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Mark Handforth's colossal sculpture Blue Hanger dangles from the rafters near the entrance of the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. It's gigantic enough to accommodate King Kong's pelt.
In an adjacent gallery, his massive Silver Wishbone would dwarf an armored truck and makes one wonder how the artist got the sculpture inside the space. These works and others are on exhibit as part of "Mark Handforth: Rolling Stop," a survey of the Hong Kong-born, Miami-based artist's work from 1998 to the present.
The exhibit marks a triumphant return of an artist who was the first local to have a solo show at MOCA, in 1996. As the museum celebrates its 15th anniversary, Handforth's sprawling show features 25 works, several monumental in scale and two radiating outward into the community. Together, the works reflect how the artist's oeuvre and the museum's reach have grown.
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Handforth, who often employs elements of urban iconography such as lampposts, neon lights, iron railing, construction beams, phone booths, and street signs in his work, says he has had a love affair with the Magic City's landscape since moving here in 1992.
"Miami transformed the way I relate to the city and made me aware of how the city relates to nature in a strange and beautiful way," Handforth explains. "When I first moved here, I lived on the Beach and there was neon light everywhere. You had this amazing combination of natural and artificial light illuminating the landscape in spectacular ways."
Miami's bright neon lights are a fixture in the work of the artist, who grew up in Britain and later studied in Germany.
Several of Handforth's blinding light pieces fill MOCA's galleries, retooled for this exhibit, with a resplendent glow. His major light installation, Eclipse, occupies a hundred-foot swath of wall, floor to ceiling. Its brilliant fluorescent beams engulf the spectator while bringing to mind South Beach's dazzling heyday in a distinctly poetic way.
The enormous installation conveys the notion of an eclipsed sun at the center, with shadowy negative space.
Likewise, Handforth evokes a sense of the otherworldly outside the museum with his breathtaking Electric Tree sculpture at the City of North Miami's Griffing Park, where he has traced the limbs of a soaring banyan tree with scores of fluorescent tubes.
As the sun sets and the haunting arboreal light show captivates park dwellers, Handforth's living sculpture becomes a site of pilgrimage, animated chatter, and thoughtful reflection. "The tree at Griffing Park took awhile to install," Handforth mentions. "We also had to remove a wall at the museum to get the larger works inside the space, which took about a month of work. The idea was to create an otherworldly landscape both inside and outside of the museum. I have this old-fashioned idea of culture being a universal language that connects people. I think the tree clearly draws people to a place and serves a social function."
The artist's approach unmoors common objects from their environs to create works that make viewers consider the world around them once they leave the museum. "I think we all live in a sculptural landscape and are surrounded by things that are part of the wider landscape that attract me visually and are reasons why I make sculpture rather than paintings," Handforth explains.
Take for instance his Lamppost Snake, one of the newer works on display at MOCA's entrance. Handforth wrily transformed the familiar object, a ubiquitous light post illuminating our city's streets and highways by night, with a playful gesture to appear not unlike a looming, coiled serpent.
Knotted at the bottom in a feat defying belief, the massive steel structure also gives the impression a giant plucked it from the asphalt to stir a cocktail as if the lamppost were a flimsy drinking straw and then tied the end into a tangle after getting tipsy. "I like playing with a sense of scale and distortion," Handforth says. "There is something about tall things that draw the attention, and I like to bend them down or place them on their side or coil them in a serpentine fashion until they almost become like a dinosaur."
The artist's near-reverential awareness of his environment is perhaps best reflected in an earlier piece roped off in a corner space and illuminated by old-fangled candle wattage rather then electrical power.
The mixed-media opus, titled Vespa, is one of the omnipresent motorbikes typically found clogging street corners in Rome, where Handforth spent a year when his wife, artist Dara Friedman, won the Rome Prize and was awarded a residency at the American Academy.
His sculpture is covered by several lighted candles dripping wax over the scooter in flowing rivulets of color, evoking comparisons to Rome's ancient, patina-covered fountains.
The beguiling sculpture conveys a notion of melancholy imbued with a distinct pop sensibility.
Handforth was struck by the legions of iconic Vespas puttering around Rome or even parked in rows along curbs, reminding him of herds of "little animals."
As a youngster, Handforth says, he spent a lot of time in churches after his father, an Anglican minister, was assigned a vicarage in England.
"I was an altar boy, so I love snuffing and lighting candles," Handforth remembers. "In Rome there were candles and Vespas everywhere. As an artist living there, I thought, OK, what am I going to do?, so I started buying the Vespas and melting candles on them."
Handforth adds that he purchased several of the motorbikes at the City of Fountains' version of the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market. "It was called the Porta Portesi, and like Hialeah, you could find all kinds of stuff there, so I bought a few Vespas to bring back home to make work with.
"You light these candles on them and the Vespas become these beautiful, ever-changing things that are like nature and always transforming organically as the candles drip wax and reference Rome's fountains pouring liquid that freezes into these molten forms like a growing fungus. It's all about change and those forms that sit between the liquid and the solid."
At MOCA, Handforth convinces that he has an unpredictable gift for playing with quicksilver to create works that transport viewers to unexpected realms.
His homecoming is an eyeopener of the first order and a rare opportunity to experience the work of a transcendent Miami talent whose art is in hot demand in cultural capitals around the globe.