The Butcher, the Sculptor, the Shadow Box Maker | Art | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

The Butcher, the Sculptor, the Shadow Box Maker

Three very different solo shows currently share the spacious galleries of the Coral Springs Museum of Art: "Clyde Butcher: Visions for the Next Millennium," "Len Janklow: Kinetics in Light & Color," and "Leo Kaplan: Nostalgic Gatherings."

Butcher, of course, is the South Florida photographer celebrated as the "Ansel Adams of the Everglades." More on him later. Janklow and Kaplan are two Tamarac-based artists, both in their eighties, working in nontraditional media.

Janklow uses industrial materials, including Fiberglas and Lucite, for his sculptures, which are as sleek and otherworldly as something from the set of a science fiction film. He's fascinated by such basic geometric shapes as cubes and cylinders, which he combines to form structures that seem both alien and familiar.

Often Janklow encases one or more of his strange objects in a clear acrylic box so that the interior item comes across as a sort of relic in a display case. And sometimes he wires his pieces for movement. A typical Janklow work, such as Space Probe (1992), for instance, consists of a colorful cube with rods jutting from its six sides, suspended in a larger clear cube set at an angle on a rotating metal base.

Janklow's work suggests the meticulous attention to detail of a scientist or an engineer. The lines and shapes are almost impossibly clean and precise, as if they've been measured and calibrated by machine rather than by human hands. He appears to be aiming for the sort of vibrant energy that emanates from some of the best op art -- the work, say, of Richard Anuskiewicz and Bridget Riley -- which is similarly calculated to evoke an emotional response from the viewer. Janklow's output is less consistent, more hit-or-miss.

The only hint of warmth in most of Janklow's work comes from his use of color. With the exception of Dayglo Square Float (1998), in which he lets a dazzling neon orange dominate the color scheme, he tends to favor soft shades that help temper the clinical precision of his pieces.

Still, there's something a little chilly and off-putting about many of Janklow's sculptures. The exhibition brochure boasts that he was recently commissioned to do gigantic atrium sculptures for two Carnival Cruise Lines ships, which makes sense -- his austere, impersonal style is perfect for such big, anonymous public spaces.

Leo Kaplan's work, on the other hand, is highly personal, occasionally to the point of being warm and fuzzy. Kaplan creates mixed-media assemblages consisting of cases of various sizes and shapes (and made of various media) that have been filled with all sorts of seemingly incongruous objects. The obvious influence here is the great American surrealist Joseph Cornell, best known for his similar boxes.

Cornell often filled his boxes sparingly, while Kaplan usually goes for a denser clutter made up of a lot of ingredients. Habitat for Jiminy Cricket (1998), for example, includes, among many other things, small tubes of paint neatly lined up, wooden balls, pieces from a chess set, dominoes, a collage of letters of the alphabet, a long-bristle brush, a doll's head, and a little figurine of the title character, almost lost in the mix.

Such rich compositions are full of mystery, because we can never quite figure out what meaning -- if any -- is to be drawn from them. The paint tubes in Habitat for Jiminy Cricket, along with some crumpled paint tins and a bottle of turpentine in another piece, are obvious emblems of an artist's life, while the sports paraphernalia in another piece could conceivably allude to the artist's hobbies.

But what are we to make of Grenadiers (2001), which juxtaposes a pair of miniature Beefeater figurines, an old black-and-white photograph, a page from a book, an old-fashioned toy top, and a child's worn and crumpled shoe? Other pieces incorporate disembodied dolls' heads.

Cornell once explained his work in these terms: "Shadow boxes become poetic theatres or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime." I'd bet Kaplan subscribes to the same point of view, given the nostalgic items he works into his assemblages. Like Cornell he creates miniature worlds that function, on some level, as the set for a movie or play with a narrative that never fully reveals itself.

Occasionally Kaplan turns to a sparser composition more akin to those of Cornell. He gets especially striking results with Bung Baby (1983), a stark, eerie piece that takes an old-fashioned keg tap and replaces the bung, or stopper, with a tiny, melancholy-looking doll's head. It's an unaccountably poignant image.

For a sharp contrast to Janklow's kinetic sculptures and Kaplan's nostalgic assemblages, museum director Barbara O'Keefe has snagged a preview of the upcoming national touring show by the beloved Florida photographer Clyde Butcher, best known for his large-scale black-and-white pictures of the Everglades and other chunks of unspoiled Florida wilderness.

Some of the nearly 30 photos here have already been exhibited locally. Several were in an excellent Butcher show at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood about three years ago. But many are from a new exhibition that finds the photographer broadening his palette even as he reiterates his themes.

In his introduction to the show's catalog, subtitled "Wilderness Photography -- Focus on Preservation," Butcher writes: "If we are to survive as a healthy species, we are obliged to go forward into this new age with the preservation and restoration of the environment in the forefront of our thoughts.... Unless we perceive our connection to nature in a deep and personal way, we will face a future of decline instead of sustained prosperity."

He then proceeds to document some breathtaking examples of the nature he believes we should be preserving and restoring. Those familiar Florida photos are prominently featured, but Butcher has also ventured into other locales, including such Ansel Adams territory as California, Colorado, and Utah, along with more unexpected spots such as Washington state, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

Not surprisingly the results are often spectacular. Devils Garden #1 (1997) takes a dramatic rock formation, and transforms it into something akin to Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of animal bones. Bear Lake Trail (1997) zooms in to capture the sinuous lines of a gnarled piece of wood in the Colorado Rockies, while Moraine Valley (1997), also from the Colorado Rockies, pulls back to give us a few mountain peaks almost enveloped by the clouds above and the valley mist below.

In the catalog for "Visions for the Next Millennium," Butcher includes these and other images. And he intersperses them with quotes from such well-known environmental advocates as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, all reemphasizing the photographer's philosophy of nature.

But the most cogent comment comes from that grande dame of Everglades ecology, Marjory Stoneman Douglas: "There must be progress, certainly. But we must ask ourselves what kind of progress we want, and what price we want to pay for it. If, in the name of progress, we want to destroy everything beautiful in our world, and contaminate the air we breathe, and the water we drink, then we are in trouble."

Try to sell that argument to the current resident of the White House. Better yet, get him to see the Butcher show, and maybe he'll reach the same conclusion himself.

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Michael Mills

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