Two of the most famous works of Western art involving sharks can be found in the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale's epic-scale look at the shark in art, although not as originals. Winslow Homer's The Gulf Stream, painted in 1899 after the artist made two trips to the Bahamas, greets you on a large, curving wall as you enter the exhibition. Even in a slightly grainy enlarged reproduction — the original is in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art — it's a grand work of art, with a muscular man perched perilously on a small boat, surrounded by a sea churning with sharks.
The other work, also a painting, is John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark, seen here in a copy. It's more cartoonish and, owing to its late-18th-century origins, less anatomically correct, but it also holds up well. Here the would-be victim is already in the water — naked, no less — with the great fish closing in. Centuries before Steven Spielberg unleashed Jaws on the world, artists were well aware of the majesty and horror of sharks.
Perhaps the most famous shark-based piece of contemporary art, however, is conspicuous by its absence: Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, with its massive, embalmed shark floating in a vitrine of preservative. Hirst is represented here by a much less formidable work, Dark Rainbow, which consists of gaping shark jaws rendered in resin, rimmed with multicolored teeth.
In between are sharks of almost every conceivable variety. The walls of the museum's entire first floor are blanketed with paintings of sharks, drawings of sharks, photographs of sharks. Sculptures of sharks mounted on pedestals dot the galleries, while still more sculptures are suspended from the ceiling. The show's tag line boasts "400 species. More than 70 artists. One exhibition to devour."
There's plenty of wall text covering sharks from all angles, from their history and anatomy to their role as artistic subject matter. The deeper into the exhibit you get, the more keenly you become aware of the precarious ecological status of sharks today. Elsewhere along the way, you'll encounter an alcove with continuous screenings of Blue Water, White Death. The 1971 documentary is about a quest for the great white shark and is said to be one of the inspirations for Jaws, which itself plays on a loop on a video monitor around the corner. Jaws memorabilia abounds.
The best fine art focusing on sharks is, to my mind, near the beginning of the exhibition. Robert Longo's enormous, untitled 2008 charcoal of a shark's cavernous maw is as horrific an image as they come. Two oil-and-acrylic paintings by Sebastian Horsley are almost as powerful, evoking the dreaded teeth but relying more on spatters of blood and viscera.
Not far from the Longo is a handful of works by Hispanic artists who have a great feel for the material. A Cuban known simply as Kcho creates three clusters of swarming sharks carved in wood, while Cuban exile José Bedia's tiny Final Destiny portrays a shark whose innards are filled with fishes and what remains of a human being. Hernan Bas photographs young men with shark fins strapped to their bodies.
Best of all is Sandra Ramos' La Balsa ("The Raft"), a richly layered work in which the island of Cuba becomes a shark-shaped raft, afloat among many other smaller sharks. Dense, allusive, packed with history and metaphor, it remains as infinitely mysterious as the subject of this sprawling, surprisingly satisfying show.