There is no sarcasm or pretense in Bonnie Clearwater's voice when she describes the pair of exhibitions opening at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale as "Basel bait."
The museum's new curator is referring to Art Basel, the tourism tornado that barrels through Miami-Dade County every December, and how exhibits such as "Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary Art, Craft and Design," opening Saturday, Oct. 12, and "Roman Vishniac Rediscovered," opening Oct. 19, should pull a few highbrow art collectors across the county line.
"I think that the timing is great, and in the international art world, lots of people coming from [the Basel art fair] Design Miami have told me they're coming. We're promoting these two heavily," says Clearwater, who for 18 years was the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. "Innovative design and architecture are a niche we can provide at the museum. It's a conversation worth having."
"Against the Grain" and "Roman Vishniac Rediscovered" are worth talking about. The first exhibit, composed of roughly 90 works, compresses more woodworking marvels into the museum's main gallery than an IKEA showroom. The choice to devote an entire exhibition to wood, an abundant art material "dating back to the cavemen," both appealed to and daunted curator Lowery Stokes Sims, who felt inspired after hearing sculptor Martin Puryear lecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
"Martin talked about the practice of sculptors having their own works prefabricated in a factory, as opposed to being more do-it-yourself. I liked the do-it-yourselfers," says Sims, curator of New York's Museum of Arts and Design, in a phone interview. "So then, I thought, 'Well, do I want to start with 20th century modernism, when woodworks turned away from all those fussy Victorian sensibilities. Or did I want to start with the year 2000, where wood artists began playing with utility and the notion of what pure sculpture is, the idea that the wood presents itself as one thing and masquerades as another?' "
"Against the Grain" is a whimsical and design-driven blend of the latter, featuring 57 top-drawer artists such as Ai Weiwei and Willie Cole, renowned sculptors in Ursula von Rydingsvard and Puryear. Cherry-picking through hundreds of contemporary wood artists to assemble the show proved less difficult to Sims than naming the exhibit.
"We thought of 'Philosophy of Wood,' which sounded weird, and then all the naughty puns on wood you can think of. We just went whole hog," Sims says with a laugh. "Then, we thought of hipster, cool, rap things we could do. And then, we hit on 'Against the Grain,' which is every cliche we wanted to avoid. But it made sense, because the show is nothing if not a pastiche of parody."
Sims is hardly joking, and a recent tour of the museum revealed wood creations both comical and mischievous. There is Mark Moskovitz's "Facecord," a dresser that resembles an innocuous stack of firewood when its drawers are shut; Thomas Loeser's near-unpronounceable, Tim Burton-esque dual-purpose-chair "LadderbackkcabreddaL," which begins as a rocking chair that can be turned over to form a dining seat; Yufa Ushida's "Sofa_XXXX," a latticework of 8,000 matchsticks that contracts into a chair and expands into an elegant sofa; and Cuban-born Maria Elena Gonzalez's "Skowhegan" series, in which birch strips are scanned into a computer and turned into musical patterns on rolls for player pianos.
The museum's upstairs gallery will carry the unrelated "Roman Vishniac Rediscovered," a display of 160 photographs, letters, contact sheets and post cards created by the late Russian-Jewish photographer, best-known for social documentary shots that charted the ominous rise of Nazism in Germany before WWII. Many are haunting and elegiac, documenting downtrodden Jewish villages in Berlin between 1933 and 1938, snapped when Vishniac worked for the relief organization American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Curator Maya Benton, whose International Center of Photography in New York loaned the Museum of Art the exhibit, says Vishniac shot street scenes in impoverished cities and market towns of Eastern Europe to provoke empathy, the same way Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans captured Great Depression-era poverty back in America.
"He wanted the images to resonate, and sometimes he would embellish history with the power of the photograph to effect social change," Benton says. "This isn't a justification. It's the context of what many social documentary photographers did throughout history. He wanted to capture the faces of a community he knew would ultimately perish."
A decade in the making, the show was built by Benton and Vishniac's daughter, Mara. The two hit it off in 2001, when Benton explained that her grandparents were Yiddish-speaking immigrants and Holocaust survivors. Although Vishniac's street images would be used by Steven Spielberg to inspire the Oscar-winning cinematography for "Schindler's List," the curators wanted to debunk the idea that Vishniac was strictly a photographer of anti-Semitic unrest in a pre-Holocaust world.
Benton and Vishniac's daughter pared down an archive of 30,000 artifacts, including 15,000 prints and 10,000 negatives largely unpublished before the photographer died in 1990. There are stark depictions of Jewish children wandering cobblestone courtyards in Berlin, anti-Semitic demonstrations by Polish right-wing nationalists and even solitary shots of a young Mara, shown against a backdrop of election posters bearing the portrait of a just-elected Adolf Hitler. But the exhibit also shows Vishniac's little-known later career, which features images of Jewish immigrants arriving in America, Berlin's postwar ruins and, later still, his fascination with American nightclubs and scientific microorganisms.
"He wasn't just a four-year photographer," Benton says. "He was much more accomplished in the 20th century than people realize, and he had a really long life reinventing his aesthetic."
Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary Art, Craft and Design and Roman Vishniac Rediscovered
When: "Against the Grain" opens Saturday, Oct. 12 (reception: 6-8:30 p.m. Saturday, includes lecture by Lowery Stokes Sims); "Roman Vishniac" opens Saturday, Oct. 19
Where: Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd.
Contact: 954-525-5500 or MOAFL.org