The Naturals

Although nearly 100 pieces of art, some quite large, are on view in the fall exhibition at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, the works have been placed so strategically throughout the museum's 10,000 square feet that there's no sense of clutter or overkill. The spacious, airy, light-flooded main gallery, in particular, makes a wonderful sculpture garden of sorts for the show, offering plenty of room to walk around and take in the pieces from all angles before you head into the series of interlocking spaces to the left and the small, intimate galleries to the right.

"Elements: Steel, Wood, and Paper" features the work of six artists based in South Florida, and museum director Barbara O'Keefe has loosely organized the pieces by medium. Most of the main gallery is devoted to steel sculpture, leaving the partially open spaces to the left for wooden sculptures and a series of acrylic-on-paper paintings. Watercolors occupy most of the smaller galleries, the ones in which former museum benefactor Max Schacknow used to display his own work, and some acrylic canvases hang in the far reaches of that section.

The acrylic canvases are the work of Pat Rosenstein, who's more or less the "odd woman out" in terms of the show's theme. There's no steel, wood, or paper in her pieces, which are trompe l'oeil paintings that toy with light and shadows and textures to create near-photographic illusions of reality.

Rosenstein's best two pictures here, Divided We Stand and Cosmic Boxes, offer a disorienting aerial perspective of plain cardboard boxes, of all things. In the latter piece, she achieves an especially surreal effect; it's as if we're airborne above an urban landscape in which the skyscrapers are made of tall, narrow boxes. The remainder of her work is clever in varying degrees, but I wish O'Keefe had included another artist more in keeping with the exhibition's elemental theme.

I also have only lukewarm feelings about most of the watercolors O'Keefe has chosen, which make up roughly a third of the show. Some of Sylvia Judkins' pieces are appealingly playful (they look almost like assemblages of brightly colored paper cutouts), but the only time she comes up with anything out of the ordinary is when she drastically limits her color scheme, as in Moonlight, a dreamy chiaroscuro glimpse of a village landscape, and in Early Morning, an atmospheric beach scene drenched in fog.

The other watercolorist, and the show's only male artist, is John Bowen, who has an excellent eye for color but not much imaginative verve. His pieces are competently executed but about as generic as their titles -- Joseph Young House, Hollywood; Barrel Planter, Key West; and Vizcaya Stairway, Miami, for example.

Which brings us to the three artists who are the real reasons to see "Elements." Genie Appel is represented by only ten pieces, from a series also called "Elements," which focuses on stark, unpopulated landscapes. Her artist's statement brims with the sort of floridness that often emerges when artists try too hard to explain themselves: "My work deals with the issues of intimacy and isolation. In this current series… I am exploring the theme of intimate relationships in nature. As it is for human beings, natural components define each other when viewed together."

Fortunately Appel uses techniques that yield far more fascinating results. As she explains in that same artist's statement, she starts by applying modeling paste to 300-pound Arches watercolor paper. When it's dry she brushes thin layers of acrylic onto the paper, then uses a palette knife to apply more acrylic in thicker layers.

In a painting such as Facets, Appel ends up with a near-abstract composition of a rocky hillside rendered in vivid earthy browns, oranges, and greens, set off by unexpected purplish accents. She has a great sense of texture, too, here evidenced by a sky so dense it seems to have congealed. In Shadow Valley she gets the opposite effect, with an orange sun and a red sky so vibrantly painted that they look like volcanic lava flowing through the valley of the title.

The exhibition is dominated, at least in volume, by the sculptor Barbara Benezra, whose 22 pieces of various sizes dot the main gallery. Benezra moved from painting to sculpture about seven years ago, when she learned how to weld using an oxyacetylene torch. For some of her pieces, she attaches tropical leaves fashioned in steel to simple steel frames, which are then mounted on plain steel panels.

