At one point during the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale’s sprawling new exhibition, “Shark,” I thought I might have to excuse myself to the restroom, because I had the not-so-sudden urge to vomit.
The feeling had been churning from my insides like a tornado, and it came to a head somewhere between Paul Hilton’s series of photographs of hundreds of sharks being finned in Yemen – as nauseating to an animal lover as the more familiar images of swinging carcasses in a slaughterhouse – and Judy Cotton’s “Shark Fin Soup,” a painting of a sliced-open shark hovering over a soup bowl, its “blood” dripping from the canvas to floor below. The trigger, perhaps, was “Catch and Release,” Johnston Foster’s sculpture of a mutilated, pregnant shark, spilling forth blood and pups, the ghastly scene hauntingly fashioned from repurposed kiddie pools, vacuum hoses, plastic table cloths and other found detritus.
With so much anger and sickness swelling inside me, it took a few minutes to regain composure and move on. I share this story not as a warning to avoid this portion of “Shark!” but to celebrate it. If the exhibit can prompt such a visceral reaction in its visitors, it must be doing something right.
In fact, “Shark!” does a lot of things right. The agitprop portion of the show is only part of it; it’s not all doom and gloom, and children age 10 or older should be encouraged to see it. Before shining a harsh light on the injustices of the shark kingdom – humans kill more than 100 million sharks per year, contrasted with the fewer than 20 humans that die from shark bites each year worldwide – the exhibition explores why the shark has been viewed as an enemy, a misperception that has extended well before “Jaws” frightened a generation of beach-going sharkophobes.
Much of the early artworks in the show depict the shark as the enemy of man, from Winslow Homer’s staggering mural “The Gulf Stream” to John Singleton Copley’s iconic, fear-mongering “Watson and the Shark,” which even depicts a naked, blonde damsel in distress about to be devoured by an unintentionally funny-looking Great White. In Gary Staab’s “Helicoprian” sculpture, the shark’s bottom teeth have been replaced by a circular saw, turning the fish into an industrial killing machine. An untitled charcoal drawing by Robert Longo exemplifies the sheer terror many people have had – and still have – toward sharks. It’s a massive close-up of a shark’s open mouth – a molten, metallic monster prepared to pounce.
The exhibition moves quickly into an educational mode, providing examples of chain-mail diving suits, devices for tagging and repelling sharks and even the world’s first underwater elevating shark cage, used by divers in the groundbreaking 1971 documentary “Blue Water, White Death,” which screens in its entirety at the museum. “Jaws” screens too, on a puny little television surrounded by an impressive collection of marketing materials, merchandise and trivia surrounding Peter Benchley’s book and Steven Spielberg’s movie.
Richard Ellis, a deep-sea diver and shark painter whose own works display a love, admiration and majesty toward his subjects, acted as guest curator for the exhibition. His all-inclusive selections strike countless thematic and artistic tones, from a number of magisterial Guy Harvey paintings – Harvey delineates the relationship between sharks and their prey with more vivacity than just about anyone – to Sebastian Horsley’s elemental, nearly abstract “Study of Great White Shark.” In the middle, we get examples of humor (Pascal Lecocq presents the diver/shark relationship as that of a matador and bullfighter), eroticism (Julie Bell’s “Beauty and the Beast” shows a raven-haired sexpot riding a phallic shark) and just-plain-weirdness (Kcho’s three-part sculptural series “La Familia” defies description, and needs to be seen to be believed).
My favorite piece in the show? That would be Ray Troll’s “Nurse Sharks,” a pencil drawing of four sharks swimming around the artist as he lies in a hospital bed. This loving, surreal work suggests the shark’s ability to heal. Even if such an ability doesn’t actually exist, it’s a harmonious thought – one that resounds deeply in an environment torn between bloodthirsty Great Whites aiming their predatory jaws at nubile flesh and humans themselves doing unspeakable harm to sharks. These two “opposing” factions could learn to nurse one another.
“Shark!” is at Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., through Jan. 6. Call 954/525-5500 or visit www.moafl.org.