If you think you have contemporary watercolor painting pegged — it's a nice medium, for nice Sunday-afternoon painters who make nice, safe, boring art — then you'll find Miles Batt's retrospective as bracing as a slap in the face. Fort Lauderdale-based Batt doesn't exactly reinvent watercolor, but he's so alive to its possibilities that sometimes it feels like it.
There are close to 60 works in this look back at Batt's output now at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, and with the exception of two early-career acrylics, all are watercolors. There's a run of nearly a dozen paintings at the beginning of the show that are so adroitly conceived and executed that it's easy to forget they're watercolors. This particular batch made me think, improbably, of Matisse and Miró.
There's a riot of color and activity going on in these paintings. It's almost as if Batt had suspended the normal laws of physics, because the imagery seems to swirl and dance across the paper without regard to gravity. The droll, whimsical compositions are densely packed and highly varied — your eyes can get lost as you try to make sense of everything the artist has crammed into them. It doesn't help that Batt freely intermingles abstract and representational elements.
A few paintings into this series, I began to pick up on Batt's idiosyncratic visual language. He often appears to start with the basics of a landscape, which he then punctuates with flourishes he seems to have settled on simply because he likes the way they look on the page. For instance, Thunderclap Near the Sea of And (1991) revolves around a collection of ampersands, which coexist alongside stars, a musical note, the letter x, a bolt of lightning.
Stripes and other patterns reoccur from painting to painting, most of which come from the 1990s. The patterns create a sort of thread that runs through the work. One visual element that reappears most reliably looks like those little round tabs on the backs of interoffice envelopes — the ones that come in pairs, with a string that ensures the envelope closes securely. Whatever that little thing is called, Batt is obsessed with it, particularly the variety that comes in red. It insinuates itself into painting after painting after painting, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in multiples. I could speculate that it signifies unity to the artist, but I suspect it's just a device, a way for Batt to put his stamp on his works just as consistently as a signature.
When I first began to notice it, I thought it was clever if a bit quirky. Then it began to annoy me ever so faintly, like a gimmick that grows old. And finally, I began to feel something like an odd affection for those little red dots. By the time they take center stage near the end of the show, seeing them is sort of like running into an old acquaintance.
Ubiquitous red dots aside, Batt's output varies widely. A work like Mac Kerricher (2007) has a less cluttered, more serene feel that summons up Matisse's cutouts. One series abandons saturated colors and carefully worked-over surfaces in favor of brushwork that is freer and more spontaneous as well as somehow less engaging. Another series in which varieties of candy are prominently featured struck me as self-indulgent.
Credit Batt throughout with expanding on the possibilities of his medium. Take Day of the Amaryllis (2007) as a fine example of how he typically goes a step beyond where a Sunday-afternoon watercolor painter might leave off. The big flower of the title is beautifully rendered, but it's the scary-looking ceremonial masks flanking it that really grab and hold our attention and take the image out of the realm of the ordinary.
The Batt retrospective is accompanied by a small sampling of three-dimensional works, "Lothar Nickel: Sculpture," featuring the work of the German sculptor who was the Coral Springs Museum's artist in residence back at the beginning of 2001. Included are works in marble, ceramic, and bronze, and with the exception of Olive Sheep, which flirts with representation, all are essentially abstract. Nickel seems to have an affinity for rounded forms, although from time to time, he abruptly shears off the surface of such a form, leaving one facet flat.
The centerpiece here is a large work called Striding, which was completed when Nickel was artist in residence, fashioned from a 1.5-ton piece of Carrara marble he picked up the previous summer in Pietrasanta, Italy. It's a soaring, curvaceous form that looks as if it's about to take off from the rectangular slab of gray marble on which it rests. The stone itself is magnificent, its milky white veined with soft gray, and looking at it, you may get a vicarious sense of the wonder Nickel must feel when he embarks on a sculpture. This little exhibition, which otherwise seems too small, could use more work imbued with such grandeur.