South Florida Art Museums

Three current shows offer reflections on the mysteries of life, prompting questions often reserved for more formal houses of worship: Who made the world? Why do humans suffer? How best to celebrate birth or mourn death?

Small packages

Painter Sandra Gamarra observes the reverence with which visitors view art in a series of small paintings at the Bass Museum of Art. For At the Same Time ( Al Mismo Tiempo), Gamarra recreated photographs of visitors wandering through the Bass’s Taplin Gallery. She uses broad strokes; the details of the paintings and sculptures she depicts are indistinct, as are the expressions of the viewers.

Instead, a tilt of the head or a raised arm indicate the viewers’ rapt attention. In one triptych, a man crouches and two women kneel before an abstract, outdoor sculpture, moving in close for a better look. In another, a young woman lies prone before a group of Madonnas with children. She is either overcome by emotion or exhausted from taking in so much information.

Most of Gamarra’s paintings reveal only a swatch of color or the edge of a gilt frame from the artworks she recreates. Often she highlights instead the caption posted beside the painting, though she blurs out the words. It’s the experience — not the information — that matters. The Bass’s captions for Gamarra’s work explain that, for the artist, viewing art is an “act of faith.”

Sacred objects

At the Lowe Art Museum, many of the artworks now on display are literally sacred objects. Sacred Stories, Timeless Tales: Mythic Traditions from World Art juxtaposes wildly diverse pieces from the Lowe’s permanent collection.

Each is meant as a symbol of a mythic story central to cultures, from villages in the Congo to pueblos in New Mexico to palaces of Imperial China. Both good and evil are represented here, in the guise of turtles, antelopes, and twins (good) and dragons, demons, and ghosts (you know, evil).

Missing are the stories of the major world religions. The mythic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are likely left out for the same reasons that, according to one caption, Native Americans object to having their sacred stories characterized as “myths”: for the faithful, these stories are reality.

In fact, the captions on the wall proliferate like scripture. Every object requires extensive explanation: recounting the myth of the culture in question; locating the culture in space and time; describing the function of the object in sacred rites; relating the biography of the artist or the technique of manufacture, where that information is known.

How else could we know that the 6-inch piece of jade was a baby transforming into a jaguar for the Olmecs of ancient Mexico? Or that the 12-inch piece of sandstone is, for Hindus in the 10th Century, the elephant God Ganesh, breaking off his tusk to throw at the moon?

So many stories. So many gods.

Iconic images

Far less explanation is required for The Art of Caring: A Look at Life Through Photography at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.

Universality is the premise of this show, organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art and curated by Cynthia Goodman. Whatever tales we might tell ourselves, we are all born, love, suffer and die. Iconic images on seven universal themes have been culled from the work of contemporary stars, including Annie Leibovitz, Mary Ellen Mark and Sebastião Salgado; legends such as Diane Arbus, Alfred Eisenstadt, and W. Eugene Smith, and classics in the Time Life photojournalism archives.

The show predominantly depicts life in the United States, especially under the themes of “Children and Family,” “Wellness,” and “Aging.” There is a Guatemalan orphanage here, a Mongolian falconer and his granddaughter there, but by and large the birthdays, weddings cakes, cradles, and caskets are familiarly American.

Geography spreads further in Disaster, though at times the portraits of suffering captured by DiegoFernandez Gabaldan in Darfur and by James Balog in Banda Aceh run together.

The most memorable photographs are those where the photographer or the subject reveal a personal connection or an idiosyncratic detail. Photographer Mary Lou Uttermohlen affixes handwritten captions to a series of photos of an elderly woman whose arthritic fingers are bent at 90-degree angles: The woman explains that she couldn’t live without her “touch lamp”; doesn’t blame her family for not visiting on Christmas; and would rather die of cancer than suffer the pain of arthritis; but can still find a reason to laugh at least once a day.

In Memories (Me), dissident Shen Qi presents an enormous close-up of his own left hand against a red background, holding a grainy photo of himself as a schoolboy in China. The hand is missing a finger that Qi chopped off to leave behind when he fled his homeland.

Families and couples wandered slowly through the exhibit in Fort Lauderdale, calling to each other to point out one detail or another. At the Lowe, I read the explanatory scripture in silence, alone but for the two guards who stood always at a respectful distance. At the Bass Museum, visitors rushed past Gamarra’s paintings, arranged near the entrance, to the larger galleries that display the works she copied.

Like the divine, the artworks in each museum waited impassively, until a visitor would pause and in that moment revive the communion between viewer and artist.


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