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Who Needs a Curator

On my way over to the Gallery Center in Boca Raton, I expected to find a row of quaint little shops side by side in some trendy shopping mall. With any luck one gallery might have some art worth getting excited about. What I found instead was a sprawling, 30,000-square-foot complex that brings together under one roof eight independently owned commercial galleries. Most of the art -- and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces -- is museum quality. And as I was reminded by various gallery personnel, it's all for sale, at prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to a quarter of a million or so.

Even if you're not out to buy, there's plenty to look at, including sculpture, glassware, photographs, and paintings in oil, acrylic, and watercolor. While the center doesn't offer the kind of unifying vision a museum curator would create to organize a museum's holdings, there's something to be said for bringing together such wildly divergent art without attempting to impose order on it.

When I visited, the Coplan Gallery wasn't open, and Lipworth Hartman International was in the middle of assembling an exhibition. But the other six galleries were up and running, some with shows highlighting a specific style, medium, or artist, others displaying selections from their inventories.

On exhibit in Gallery Camino Real are pieces by Paul Aho, who works with oil and acrylic on wood. In about two-thirds of the recent paintings, the dominant motif is a stylized image of hummingbirds that seem to be kissing (Joined at the Beak is one title) while poised against various patterned backdrops. Aho gets a good deal of mileage out of his birds and, in another set of pieces, a floral design. Seeing them displayed together brings to mind Andy Warhol's silk-screens, with their endless variations on a theme.

I particularly liked Camino Real's nonchalant presentation of a Robert Rauschenberg piece from the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) project of a decade or so ago. Propped casually in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it corner, Bamhue/ROCI Japan consists of a 90-inch-long square bamboo shaft fitted internally with multicolored neon lights that flicker on and off. Because the piece's base is simply a brass electrical box and cable, it appeared as if someone had pulled the piece from a back room, then got distracted while setting it up.

Across the atrium, in Freites-Revilla Gallery, the main attraction isn't the big, pricey Botero (Pasco en Bicicleta), but rather the work of two Latin-American painters. In the portraits Rostro, Imagen 30025 and Rostro 20027A by the Venezuelan Edgar Sanchez, grainy yet fairly realistic renderings of faces are embellished with grace notes of color and form. As a result they look more like masks than faces. The Colombian painter Oscar Manuel Vargas, on the other hand, makes use of actual masks. Many of the people in his dreamy acrylic canvases, which recall the work of Giorgio de Chirico, wear the kind of armor helmets associated with knights. In the 60-by-36-inch panels of the diptych The Light Searchers, for instance, a woman and a man wearing helmets stand in a wooden boat as an array of clock towers float in the blue background behind them.

With the haunting Window, Vargas brings the surrealism of Rene Magritte into the equation. A checkerboard of gray squares dotted with four tiny men extends from vaguely defined layers of gray, blue, and green hills. Piercing the landscape are four red ladders, one of them extending through an open panel that reveals a patch of cloudy blue sky. A woman's head and an umbrella hover to the right. Though the painting doesn't make any literal sense, it suggests the eerie internal logic of a dream.

In Caesarea Gallery the only item of interest I spied was Water With a Twist, a large oil on canvas by Jeffrey G. Batchelor. At first glance I saw only a fountain. But closer inspection revealed a canvas within a canvas, because the fountain was actually a painting of a fountain resting on a wooden easel beside a small, black table supporting a glass of water. Aside from the lemon in the glass, there was another twist: the illusion of water dripping from the bottom of the canvas.

Realism, not illusion, is the strong suit at Indigo Galleries. Electra Stamelos uses watercolor to achieve an intricately detailed realism in Blue Cabbage and Koi Garden #2. More striking still is the oil-on-canvas realism of Thomas Boone, whose Areca Palm, Crotons, and Earl's Cactus exhibit the almost fanatical attention to the interplay of light and shadow that is a hallmark of photorealism.

Habatat Galleries and Jaffe Baker Gallery are worth repeat visits. Habatat specializes in glass sculpture (although one room features an exhibit of beaded artifacts from Africa). Especially breathtaking are the works of Dale Chihuly, an American at the forefront of the "crafts-as-art" movement, which argues in favor of elevating items previously thought of as functional -- pottery, glassware, et cetera -- to the status of art.

Though Chihuly creates large-scale abstractions in glass, most of the items on display in Habatat are multipiece sets that seem only a step or two removed from the utilitarian. The pieces in Green Lily Persian Set and Rose & Opal Seaform Set, for example, look like not-so-distant cousins of bowls, ladles, and tureens. But thanks to wavy edges and painterly swirls of color and texture, nobody's going to mistake these pieces for dinnerware.

Habatat also offers other styles of glasswork from all over the world. Another standout is Jon Kuhn, whose stunning Quatro y Quatro is a large, tilted, clear-glass cube with eight smaller cubes inside, each composed of even smaller cubes -- some clear, some tinted. The piece looks dramatically different from every angle, as do all of Kuhn's pieces. His Clear Oasis is a gigantic prism hanging from a set of wires attached to a spare metal frame. As it rotates it sends shafts of light in all directions.

Of all the galleries, the Jaffe Baker offers the most varied collection of art. Several large minimalist canvases occupy the main room, where they're given plenty of space to breathe. In the middle of Dan Christensen's Triton, a serenely austere 61-by-59-inch acrylic on canvas, is a large pale circle surrounded by ripples of pastel shades. Not far away, Dale Ohlson's 50/50, a 66-by-128-inch acrylic on canvas, also offers a soothing air, with its stark composition of black, gray, and peach rectangles set against a warm, gold-and-orange background.

One small room in Jaffe Baker Gallery features fifteen photographs from the '70s and '80s by Lynn Goldsmith, whose specialty is musicians. Among her best subjects are the Who's Roger Daltrey, his head half-submerged in water; Bruce Springsteen, sitting on a bare mattress in an attic room; and Annie Lennox, draped in strands of jewelry. I also liked the sculptures by the Israeli artist Boaz Vaadia, whose human and animal figures, made of substances like slate and bluestone, look as if they were sculpted from stacks of pancakes.

Liveliest of all is the surprisingly extensive collection of works by the internationally acclaimed American artist Red Grooms. Although he's best known for a 1962 "happening," or performance piece, called Burning Building and such installments as 1975's Ruckus Manhattan, Grooms is here represented by several delightfully droll constructions that take color lithographs and stretch them into 3-D. One small room is filled with seven such pieces, including Fats Domino, Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, and De Kooning Breaks Through, which cleverly superimposes Willem de Kooning's famous image of a bicycle-riding woman onto a more realistically drawn bike-rider. Essentially a social satirist, Grooms is like a gentler R. Crumb.

Another Grooms piece features a bullfight, with no less than Hemingway and Picasso among the observers in the stands. My favorite, Holy Hula, is a bamboo-framed color lithograph that shows a pair of missionaries flanking four topless dancers, with a surfer and an ocean liner in the background. Pull a plastic tab extending from the right side of the picture, and the women begin to dance; pull the tab coming out of the bottom, and the ship disappears below the horizon. This is art that warns us not to take it too seriously.

Gallery Center, located at 608 Banyan Trail in Boca Raton, includes: Caesarea Gallery (561-995-0985), Coplan Gallery (994-9151), Freites-Revilla Gallery (241-1995), Gallery Camino Real (241-1606), Habatat Galleries (241-4544), Indigo Galleries (998-2370), Jaffe Baker Gallery (241-3050), and Lipworth Hartman International (241-6688).

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Michael Mills

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