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While It's Hot

Whenever word gets out that a new art gallery has opened in Broward or Palm Beach county, I'm usually tempted to drop everything and rush right over, for fear that it might not be around if I hold off too long. Indeed, several times I've dallied only to find the doors locked and the premises vacated when I tried to visit.

Such is the dismal state of our local gallery scene, especially compared with its thriving counterpart in Miami-Dade. And so, when I heard that Saba Gallery had recently opened on Las Olas Boulevard in downtown Fort Lauderdale, I vowed not to repeat past mistakes.

It turns out that Saba was formerly in Miami's Design District and is now in a prime location previously occupied by Embler Art Gallery. It's a modest-sized but serviceable corner space, diagonally across from Mark's Las Olas, and the building is painted the same spiffy, mustardy yellow as the restaurant, making it almost impossible to miss.

What sets Saba apart is its emphasis on French artists, as in artists born in France as well as artists who are from elsewhere but choose to live and work in France. The owner and curator, Priscilla Krammer, is French, and on the day I stopped by, her parents, a sister, and perhaps another relative or two also turned up and made themselves useful by adjusting lights and taking on miscellaneous other tasks. (Krammer says that Saba is Hebrew for grandfather, although she named the gallery after her father.)

Given the limited space, Krammer and her gracious, knowledgeable assistants have filled the gallery with an amazing quantity (and variety) of art, and yet the place doesn't feel crowded or cluttered. Each work is presented with an accompanying text panel that specifies title, artist, dimensions, and price, along with a bit of information about the artist and a little PR fluff about his or her style (dates and media, unfortunately, are missing). This may seem like a small thing, but considering how many galleries can't be bothered with such basics, it's a pleasant surprise.

As for the art itself, well, it's a mixed bag, but isn't that almost always the case with a commercial gallery? There's quite a lot of what loosely qualifies as post-abstract expressionism — big, colorful canvases that manage to be stimulating without being too threatening. In the case of the Paris-based Jean Soyer, who gives his paintings odd numerical titles like 140/97 05 03 16 and 162/114 05 03 10, this translates to broad, dramatic swaths of pigment applied atop a background of a highly contrasting color.

The pieces included here by Etienne Courcelle, who lives and works on a boat on the Seine in Paris — is that a charmed life or what? — are less consistent. In something like Lineament, at about 51 by 64 inches, he creates a soothing blue space punctuated with red squares and multicolored stripes on a mottled surface that feels just right. Some of his other works come across as simply decorative, something to flesh out a room's look.

Among the handful of pieces by Maurice Arama, the standout is an abstract study in cool blues called Le Deuxieme Jour, which looks as if sand and tiny pebbles have been worked into the pigment for texture. Arama was born in Morocco in 1934 but has been based in Paris since the '60s, and the text panel identifies him as an expert on Delacroix, although you'd never guess that from his own work.

There was only one work by Jehan Legac on view when I visited, but it was seductive enough to make me long to see more. Legac got his start as a photographer working for the son of legendary French President Charles de Gaulle, and his Don't Look Back looks like a drastically manipulated photo enlargement. The image is dominated by an interlocking set of sensuous, curvaceous forms on the right that suggest a human figure without actually portraying one, and the sickly greenish yellows are surprisingly warm, just as the blocky blue form in the lower left corner provides an unexpected jolt.

In the realm of the figurative, there are several variations on a theme by Ran Gazit, a 54-year-old Israeli who has lived and worked in Paris for the past three decades. That theme is the tango, which he captures in blurry grandeur on canvases large and small. There's also an unassuming but lovely little landscape, Coin de Paris sous la neige, by Russian émigré Vladimir Naiditch (1903-80), that hovers on the border between realism and impressionism.

Commercial galleries often seem to approach sculpture as a sort of necessary evil and dot their display spaces with a lot of ghastly stuff. Saba, by contrast, presents some fine work. Myriam Franck's small bronze pieces, for instance, are nicely restrained studies in contrast, with gleaming, highly polished surfaces playing off rougher sections. And Nancy Gail Weissberg, a France-based expatriate from Los Angeles, plays tricks on our eyes with ceramics that mimic other materials. Her Tete avec dessins geometriques, for instance, is a big human head that looks amazingly like wood and includes realistic features disrupted by inorganic elements.

Although there's nothing brazenly political at Saba, Krammer doesn't shy away from showcasing artists whose ethnicity informs their art. An outstanding example is Alain Kleinmann, who was born in Paris in 1953 to parents who had survived the Holocaust. His works here are typically rendered in hazy metallic tones, each featuring a central image — say, a Jerusalem skyline — surrounded by multiple lines of Hebrew text. (Saba gets more explicitly political on August 10, when it opens its "Judaica" show with a fundraiser for the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel's Soldiers.)

I've saved the best for last: Homo Mediaticus, a remarkable installation by Roberto Moreno, a Venezuelan-born artist who was formerly a cameraman for network television. Saba has a handful of paintings by Moreno, and a gallery assistant told me he paints as a respite from his installation work, which is understandable — Homo Mediaticus is nothing if not ambitious and clearly labor-intensive.

The piece takes up about 25 to 30 square feet of floor space and sits on a white tarp streaked with black paint, cordoned off by white nylon rope strung between makeshift white stanchions. (The overall color scheme is basic black and white.) Four clusters of objects dominate the space: a white female mannequin sitting on a white chair; a bundled stack of newspapers streaked with paint; a round basket painted black, stenciled with the word RECYCLE and filled with discarded electrical components and fragments of plaster body parts; and a large cube collaged with newspaper and smeared with paint, sprouting ten featureless white plaster heads, one with a transparent cranium revealing circuitry.

Wait, there's more. Two metal hoses issue from the cube, one connecting to the mannequin, the other linking to the RECYCLE basket. And the whole conglomeration is animated by a pair of screens, both broadcasting the same seemingly random segments of black-and-white video. The larger screen is set within the side of the cube facing the seated figure; the smaller one is mounted in the middle of the mannequin's back.

Linger behind the mannequin for a few moments, so that both screens are in your line of sight, and you'll suddenly see yourself — there's a tiny camera concealed among the heads atop the cube, and from time to time, the prerecorded video footage is interrupted by live shots from this little camera, seamlessly integrated into images of, say, Elián González being rescued or fighter jets taking flight.

Such extreme art is not to everyone's taste, I realize. But Moreno's installation is easily one of the most adventurous works I've ever seen in a gallery this side of Miami. Saba has plenty of other quality work to recommend it, but this piece alone makes it worth a visit.

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Michael Mills

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