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They Came, They Served, They Blew It

A sense of deja vu hangs like a pall over "Eclectic Collectives," and with good reason. This first group exhibition by the New River Arts & Crafts Association, now at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale, is dominated by the kind of bland, innocuous art so often shown and sold at those neighborhood street fairs and festivals that are ubiquitous in South Florida, and it's displayed with shockingly little regard for the art.

Even under the best of circumstances, ArtServe is a vaguely inhospitable venue. It's housed in a branch of the Broward County Library, with all the traffic such a location entails, and the display space is a sort of fishbowl in the middle of the building, separated by glass from offices on one side, the library on another, and busy Sunrise Boulevard on another. At times the noise level reaches a maddening peak, with the automatic doors loudly clanging open and shut and high heels clicking across the tiled floor.

In these surroundings, an art gallery seems an afterthought, a classy tenant to occupy otherwise empty space. Who cares if an exhibition is set amid clutter that clashes with the art? Apparently not ArtServe. In this case one culprit is a monstrosity consisting mainly of a pile of colorful open umbrellas on the right as you enter the gallery area, a visually noisy distraction from the show. (I couldn't bring myself to get close enough to find out the purpose of the display.)

The first clue that something is seriously amiss, however, lies just inside those rackety sliding doors, in a sort of lobby-atrium where 16 pieces from the show are on display. Not one sign announces that this is the beginning of the exhibition that continues farther into the building, nothing to prepare us for what's to come. All but one of the pieces are labeled with title, artist's name, and medium but without any context the information is meaningless, and the art comes across as mere window dressing.

If you can find it among the piles of literature at the information desk, the exhibition brochure is slightly more helpful, although not much more. It informs us that the New River Arts & Crafts Association is a "Professional Fine Artists Cooperative" and "A Florida based tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporation," and it lists the organization's members, directors, and advisors. One of the six panels of this surprisingly uninspired brochure is devoted to -- God help us -- the group's mission statement. The remaining two panels feature sample reproductions of the artists' work, each not much bigger than a postage stamp. To add insult to injury, five of the fourteen artworks are inaccurately identified.

As for the exhibition itself, it's a highly mixed bag, with each of the fourteen artists represented by four to six works. Included are paintings, sculptures, photographs, and computer-generated imagery.

The digital prints of Dennis Emma are the show's most questionable selections. Two of them -- Moonlight Becomes Her and Center of Her Universe -- are little more than the sort of soft-core porn you might see illustrating a story in Playboy or Penthouse, with computer-perfect babes standing in glistening water, arms outstretched. Eye of the Beholder is moderately more interesting, although its two watery figures composed entirely of eyeballs are essentially just a clever visual pun. Emma's biographical note on the wall declares, "Unlike most of us, Dennis didn't know that he was an artist until he became enchanted with what he could do with 3-D computer graphics." Oh, really?

Most of the paintings and sculptures in the exhibition are also easily dismissed, unfortunately. Among the oils only Rachel Zmurchak's Water Lilies is notable, mainly for the Everglades twist it applies to a subject most famously associated with Monet. And the canvases of the Brazilian-born Naza, now based in Boca Raton, treat familiar material with a fascinating technique. With Florida Panther, Toucan II, and Portrait of Filizola's Children, we seem to be looking at the subjects through veils of distortion. The images are made up of overlapping squares and rectangles, and their surfaces have a tantalizing texture, as if Naza had applied tissue-thin layers of paper to the canvas, then painted over them to create a topography of creases and wrinkles.

Of the two dozen watercolors in the show, most are landscapes that are competently executed but also completely generic, despite titles that try to anchor them to particular places. For instance, Thomas Sullivan's Sunday on South Beach has a lovely feel for a side of that trendy locale that we rarely see, but his other pieces, like those of Peg McShea and Ted Grier, are flat and uninvolving.

The standout watercolorist here is Robert Gross, who, as exhibition curator, had the good sense to give four of his five pieces an enviable display space. The medium-size horizontal paintings entitled McNab, Looking South From Imagination Farm, Last Light, and Dusk are similar in both subject matter and execution. They're mounted on three panels that form a small alcove, and in their isolation they complement one another beautifully. (Too bad the artist's fifth piece, Everglades West, is out in the entry space and not among his others, where it belongs.)

Each of the pictures is a pale landscape that evokes the South Florida of the past, with vast open spaces stretching toward a distant horizon, populated only by a scattering of cattle. Gross works with a muted palette of delicate pastels suitable to his stark compositions, and he has a glancing touch that lets the texture of the paper show through the pigment. He also has an extraordinary feel for the play of light across a landscape. Looking South From Imagination Farm, for instance, is bathed in a gorgeous wash of soft orange tones that give the cattle in the foreground an unearthly glow.

The sculptures are even more variable in quality than the paintings. Sylvia Hurst's Regatta, a soaring abstract made of white Carrara marble and steel, has an appealing simplicity, as does Jo Hurst's pink lace alabaster Torso, with its gentle curves and network of crisscrossing pinks and whites. But both sculptors falter with other pieces, which range from overconceptualized to downright clunky.

Sculptor Steven Bleicher, an instructor at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, is represented by five lackluster pieces. Three of them, consisting of irregularly shaped columns of wood atop round jars of various sizes, are in the main gallery on a low pedestal, beside four little placards that presumably identify the three pieces and a missing fourth -- another example of how indifferently this exhibition has been assembled. The other two, featuring larger versions of the wooden columns mounted not on jars but on platforms, are in the entry area.

The "woodturnings" of sculptor Mitchell Wolok are much more impressive. Wolok takes pieces of such woods as mahogany, royal poinciana, cedar, ash, rosewood, Alexander palm, canary wood, and ebony and then shapes them on a lathe, often with dramatic results. Some are vaselike vessels that juxtapose highly polished wooden surfaces with rough, unfinished edges, and one is a collection of five small cylindrical boxes of varying sizes.

The show's best selections are the works of two photographers clearly influenced by Clyde Butcher. The silver gelatin prints of Louis Williams don't quite match those of Butcher in terms of striking contrasts of black and white and gray, although a piece such as Sea of Grass V, with its ominous dark cumulus clouds gathering on the horizon, comes close. And with a photograph called Juniper Tree, an image of bare, sprawling branches set against a stony backdrop, Williams conjures up the American Southwest of Ansel Adams.

Bob Hudak's photographs are even better. With such landscapes as the gold-toned print Loxahatchee River, Florida #2, the platinum palladium print Hillsborough River at Dusk, Florida, and the silver gelatin prints Aspens: Afternoon Thunderstorm, Wyoming and Loxahatchee River, Florida #4, he achieves the glorious balance of light and darkness that's characteristic of so much of Adams' and Butcher's work.

The photographer is just as deft when he turns his eye to closeups of foliage. His Leaves, Miami Botanical Gardens and Palm Frond, Florida, both silver gelatin prints, transform pieces of the natural world into arresting abstracts. The latter abstracts its subject almost beyond recognition, leaving us with what seems to be an alien landscape with dramatic striations of light and dark streaming from its horizon.

Hudak in particular deserves much better than this seemingly thrown-together ArtServe exhibition gives him. (I wouldn't be surprised if he has enough first-class work to merit a one-man show.) Then again, even the least accomplished of his New River Arts & Crafts Association colleagues deserves better. ArtServe should either change its name or live up to its name by actually serving the art it presents.

"Eclectic Collectives" is on display through March 15 at ArtServe, 1350 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-462-9191, ext. 304.

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Michael Mills

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