Well Hung

A year ago there wasn't a gallery at Steven F. Greenwald Design, just a suite of interlocking offices, work areas, and cavernous storerooms. Greenwald was primarily in the business of custom framing, not running an art gallery. All that changed in December. Now a gallery -- divided into two sections: upstairs and downstairs -- serves as the centerpiece of Greenwald's sprawling 6500-square-foot complex, housed in the "mini Silicon Valley" stretch along the northern fringe of Fort Lauderdale's Executive Airport. And as you step into the gallery, it quickly becomes evident that Greenwald has a feel for his new venture.

The gallery space is open and airy, with high ceilings, exposed pipes and beams, and strategically placed strips of track lighting, and the art is displayed with a good sense of what should go where. While I was visiting, Greenwald had a flash of inspiration: He was showing a couple a limited-edition print pulled from a side room when he suddenly realized where the piece should be hung in the gallery after it's framed. He held the print up to a section of bare wall, and there was no argument, thanks to the space, the color of the wall, and the lighting -- the placement was perfect.

Although Greenwald says the works on display at any given time represent only a small fraction of his entire holdings, he has resisted the urge to cram the gallery with as much art as possible. The downstairs gallery is largely devoted to less than a dozen artists, each represented by several pieces so as to give viewers a sense of the artist's style and range. The balcony gallery upstairs is another matter. My guess is that Greenwald is still trying to get a handle on how the space should be organized, because there's an unfocused, unfinished feel to it.

The main gallery downstairs is currently dominated by the work of Rick Novak, a former truck driver whose artistic aspirations Greenwald has been nurturing for a while, with encouraging results. Novak works in oil, typically on large canvases, and his subject matter is mainly architecture, specifically structures in Miami Beach and Key West. Like so many artists, Novak has been seduced by the clean, graceful lines and the chalky pastels of South Florida's Art Deco buildings. Sometimes he parks a classic convertible in front of a South Beach hotel for dramatic effect, although he more often focuses on sections of a building or buildings. He doesn't quite go all the way to abstraction, but you can tell he's drawn to shapes and textures.

What saves Novak's work from being merely decorative is the way he skews and fragments his images. Rather than put the viewer in the usual vantage point for looking at a building, he adopts a point of view that's a little off. Instead of facing a building head-on, for instance, he goes at it from a corner or an odd angle. In the especially striking 307 Collins, he zooms in on a weird curving section of an Art Deco building, complete with "fins" that jut out and arc above the windows.

Also of note downstairs are several pieces by Soledad Silva, a Colombian artist who works in oil, often on wooden panels that provide images with a grainy texture. Silva is also preoccupied with architecture, but she goes several steps beyond Novak toward abstraction, transforming her buildings into almost interchangeable blocks that are rarely distinguished by anything more than a small window or door. Her work echoes some of Georgia O'Keeffe's stark paintings of Southwest desert architecture, with its earthy, sun-baked colors.

Greenwald has also given prime placement downstairs to a couple of large acrylic panels by an artist identified only as D. Mills (no relation), whose appeal eludes me. At best the abstract pieces Gala and Top Hat come across as a sort of deranged hybrid of Kandinsky and Miró.

Nearby are several oil abstracts by Cecilia Mayr. Some medium-size pieces hang at the base of the stairs leading to the balcony, one large piece looms above the bottom landing, and three much smaller pieces are mounted at the top of the stairs. The lower pieces don't quite click -- the compositions are a little too studied, a little too cluttered -- but Mayr obviously has a strong eye for color. The trio of works at the top of the stairs is more satisfying, although these pieces, too, seem somehow lacking.

There's a big payoff, however, in the upstairs gallery: a large, mixed-media work by Mayr, perhaps five feet tall and eight feet wide. When I visited, it was propped against a wall, unframed, waiting to be hung. The piece is called City by the River, but its rich imagery is so abstract that the title is more or less meaningless. Mayr has divided the canvas into roughly equal-size quadrants of color. Greens predominate in the upper left, browns in the upper right, reds in the lower right, and deep, luscious blues and purples in the lower left. Her handling of these fields of color is so deft that at first you may be distracted, as I was, from what else is going on in the picture.

Around the edges of these patches of color, Mayr has supplied some wonderfully ambiguous embellishments: dramatic swaths of oil, coupled with playful squiggles and smudges and smears, some of which appear to have been done in pencil and crayon. Here and there are areas of texture, created by pressing objects onto the wet paint and then peeling them off. A couple of areas boast glittering patches of gold leaf.

The whole painting seems to be unstable, in flux, which is what gives the piece enormous power. Just when you think you've pulled a section of the image into focus, deciphering its strange markings, something else draws your eye to another part of the canvas, and the picture dissolves back into abstraction. The piece actively engages the viewer's attention, urging a resolution of the imagery that can never be completely achieved.

The rest of the upstairs gallery still needs work. For every agreeable piece -- say, M.J. Deas' photorealistic lithograph Interlude, featuring a serene, formally posed young woman sitting on a stone bench in a sort of garden setting -- there are a couple of annoyingly cutesy pictures. The Nerd Dogs (who wear taped-together eyeglasses) and The Chimp Shot (a chimpanzee wearing a cap and brandishing a golf club), for example, belong in a souvenir shop, not a serious art gallery.

Such inconsistencies are to be expected in a new gallery that's still establishing its identity. In less than a year, however, Greenwald has helped create an audience for at least three worthy artists, which bodes well for his gallery's future.

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Michael Mills