The Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale's current big exhibition, "The Art of Caring: A Look at Life Through Photography," seems to trend backward for the museum. It's not a bad show, but it's far from the caliber of the sweeping survey of American painting the museum presented a couple of years ago or the more recent retrospectives of Norman Rockwell, Edward Steichen, and Tom Wesselmann.
As the title indicates, "The Art of Caring" is plenty ambitious, but it's also a bit bland. Despite individual images that please and the inclusion of some towering names in the field — including Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Annie Leibovitz, and others — the show never rises to the thrilling heights we've come to expect from a big photography exhibit.
At more than 200 photos, "The Art of Caring" is big, all right. But its themed sections ("Children and Family," "Love," "Wellness," "Caregiving and Healing," "Aging," "Disaster," and "Remembering") fail to ignite much excitement. It's a nice show, but it will never be mistaken for edgy.
For edgy, you have to make your way up the museum's interior staircase — itself a legacy of design by acclaimed architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. On the second floor, you'll find "Sight Specific: Explorations in Space, Vision, and Sound," a small but bracing show that hints at what the museum might be if it ever cut loose.
The show is the handiwork of Freddy Jouwayed, the museum's adventurous head of exhibition design and chief preparator, who invited 11 South Florida artists to, as the museum's website puts it, "create installations within the confines of specified areas of the second floor galleries." Hence the punning title.
It's a simple but inspired concept that delivers disproportionately. That staircase, for instance, is the focus for Stairway, Gustavo Matamoros' amplified sound installation that capitalizes on the acoustics of the space to generate an ethereal buzz. By the time you reach the top, you're immersed in its otherworldly hum. It's a fitting aural lead-in to Wendy Wischer's Woven, where a veil of "floating forests" inspired by Italian writer Italo Calvino's short story "Rhizomes" hangs, its miniature trees with tiny mirrored leaves casting ghostly shadows on the wall behind it.
Gavin Perry's nearby Cluster F*** is another hanging installation that casts shadows, in this case using bulbous, poured-resin forms that appear to be melting and frozen at the same time. The piece bears witness to concepts of process and transformation.
Other installations cast spells instead of shadows by immersing in environments that can momentarily make you forget where you are. Time of Friendship, by Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt, bills itself as "an experimental social space for the pursuit of happiness." But it's really just a sort of retro rec room featuring a wall of colored streamers, a trio of modified beanbags, and an altar-like console furnished with lamps, toys, and an old-fashioned stereo with vinyl records. An especially nice touch is an inverted map of the world to make us question our assumptions.
Another installation at the other end of the show, Clifton Childree's Mysterium, creates its own fully formed environment, this one inspired by the living room of Russian Symbolist composer Alexander Scriabin. Yes, it's as inscrutable as it sounds, although there is wall text that takes a stab at establishing some context for the experiment. One passage describes the installation as "an arcade game you cannot play," which heightens rather than illuminates the mystery.
In between is Modular Teeth, an installation wedged into an unlikely cramped space behind Time of Friendship. It's by Jay Hines and Bhakti Baxter, working as a team under the name Breakfast, and it accumulates a variety of found objects and materials to create what looks like a construction site for a project that will never come to fruition. It too suggests ideas of process and transformation.
This is all art, in short, that you might more readily encounter in, say, Miami's Wynwood District. It's somewhat jarring to find it here, but in a very good way. Forget Princess Diana and King Tut. The museum hasn't dabbled in work this daring since Matthew Schreiber's 2006 light-based "Platonic Solids" show. Its programming these days suggests the museum wants to appeal to a younger, hipper crowd — if that's true, this is the way to go. Then Tut might become just one more chapter in an ongoing narrative rather than a defining moment.