguely cheesy female nudes the artist inserts into his compositions.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are impressive works by a pair of artists who manipulate the medium to achieve abstract effects. Mary Mackey contributes two diptychs, one propped against the far wall of the museum's main gallery, the other suspended on wires in front of one of the big plate-glass windows so that natural light can pass through it. Both suggest the richness of looking through a giant telescope deep into outer space. Killian Schurmann's freestanding pieces, by contrast, have an earthier feel, as if he's conjuring near-abstract landscapes in glass. It's not surprising to learn that Mackey and Schurmann are also painters.
The other artists chart various courses between these two extremes. Patrick Muldowney channels expressionist drama with his The Song of Wandering Aengus by W.B. Yeats. Nora Duggan toys with perspective in Far Away, So Close, an emotionally volatile diptych featuring a distant little boy in one panel and a fly seen up-close in the other. And Peadar Lamb's disarmingly simple compositions combine thick, bold lines and drastically curtailed palettes to great effect.
The "light fantastic" of the exhibition title refers to the necessity of illumination for most of these pieces to work their magic. With the exceptions of Mackey and Schurmann, who depend on natural light, the artists rely on light boxes, and the museum has done a fine job of accommodating this special requirement.
The stained-glass show is complemented by "Steven Sylvester — Art of the Form: Contemporary Clay Art," a small exhibition that has been shoehorned, a bit oddly, into one section of "The Light Fantastic." Sylvester is a native of Detroit now based in Fort Lauderdale, and his distinctive forms regularly grace group shows throughout the area.
It's perhaps easiest to think of Sylvester as a fashion designer whose medium is clay instead of fabric. As he puts it in an artist statement, "I use the unexpected medium of clay, commonly fashioned into utilitarian vessels and dinner ware, to symbolize the diversity of roles assumed by women in the 21st century." In other words, he makes dresses.
Although Sylvester's life-sized dresses — there are fewer than a dozen of them, one of them a collaboration with Lisa Lusardi — are made of clay, he also embellishes them with wire, beads, and other accessories to enhance the illusion, which is sometimes remarkable. Standing before one of his particularly effective creations, you have to remind yourself that the dress in question isn't actually meant to be worn. A highlight of his collection here is Wardrobe Malfunction, which re-creates the Janet Jackson getup that created such a stir at a Super Bowl.
On the other side of the museum, in its smaller side galleries, you'll find an exhibition that's similarly concerned with the feminine, "Women Collared for Work." For this small but ambitious show, guest curator Judith Schwab assembled 32 works by eight female artists who use the idea of the collar — both adornment and shackle — as a metaphor for women's issues.
Ubiquitous Fort Lauderdale artist Wilma Bulkin Siegel, for instance, is represented by a handful of mixed-media garments, some taken from her Flower Children Grown Up project, that serve as portraits of the women who would have worn them. Some of these are also paired with actual portraits of their subjects in Siegel's instantly recognizable style.
Rosemary Lane pays homage to her muses, including the great Louise Nevelson, with a trio of richly textured mixed-media works that incorporate handmade paper, acrylic and pastel, prints, and other objects. Ann Stein concocts a couple of mixed-media assemblages inspired by Frances Perkins, identified as the first woman to serve in a U.S. presidential Cabinet, in this case FDR's. (Her department, however, is not mentioned — an odd omission.)
This little show is conceptually intriguing, but overall it never quite gels. There's a thrown-together quality to it that keeps it from ever rising above the level of a clever gimmick, even though individual works are compelling on their own terms.
Almost as a footnote, the museum includes a tiny display called "British Women Silversmiths: Private Collection of 17th to 19th Century Pieces." In two cases, one wall-mounted, we get 29 pieces, ranging from serving spoons and various specialized spoons to goblets and beer cups and tea and coffee pots, all polished to a high sheen. O'Keefe, who has long brought her knowledge of and passion for crafts to her job as museum director, hints that this may be the first of a series of displays devoted to objects from private collections. That would provide yet another reason to visit the Coral Springs Museum, perhaps the most underappreciated of South Florida's arts institutions.