With Tropical Paradise Benezra takes those interlocking metal leaves, etches their surfaces to provide texture, and then wraps them around a large boxlike structure, perhaps six feet tall, to create a little room of sorts, inaccessible except from the top. Is she offering an ironic comment on the tradeoffs we engage in to live in the subtropical paradise of South Florida?

In the more whimsical Walking on High Heels, Benezra stacks sharp triangular pieces of steel on top of more steel triangles, ending with a frazzle of thick steel filaments that suggest the title activity is not nearly as smooth and sexy as Madison Avenue might have us believe. And in Tongues she serves up a jagged conglomeration of slivers of steel jutting from an irregularly shaped plate of metal perched on four thin legs. The piece both repels and attracts.

But Benezra also has her serene side. Wanting to Rock isn't much more than a gracefully curved strip of steel that's somehow oddly melancholy, while Towers I Through VI positions half a dozen austere structures ranging from about three feet tall to about five feet tall in a haphazard line. Again and again the sculptor returns to her primal form, the triangle, then stretches and distorts it, as in Zen, which consists of a small triangular table with triangular legs, topped with a mirror ball cradled in a nest of slightly curved steel triangles.

"Zen" might well serve as a series title for the exhibition's 16 wood-based pieces by Katherine McCauley, whose deceptively simple asymmetrical compositions offer, paradoxically, the perfect balance of Zen rock gardens, in which the tiniest details assume metaphysical implications. A piece such as Remembered, for example, is little more than two wooden panels of different sizes mounted side by side on a wall adorned by a fragment of a tree branch. The placement of the branch feels so intuitively right that to shift it even an inch would wreck the piece.

Like Benezra with her oxyacetylene torch, McCauley uses propane blowtorches, as well as metal-burning tools and candles, on the pieces of wood that are her primary medium. She sometimes supplements them with sheets of copper or aluminum and other materials. "The flame is the brush, the burns are the canvas," she writes in her artist's statement, and these metaphors are right on the mark.

McCauley's earthy pieces have the feel of objects used in mysterious ancient rituals, items from some obscure pagan altar, and she enhances this sense both with her religious-tinged titles and with the runes and fragments of archaic languages that she sometimes etches onto the pieces. Covenant, for example, is a wall-mounted horizontal wooden panel that holds a burnt tree branch and features etched characters from the Phoenician language. Vessels For the Ritual is another wall-mounted rectangular wooden panel, about two feet tall by four feet wide, that includes a crude piece of wood forming a sort of shelf and three charred gourds affixed to the panel, which is also etched with fragments of ancient Hebrew.

Sometimes McCauley introduces a few modest complications that reinforce the notion that she's working with remnants of lost cultures. For a trio of pieces called Reliquary, Sylvan Sanctuary, and Tabernacle II, she uses wooden compartments, their charred, hole-scarred doors ajar to reveal such contents as twigs and branches or pieces of silver leaf. Tabernacle II becomes an even more explicit altar by virtue of a small set of "stairs" mounted on the wall beneath the compartments.

Two side-by-side pieces tucked away in a corner of one small gallery represent McCauley at her most expressive. On the right Paleo Prayer, a stark abstract, is tagged as consisting of bird-pecked wood, acrylic, spackle, and burnt nails, which in its own weird way is as "elemental" a characterization of McCauley's art as we're likely to find. And on the left, Icon I: Observe As You Are Being Observed features a crude wooden frame around a shiny sheet of charred, acrylic-spattered copper leaf. A roundish piece of wood resting on a rectangular block of wood on the right side of the piece stands in for us, the observers looking into the image. The piece is a succinct reminder of the dual role of art as both a mirror and a window, as well as a resounding confirmation of McCauley's talent. She's clearly the star of this show.

"Elements" is one of the first few shows at the Coral Springs Museum since it severed its turbulent relationship with artist and philanthropist Max Schacknow, and it's the best sign yet that the museum, under director Barbara O'Keefe's leadership, has established an identity of its own.

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Michael Mills