Art

Hunters or Hunted? Reckoning with Sharks

Johnston Foster, "Life Psychotic II"
Johnston Foster, “Life Psychotic II” (2009), mixed media (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

When I arrived at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale to see the current exhibition Shark, I was greeted with smiles and a sign: “Selachophobia is defined as the strong fear or dislike of sharks …”

Shark features the work of over 70 artists from all around the world, each with his or her own perspective on the creatures. Four hundred different species are depicted, some as man-eating predators and others as mere victims at the mercy of humans who pollute and invade their waters. Curated by the revered marine artist Richard EllisShark is a multimedia event that highlights art in a variety of formats, from paintings to drawings, photography to sculpture and video. Each work taps into our primal fear of sharks and the mystery that has surrounded them for decades.

Robert Longo, "Untitled"
Robert Longo, “Untitled (large black shark portrait)” (2008), charcoal on paper

Perhaps what was most fascinating about the show was the feeling of terror many of the works invoke. Physically, many of the pieces are quite large, causing the viewer to recognize his utter smallness in light of such powerful specimens. Take, for instance, Robert Longo’s rendition of a Great White emerging out of darkness, “Untitled (large black shark portrait)” (2008). The shark is bone white, and your eyes are immediately drawn to its teeth, immense and jagged in its mouth. The artist plays on our inner fear by illuminating the shark and keeping its surroundings pitch black, deep and unidentifiable.

Judy Cotton, "Shark Fin Soup"
Judy Cotton, “Shark Fin Soup” (2011), oil on canvas

“Shark Fin Soup” (2011) by Judy Cotton takes a different approach. The painting touches on the commercial exploitation of sharks and the destruction we cause to their species and habitat. The artist seems to be asking who the true killers are — why we have, for years, regarded sharks as senseless killers when in fact we are the ones doing the bulk of the damage. In China, shark fin is a delicacy, an aphrodisiac used in soup (a bowl can run as much as $157) and other dishes. The people consider it a health tonic and consume it often. The nation of over a billion people is the world leader in fish capture, aquaculture and fish/shark consumption — although the government may be slowly coming around to environmentalist concerns, as it recently issued a ban on serving shark fin at official banquets.

Johnston Foster’s “Life Psychotic II” is an exceptional work constructed out of found materials. It reflects the physical and social environment that sharks live in. The strong use of shape and color is especially impressive, given that all the elements used were found in dumpsters, streets and abandoned alleyways.

In one room, the documentary Blue Water, White Death (1971) is showing. Directed by Peter Gimbel and James Lipscomb, it captures the four-month, 12,000-mile journey of a team fascinated by a Great White. The film was one of the inspirations for Peter Benchley’s book Jaws, which I wrote about previously.

Leaving the exhibition, my fascination with sharks, their power, mystery and conflicting reputations, was quickly transformed into a deeper obsession. I’m considering a tattoo, in fact — well, at least one of the temporary ones offered in the Family Activity Guide.

Shark is showing at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale (1 East Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale, Florida) through January 6, 2013.

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