Ziggy Stardust (USA), 2004

It’s not too much of a stretch to call North Miami a bit of a cultural backwater, but during Art Basel Miami Beach, it’s a de rigueur destination for the global art world in-crowd. Simply put, the Museum of Contemporary Art is the place to be on the eve of the festival. MOCA’s been rolling out must-see exhibitions ever since Art Basel Miami Beach began, in 2002. This year’s show features Rolling Stop, an assortment of 25 sculptural works by Hong Kong-born, Miami-based artist Mark Handforth.

Handforth, who tends to employ various types of light and urban iconography (such as fire hydrants, phone booths, and street lights) in his often-expansive creations, was the first artist to have a solo exhibition at MOCA’s Joan Lehman Building after it opened in 1996. The current show includes pieces from that and subsequent years, including a reinstallation throughout the museum’s courtyard of Herbal Hill, which first appeared as part of a 1998 group exhibition at MOCA.

Most contemporary artists worth their salt have a substantial presence in the outdoors, and Handforth is no exception. “I have a huge belief in making artwork that is part of a public conversation,” he says. He prefers publicly placed creations so that viewers “are dealing with some kind of reality,” as opposed to a picture of something on a wall of a museum. As MOCA’s peripheral location stretches the boundary of the Art Basel Miami Beach “zone,” Handforth was keen on having his exhibition encompass a large swath of Miami-Dade itself.

One of those real-world encounters that Handforth has provided is Electric Tree, which involves 60 fluorescent light bulbs affixed to a huge banyan tree in Griffing Park, located roughly a half mile west of MOCA in North Miami. Another, titled Weeping Moon, transforms an Overtown billboard at 15th Street and NW First Avenue (just south of the Ice Palace and west of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts).

Mark Handforth’s "Rolling Stop" show at MOCA features Vespa, 2001  

“His work has continued to develop in an amazing way,” says MOCA’s executive director and chief curator, Bonnie Clearwater. After studying art history at NYU and Columbia University, then working as a curator for New York’s Rothko Foundation as well as director of art programs at the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles, Clearwater moved to South Florida. It was the early 1990s, and she had decided to concentrate on Miami-area artists at a time when few outside of the city actually did so. Clearwater means for Handforth’s array of work to stand also as a sprawling metaphor for MOCA’s own incredible evolution into an international art world hot spot. “It makes a very bold statement about this kind of support that we’ve provided Miami artists,” she says of Rolling Stop.

MOCA’s ABMB presence this year also includes a reprise of another of the museum’s 1996 projects, which Clearwater describes as “an amazing building-size installation” by Teresita Fernandez. It appears in the context of Pivot Points, an exhibition featuring works from MOCA’s permanent collection that were instrumental to their creators’ careers.

“Now, people do pay attention when it’s a Miami artist,” Clearwater says. A prime example? The “people” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, who, she notes, have signed up Fernandez for a major solo show in 2012. Rolling Stop appears through February 19 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami, 305-893-6211; mocanomi.org

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