Review: Gary T. Erbe, Clyde Butcher, and Stephen Althouse at the Boca Raton Museum of Art

Three exhibitions at the Boca Raton Museum of Art: one, an expected pleasure; one, a pleasant surprise; the other, a disappointment.

Let's dispatch the disappointment first. "Gary T. Erbe: Forty-Year Retrospective" is a perfectly lovely survey of an artist who leaves me, for the most part, cold. Erbe is a top trompe l'oeil artist whose command of realism makes him a crowd pleaser. The artist, who was born in Union City, New Jersey, in 1944, is a virtuoso whose oil canvases display the most meticulous attention to the minutest details.

Erbe works from actual tableaux that he carefully assembles. This is not especially unusual, although he does it unusually well. He discovered trompe l'oeil painting in 1967 and since then has plundered popular culture for the raw ingredients of his paintings. Baseball memorabilia crowd the surface of Those Amazin' Mets (2005-06). A fisherman's paraphernalia fills Gone Fishin' (1994), and a golfer's is featured in A Gentleman's Sport (2004).

For a while, I was diverted by Erbe's amazing use of shadows. But ultimately, a certain sameness sets in. By the time I got to Ambush (1998), which is displayed alongside the actual construction the artist used to create it, I found the construction more interesting than the painting of it.

Still, Erbe's occasional deviations indicate that he's more versatile than his other works suggest. A couple of images of rabbits bounding through snowy landscapes are far more intriguing than the many still lifes. And the rare sense of wit displayed in Electric Cow (2002) — the title really does say it all — is a welcome departure from Erbe's otherwise straightforward work.

Now, on to more intriguing pieces. The large-scale black-and-white photographs in "Clyde Butcher: Wilderness Visions" confirmed what I had long suspected: that encountering a familiar Clyde Butcher photo is sort of like running into an old friend. How comforting, for instance, to come upon Ochopee and Moonrise — both from 1986, both shot in the Big Cypress National Preserve — two of Butcher's images that have been previously displayed in South Florida.

The exhibition includes works culled from the past 25 years of Butcher's 30-plus-year career, and I quickly realized that I had seen most of the ones from the 1980s and '90s. Although some of these were shot on locations in the American West, the ones from South Florida earned Butcher his nickname "the Ansel Adams of the Everglades." (A memorable Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale show from a few years ago paired the two great photographers.)

For the uninitiated, Butcher works with large-format cameras — in this case, eight by ten inches, 11 by 14 inches, and 16 by 20 inches — to create incredibly sharp-focus images of the American wilderness. He is notorious for spending hours or even days waiting for just the right light to achieve the effect he's after. Very rarely does he disappoint.

For those of us who have followed Butcher for some time, this miniretrospective provides a welcome occasion to see what he's been up to when not traipsing through the Everglades or shooting other examples of vanishing Florida wilds. Judging from the dates on the images, 2006 was an especially fruitful year for him. There are magnificent shots from Wyoming's Grand Tetons, South Dakota's Badlands, and Maine's Acadia, to name just three national parks he has captured on film.

Sometimes, in my job, I get to enjoy a pleasing sense of discovery when stumbling upon the work of a previously unfamiliar artist. I got that sense big-time upon entering "Stephen Althouse: Tools and Shrouds."

Althouse, I discovered from the small but beautiful catalog, is American, born in Washington, D.C., in 1948; grew up in an agrarian environment in Bucks County, Pennsylvania; and was educated first in Quaker schools, then at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.

Like Butcher, Althouse works with a large-format camera to create sharp-focus black-and-white photographs. There the similarity ends. Butcher is drawn to the grandeur of the great outdoors. Althouse, at least in his current series, focuses on objects, specifically well-used tools, that he imbues with an almost eerie air of intimacy.

Pieces of white fabric serve as shrouds of the exhibition title in a number of works, to great effect. A large "cape" of sorts, for instance, is draped from opposite ends of the crude implement in Rake I (2003). In Clamps (2003), two C clamps are joined by a bunched-up piece of cloth.

There's enormous dignity, even poignancy, to many of Althouse's chosen subjects, including Washboard (2003), with its title object worn almost smooth from years of use. And the artist isn't joking when he calls an image Sacred Tongs (2004) — simply by placing a pair of tongs on a swath of fabric, he magically transforms it into a talisman. In Althouse's art, the ordinary is rendered special, making his work an art of transcendence. I'm glad to know it a little better.

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Michael Mills