First, a quiz: Is the shark a mindless, man-devouring predator of the sea, a symbol of marine conservation or a woefully misunderstood fish that caught a Steven Spielberg-size bad rap in the '70s?
For the answer, wade through the nautical whimsy of Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale's newest exhibit, "Shark," and perhaps these three artworks: "Watson and the Shark," the iconic 1778 oil painting from John Singleton Copley, who never saw a shark in real life, depicting a shark attack on British merchant Brook Watson while sailing in Havana Harbor; "Great White Shark Portrait," the 1974 acrylic-on-board from Richard Ellis offering a nonthreatening profile of a great white; and "Catch and Release" by Johnston Foster, a gruesome, plastic sculpture of a dead shark, the apparent victim of shark-finning, lying in a pool of blood as baby sharks feast on its entrails.
That the shark is all three things — predator, prey and majestic beast — is the reasoning behind the "Shark" exhibit, opening Saturday and running through Jan. 6, 2013.
The show, says Irvin Lippman, the museum's executive director, is dedicated to the ocean prowler as interpreted through the eyes of 70 local and international artists. They address the shark's attendant mythologies, misconceptions and bad reputation, which is worse than that of the Miami Marlins.
"People, and especially artists, have never really lost their fascination with sharks," Lippman says. "The undercurrent of the exhibition is that the shark is seen as a predator in Copley's painting and the 'Jaws' movie, but also the demise of the shark because man is killing them to make shark-fin soup, disrupting the ecosystem and keeping the oceans imbalanced. This tension — the shark morphing from predator to prey — becomes interesting to artists."
Two years ago, Lippman tapped Ellis, a New York-based author and acclaimed marine artist, to guest-curate the exhibit. Lippman says the show initially began as a marine-life exhibit until he realized how popular — and divisive — the topic of sharks remained in public opinion. Ellis, a painter for roughly four decades, says he wanted an entire gallery devoted to the Spielberg movie.
"You can't make a shark exhibit without 'Jaws,' " says Ellis, speaking from his Manhattan office on a recent Monday afternoon. "Benchley wrote a book about a quote-unquote 'monster' that swims near the coast and bites your legs off. 'Jaws' was one of the most-influential events, but it's fiction, and it has an enormous negative role in shaping our perception of sharks."
Ellis convinced Jim Beller, a "Jaws" memorabilia collector, to lend various collectibles for the show, including original storyboard movie sketches, paperback-jacket illustrations, necklace "jawlery," a "Spiderman/Jaws" crossover Marvel comic book and, curiously enough, a snazzy pair of "Jaws" boys' underwear.
In his research, Ellis also hunted for shark artists online, and even called in a few locals such as Cayman Islands-based Harvey and Miami's Jose Bedia and Hernan Bas. Elsewhere, Marc Dando's 126 full-color illustrations from "A Field Guide to the Sharks of the World, 2001-2004," showcase more than 400 species of sharks.
"I tried to have an amalgam of various approaches to sharks — shark as object of art, shark as object of aboriginal culture, shark as movie villain — because I see them as separate issues," Ellis says. "It's united by the idea that you shouldn't fear sharks, because if sharks were obligate man-eaters, no beach would be safe. That's why people go swimming in Miami. They're not looking for ankles to bite. They're looking for fish to eat."
Mahmood Shivji, director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center, says shark attacks are "extremely rare" in South Florida, a coast visited most commonly by the nurse, lemon, tiger, spinner, great hammerhead, Atlantic sharpnose and sandbar sharks.
For its part, the Guy Harvey Institute added educational activities to the exhibit, including documentary videos targeting conservation, research and the shark-fin trade, and an official "Shark" mobile app letting users monitor the migratory patterns of sharks in the Atlantic using electronic tracking devices.
"We felt it was very important that we provide a realistic background about the shark's role in the ecosystem, and raise public awareness about these really serious issues," Shivji says. "It's to foster sympathy about the dire status of sharks around the world, that there's a real problem."
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When: Through Jan. 6, 2013. Opening reception is 6-10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd.
Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for children, free for members (reception is $20-50)
Contact: 954-525-5500 or Moafl.org