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Stair #1 at the Fort Lauderdale bus terminal.
Stair #1 at the Fort Lauderdale bus terminal.
Colby Katz

I've Been Searchin'

Late summer in South Florida is hardly the most hospitable time for art. Heat, humidity, and hurricanes conspire to keep people at home or perhaps in cool, dark theaters to take in Hollywood's latest exercise in mindless mass entertainment.

So those of us with a craving for culture have to get creative. One possibility, if you're willing to brave the aforementioned heat and humidity, is a walking tour of art that's there for your viewing pleasure, unencumbered by museum admission fees or gallery employees with attitude to spare.

In downtown Fort Lauderdale, for instance, you could use the east-west-north-south crux of Andrews Avenue and Broward Boulevard as a starting point and move outward to hit a handful of pieces of public art. Whether they're worth your time and trouble (New Times once described South Florida public art as "plop art") is open to debate, but I'll give you my highly subjective take.

Not far from that intersection, on the plaza just north of the Broward County Main Library, you'll find one of the most elegant pieces of public art in the area: Dale Eldred's Solar Time Plane. Created in 1986 for the county's Public Art and Design program, it's a 22-by-60-foot rectangle of metal panels that faces south and is tilted slightly upward. Under ordinary circumstances, it looks like, well, a plain metal rectangle. But when the light is just right, the surface of this simple rectangle becomes a shimmering display of color. The best times for catching the colorful display are -- wouldn't you know it? -- from November through February, although the "show" runs year 'round.

More or less around the corner, on the downtown campus of Broward Community College/Florida Atlantic University, are two sculptures that are similar, at least superficially, and simultaneously very different. Leonardo Nierman's Peace, which was installed in late 2002, consists of a compact concrete base upon which rests a set of half a dozen or so gracefully curved, interlocking pieces of stainless steel. It's airy and unassuming.

A stone's throw away is a much larger sculpture -- maybe as tall as 20 feet -- also made up of big, interlocking strands of metal. It's nestled, if that's the word, near the entrance of FAU's Reubin O'D. Askew Tower, and the piece is as bulky and awkward as the name of the building it's adjacent to. (There's no nameplate identifying the title and artist.) This is the kind of graceless conglomeration that gives public art a bad name.

Near the intersection of SE Third Avenue and Las Olas Boulevard there's another metal sculpture that's a little, if not much, better. Again, no title or artist is indicated, although the Downtown Development Authority claims credit for it as part of Art in the Downtown. It's a slender metal construction about 15 feet tall that from some angles suggests a stylized face in profile, topped with something vaguely reminiscent of a weathervane. All in all, it fits in surprisingly well in the plaza in front of Wachovia Bank, with its steady flow of pedestrian traffic.

Head on down Southeast Third Avenue across the New River drawbridge and you'll be in close proximity to a "sculptural park" featuring some of the most downright bizarre public art in the county, on the grounds of the Broward Judicial Complex. This series of related works by South Florida artist Barbara Neijna and New Yorker Ned Smyth is called Accordant Zones, which might be taken as a weirdly ironic characterization of art that seems to have been transported in from the Twilight Zone.

First of all, it must be noted that most of these monumental chunks of coral rock -- paid for by Broward County taxpayers, mind you -- sit on the south bank of the New River on the north side of the county's courthouse. That means that their primary audience consists of (a) visitors to the courthouse, who are likely to be either participants in a court case of some sort or potentially (and almost certainly reluctantly) jurors, (b) patrons of downtown Fort Lauderdale's Riverwalk, on the other side of the river, and (c) occupants of the Broward County Jail.

But forget, for the moment, that you might be contributing, willingly or not, to the aesthetic enrichment of the county's justice system and consider Accordant Zones as art. I used to refer, both affectionately and derisively, to two of the most prominent components of this work as the Tombs of the Unknown Rice Cake and Ice Cream Cone. Over the years, however, these two elements have taken on a, well, elemental appeal. It's almost as if the landscape has evolved to accommodate them. The cone, in particular, is now largely covered with a lush layer of vines that makes it seem weirdly appropriate to its setting (and given its dimensions -- 32 feet tall, 28 feet in diameter at its top -- that's no mean achievement).

Other components of this sprawling installation aren't so fortunate. A 16-foot sphere that might otherwise be commanding gets swallowed up in the cramped space it's given near the south end of the drawbridge on the east side of the courthouse. The half-dozen eight-foot coral columns that run alongside it also suffer from the lack of breathing space. They cry out for a spacious plaza.

For one of the best pieces of outside art in downtown Fort Lauderdale, you'll have to visit a most unlikely spot: the central bus terminal for Broward County Mass Transit, on the north side of Broward Boulevard just west of Andrews Avenue. Stair #1, created in 1988, is an exhilarating example of the work of the acclaimed design firm Arquitectonica, notorious for its "skyscraper with a palm tree" on Brickell Avenue in Miami.

The black-and-white-checkered marble staircase, with red, yellow, and blue accents, doesn't really serve a purpose, which is a huge part of its charm. (Remember Oscar Wilde's prescription for the uselessness of art.) Like The Jetsons, it represents a wonderfully weird confluence of the retro and the futuristic. When I first wrote about it years ago, I referred to it as "a piece of pure absurdist eye candy." That's a description I still stand by, as well as a serviceable definition for good public art in the offseason.

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