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There's Something Fishy Going On

If you happen to stop by the Schacknow Museum of Fine Art in Coral Springs, resist the urge to take a closer look at the austere, enigmatic sculptures dotting the center of the main gallery when you first enter. They're worth waiting for. Proceed, instead, to the immediate left, warming up with the watercolors of Lee Gockel, a former industrial designer who has been painting since she retired in 1970.

The show is the "Spring Exhibition," and through June 14 it highlights the work, some of it first-class, of five Florida-based artists. But the museum -- or at least its name -- won't be around too much longer. The space at the City Centre was named in 1994 for Max Schacknow, after he donated $1.5 million to the city in exchange for gallery space to show his own work. But a couple of weeks ago, citing "irreconcilable differences," the City Commission voted unanimously to return Schacknow's money. He has six months to pack up his canvases and remove his name from the museum.

Despite what's going on behind the scenes, the museum is a lovely space for looking at art, which, in this case, demands more than just a gander. Gockel's Amythist [sic] is a fine example of the painter's flair for invigorating inorganic matter. The piece transforms the semiprecious stone into a cubist explosion of crystals that veers toward violent abstraction while summoning up a sleek forest of skyscrapers.

Similar subject matter in two other Gockels provides a comparable charge. The elemental flecks in Gold give what looks like a heap of rocks a glittering, elusive energy. And in Emerald a big, blocklike shaft of the gemstone juts out of a rocky landscape, stone giving birth to stone.

After Gockel the show shifts to a photographer whose images don't quite live up to her stated ambitions for them. In her artist's statement, Colette Copeland writes that she wants her Texture Series "to challenge straight photography and reveal the transparency of photographic truth." She proposes to do this "by focusing on a small part of an object, then enlarging it to create the illusion of an abstract painting."

A promising idea, even if Copeland doesn't take it far enough. Most of the dozen pieces on display are almost as bland as their generic titles: Venezuela, Portugal, Mt. Rainier, New Orleans. More often than not, the images come across simply as extreme closeups of segments of rocks and stone walls -- hardly illusions of abstract painting.

Only a couple of the photos push their subject matters into true abstraction. Palm Springs is blanketed with a mottled pattern of shapes that threatens to turn into something recognizable but doesn't quite get there. And the vertical striations of yellow flecked with greens and browns in Princeton could almost pass for a color-field painting.

Beyond Copeland the going gets rough for a while. In the watercolors of Jerry McClish, the choice of subjects seems not so much a matter of artistic obsession as one of narrow vision. Seen in rapid succession, paintings like Work Boat Regatta, Georgetown Regatta, Spinnakers, and A Friendly Race run together in a blur. Despite a nicely rendered sky here, an inspired handling of a sail there, we're left with the impression that if you've seen one sailboat you've seen them all.

McClish's landscapes demonstrate only slightly more range. Boothbay Harbor and Busy Port just shift the boats from the regatta to the marina. And what initially seems fresh about the cityscape Savannah Steps gets rehashed with Old New Orleans and Charleston. McClish ultimately comes across as a competent but not very inspired Sunday-afternoon painter.

Step into the adjacent alcove, then, for a surge of artistic vigor. The small space displays three abstracts, one per wall, by Felipe R. Luque, and taken together they form a magnificent, if spatially fragmented, triptych.

The central panel, an oil on canvas called Horizontal, features a streaky, unidentifiable object stretched just below the center of the canvas. What looks like a strip of paper with crayon markings seems to float in the pale, tan-and-beige sea of the background, sections of which have had mesh wire or fabric pressed into the oil to create a latticed texture.

Bracketing this strangely seductive piece are Oriental, an oil on handmade paper in which a T-shaped object hovers in space, and Brown Tela, an oil on canvas with, again, a sea of color surrounding an off-center square of abstraction. I'm at a loss to account for the serenity that emanates from these three pictures. And since these are Luque's only paintings in the show, it's impossible to say whether his other oils achieve such an aura of mystery, such a harmonious melding of form and content.

I suspect they do, judging from the extensive and equally impressive collection of sculptures that fill out the rest of Luque's part of the exhibition, making him the star of the show. Near the "triptych" is a semienclosed area showcasing a series of gate sculptures. Using odds and ends of steel salvaged from scrap yards, the artist has fashioned relatively small constructions that play off the archetypal form of a gate. He also applies such substances as hot soot, old oil, acid, and pigments to give each piece a distinctive patina.

In the same area is a mixed-media sculpture called Entrada that pushes the gate concept into abstraction. It's a roughly square piece that seems to be a hybrid of painting and sculpture, with brown, metallic-looking surfaces juxtaposed against hinged panels and carved wooden sections.

Moving beyond the "gate gallery" into the airy main hall, you'll encounter increasingly grand Luque sculptures, most made of steel, bronze, or a combination of the two. The most successful are the least figurative: the soaring steel column that makes up Gold Pegoyo #1, for instance, as graceful as a Brancusi, and the shorter, thicker column of steel and bronze called Birth, which breaks open two-thirds of the way up to reveal a couple of strange, shiny shapes emerging from the bubbly, lavalike surfaces of the interior.

The more literal sculptures don't quite click. A chunky steel piece called Clown feels unfinished, while the tall (ten feet or so) steel column of Triana, flanked by a couple of adornments at the base, is marred by the small human figure that seems tacked on as an afterthought. The quartet of small, figurative Luque pieces grouped on a table are likewise unimpressive.

But then there's a huge, wall-mounted, mixed-media construction, Gotico, the grandeur of which seems to be the culmination of the effects Luque gets from his gate sculptures. Once again, wood and steel are wedded in a symmetrical, carefully composed combination of panels and doors, set off here and there by rivets. The color scheme is a range of browns, highlighted by a few daubs of tan and beige. The piece seems to occupy a realm that's somewhere between wood and metal.

Playful counterpoints to Luque's imposing pieces are the whimsical fish sculptures of Rex T. Williams. Three large fish, carved fairly realistically, hang from the ceiling, while on the floor there's one arrayed on a serving platter as a Blue Plate Special. In the towering Man With Fish, the fish dangles from one hand of a man crudely carved from white wood, his unseen feet planted in a mosaic of blue tiles suggesting water.

Not far away is the mixed-media sculpture Fishhead Stew, which from certain angles looks like an essentially realistic wooden carving of a glassy-eyed fish's head, resting on two metal supports implanted in a base of stone and seashells. Step behind the head, however, and you'll see a virtual junkyard inside. Assorted metal pipes snake their way through the head, some containing smaller fish, and a number of objects scattered around, including a crumpled beer can, bottle caps, a cigarette butt, and a pop-top. Williams' wittiest piece, it's also one of the highlights of the show.

The Spring Exhibition is on display through June 14 at the Schacknow Museum of Fine Art, Coral Springs City Centre, 2855 Coral Springs Dr., Coral Springs, 954-340-4200.

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Michael Mills

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