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The Jury Is In

The first floor of the Boca Raton Museum of Art this summer is sort of like the South Florida weather lately: When it rains, it pours. I spent more than two hours in the museum one recent weekend and came away still uncertain if I'd absorbed everything there was to see.

Three shows are currently on display downstairs, all containing works of merit: the "51st All Florida Juried Competition and Exhibition," "Boca Museum Artist Guild Biennial Members Exhibit" and "Boca Raton Collects: Modern and Contemporary Masters -- Selections from the Collections of Jane & Jay Braus and Elayne & James Schoke."

Let's start with the big guns. Two years ago, I complained that both the "All Florida" and that year's Artist Guild show should have had their juried verdicts overturned on appeal. And last year, I took the "All Florida" to task for celebrating its 50th anniversary by including only 16 artists, more than half of them from South Florida.

This year, both the numbers and the overall quality are up. For its 51st-annual show, the "All Florida" includes 96 works by 63 artists, chosen from more than 1200 submissions from 416 artists by juror James Rondeau, associate curator of contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago. The artists are far more geographically dispersed, representing three dozen cities from all over the state. South Florida is still heavily favored, however, to the tune of roughly two-thirds of the works in the show; 23 pieces -- a suspiciously high number -- are from Boca Raton-based artists.

But enough with quantity. Is the work any good? If there's any question that juror Rondeau's specialty is contemporary art, look no further than the two droll installations by Coral Gables artist and professor Tom Scicluna that Rondeau names Best in Show. One is called Terminator and consists of two concrete parking curbs with separating lines painted on the floor; the curbs are lettered in German: Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work Makes One Free"). The other piece, Natural Selection, dangles a bunch of carrots from a red ribbon above a pile of potatoes.

The rest of the exhibition pretty much runs the gamut. Linear Deductions, a black-and-white photograph by a Fort Lauderdale artist identified simply as Zuska, is an appealing study in texture that resembles a segment of a roller coaster taken out of context. The oil on canvas My Mother's Ear Rings by Rudy Stevens Sayfie of Hollywood is an amusing if obvious joke, a garish female nude brandishing a cat-o'-nine-tails, wearing a leather belt and studded necklace and bracelets, and sporting pierced nipples -- as well as pierced ears.

Two oil and acrylic paintings on wood by West Palm Beach artist Paul Aho, Swimming at Night and Just Like That, suggest smaller variations on some of Robert Rauschenberg's congested combines, all pattern and texture. Jack Newman of Boynton Beach recalls the deadpan pop of Andy Warhol with 350° for 25 Minutes, which depicts a classic turkey TV dinner in close-up on a 49-by-65-inch canvas in acrylic and oil stick.

The best of the fairly traditional paintings are untitled oils by Daniel Stepp of Gainesville. One portrays a woman vacuuming while a man sits, presumably watching television; the scene has a vaguely unsettling air of ennui. The other is an even more disturbing domestic tableau set in an ordinary kitchen, where a woman with her back to us tends to something in the microwave while a shirtless, tattooed man sits nearby, fiddling with a large gun.

Shortly after viewing the Stepp paintings, I realized I had wandered into the small "Boca Museum Artist Guild Biennial Members Exhibit," which sort of bleeds into the "All Florida." Aside from a few abstracts in various media -- Barbara Longwill's oil Dinner Time, Robin Passman's mixed-media Detritus, and Mark Forman's Questions Never Asked -- Questions Never Answered -- there's little of interest.

At the rear of the museum is a far-more-engaging array of works: the latest installment of the "Boca Raton Collects" series, which this year focuses on art by modern and contemporary masters from the local collections of Jane and Jay Braus and Elayne and James Schoke.

The couples contribute about two dozen pieces each from their collections, both of which feature some big names. While the Braus collection is represented by only one piece per artist, the Schokes include multiple pieces by several artists, most notably such Americans as Milton Avery, Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, and John Marin. The two moody Hopper charcoals, The House and Artist and Model, both from the 1920s, are especially notable.

The Schoke collection also includes fairly lackluster pieces by such well-known French artists as Jean Dubuffet and Fernand Léger. Two standouts are untitled mixed-media works by a lesser-known American, Abe Ajay, whose abstract wood-and-wire assemblages are like smaller, lighter, and livelier cousins of Louise Nevelson's big, black constructions.

The Braus collection includes so-so works by some big names (David Hockney, Henry Moore) as well as representative pieces by others (Richard Anuszkiewicz, Red Grooms, Keith Haring). A note next to the ever-whimsical Grooms's Tea Set, which consists of the title objects made of carved, painted, and slanting wood, aptly likens the artist to "a cross between P.T. Barnum and Marcel Duchamp." The Brauses also have a typical piece by recently deceased American primitive the Rev. Howard Finster, whose works often adorned the covers of pop music recordings, and one by Faith Ringgold, whose Tar Beach 2 suggests that she's an urban disciple of Finster.

The two collections overlap just a bit. Each features a lovely low-key drawing by American Joseph Stella -- the Brauses have the graphite and watercolor on paper Sleeping Women with Dog, while the Schokes have the silver point and crayon on paper Floral Still Life. Both collections also boast a piece by Russian-born American Jules Olitski, with the Schokes coming out on top with a simple pastel called Late Twilight. The overall show, like its predecessors, is a reminder of how much world-class art resides in private South Florida collections.

As if the breadth and depth of these three exhibitions weren't enough, my fellow museumgoer and I ventured upstairs, as I almost always do, for another reminder or two of what extraordinary permanent collections the Boca Museum has and of how much more of them gets displayed at the museum's new, vastly more spacious location.

Taken together, the permanent collections number more than 4000 pieces (including about 160 sculptures that rotate through the Sculpture Garden outside -- which we also took in). They range from 19th- and 20th-century American and European paintings and drawings to a collection of more than 1500 photographs to a substantial array of pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican, West African tribal, and Oceanic artifacts, not to mention a particularly impressive selection of modern and contemporary works.

If you've never checked out these collections upstairs, you don't know what you're missing. And even if you think you know the treasures in the permanent collections, take another stroll through when you visit. The works continually rotate, so there's always a good chance you'll see things you might not have seen before.

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Michael Mills

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