Martin Margulies’ collection a warehouse of somber thought

Doug Aitken's "Fountain (earth fountain), 2012'' at the Margulies Warehouse in Wynwood, 2013. Stefan Altenburger Photography Z

If you feel a little unsettled after you pay a visit to the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, that’s okay. There is a theme particularly with the photographs on display that suggests abandonment – empty houses, forgotten children, a world that has lost its way. But don’t let that deter you. This year’s exhibit curated by Katherine Hinds is superb, with some of the best examples from some of the best contemporary artists out there today.

Since Martin Margulies opened his space in 1998, his collection has been known mostly for sculpture and photography, which you’ll see easily when entering the converted Wynwood warehouse. The introductory piece is a new acquisition, a huge bird, partially crafted from oversized books, from Anselm Kiefer, Sprache der Vögel (loosely, the Language of the Bird). To call this a monumental piece is an understatement; it weighs three tons, and the 17-foot wings are made from lead. It is very German, with dark undertones of a tortured past.

Another new sculpture comes from Doug Aitken, and it too leaves you feeling somewhat disconcerted. The letters spelling out “ART” are dripping with brown ooze, in a piece named Fountain (earth fountain). Fountains should be calming, the sound of running water soothing, but in this ART, it has the opposite effect.

An easier sculpture covers a floor of one room, from Malaysian artist Simryn Gill. The bunch of spherical objects is made from various materials native to his homes in Malaysia and Australia — a study of form and physical composition, a really nice installation. In a similar vein is the grouping of colorful, woven birds, bowls and dolls, also gathered on the floor, from Marthine Pascale Tayou. There are also several simply beautiful (and also huge) Isamu Noguchi works placed around that you won’t want to miss.

On to the video and photography, some of which are challenging — but challenging in the way good art should be. The most dramatic examples come from the lens of Egyptian Wael Shawky, who has a series of photographs – stills in fact from a film — with the tell-tale title Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File 2012. They are close-ups of puppets, scary puppets that are in various stages of decomposition but still being controlled by strings. Egypt, of course, has been in the forefront of the Arab Spring revolutions that have yet to fully play out, with unintended consequences not yet fully revealed. These eight photographs alone will leave some of the most indelible impressions from any art show this year.

While wondering around the first and second floors, sound from the videos will follow you, drawing you inevitably into the darkened rooms where they are showing. The stop-action claymation from Sweden’s Nathalie Djurberg, Madeline the Brave, can’t help but grab your attention. It too is dark, with animated, deformed figures trying to comfort and protect each other. From Algeria comes another new piece at the Collection, presented last year at Germany’s prestigious dOCUMENTA (13), called The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures from Kader Attia. In sum, these are images of people and artworks in “repair,” being reformed, or deformed, by physical interventions, with the underlying collision of Eastern and Western cultures.

Several photographers are featured here who focus on abandoned spaces, and people. There are empty ghost towns in South Africa, and barely habitable shacks in Manila. And in a strange, remarkable image, a tiny house is pictured in unreal light, in the middle of a road as it presumably is moved to a more hospitable place. It comes from Gregory Crewdson, who is known for his elaborate, staged imagery. In one series, some very poor and unhappy Japanese children are photographed in black and white, while in another grouping, a bear is contemplating spilled milk in a dilapidated house.

But let there be some light, which comes from the mirror, neon and video sculptures. Jason Rhoades is represented by a neon piece called Shelf, which is a stacking of various neon signs and lit-up phrases. There is also a great neon wheelbarrow sculpture from the up-and-coming Ivan Navarro, who recently had a solo show at the Frost Museum and who was prominently displayed at Art Basel Miami Beach.

At the warehouse on this particular Saturday, visitors were confused and then amused by Elevator Pitch 2011, from Argentine Leandro Erlich. Accompanied by the ubiquitous ping of an elevator door opening, we look directly at Japanese workers riding up and down, then the doors close. It is so realistic that people walked over to get on the elevator themselves, only to find it is a video.

By far the lightest and happiest piece has been erected by one of the most interesting artists today, Olafur Eliasson. Open the door and walk up to the roof, surrounded by mirrors and light that make the world seem bright and endless.

Although the massive warehouse space can exhibit massive sculptures – and does — nothing can compare to the 42 tons of stone, three rocks from the Cascade Mountains, from Michael Heizer. They are still spotted with the natural debris from their original resting places. In fact, some of the sculptures would look and feel better outside in wide-open spaces, one drawback to the exhibit.

Another is the lack of local art, which is true with most all the private collections. This year, sculpture Miami’s Ralph

Provisero has a wood work hanging upstairs, layered planks made from soapstone, cedar and graphite that still reveal their knot holes and other imperfections. It would be nice to see more from Miami. But then, Margulies and Hinds want to show off what’s best, from wherever it emanates. For those interested in the power of composition, in form and frame, this one is hard to beat.