Arslocii is not about sniping. It is about finding positive experiences and connections, and attempting to point out the best examples. In this case, though, in looking for a meaningful experience at Grounds for Sculpture, we feel compelled to include a disclaimer of sorts, or maybe a preamble.
In its nearly twenty years of existence, this venue for large-scale outdoor sculpture has morphed from sculpture park to theme park, although maybe it always was the latter. As a concept, it was suspect from the get-go, the idea of an heir to a medical-supply company’s fortune, an “artist poseur” who appears to lack any artistic sensibility; witness his 3-D, Disney-esque tableaux of polychromed bronze replicas of paintings by real artists. (You simply haven’t lived until you stumble upon Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” all solid and renamed “Dejeuner Deja Vu.”)
Feeling as if, possibly, I could be missing the point, I have been to visit the park three times: once soon after it opened, a second time about ten years after and again last week. My feelings are unchanged, and I have to say that the whole affair is a sad reflection on New Jersey’s significant sculptors, many of them represented in the park. Okay, you could argue that it is important to have a venue like this but, honestly, it doesn’t do justice to the art that it is supposed to serve, and it sadly mixes up the uneven quality of its holdings to a point (a cluttered one, no less) where the whole becomes homogenized and average. Yes, it has a lot of sculpture – more than 250 pieces; yes, it has landscaped grounds, in a rather suburban-style arrangement, and although there are artworks of merit in the broad collection they, generally speaking, are scattered about the grounds as decorative objects with no thought as to their sites beyond a pedestal mentality. In an attempt to create display areas, there has been much mounding and shaping of the grounds – which I must assume were originally pretty flat, it being south-central New Jersey. But now it is all very phony and gumdroppy strolling through a terrain that, at times, resembles upturned breasts, artwork frantically suckling for some sort of unavailable nutritional source.
Let’s just say, upfront, that the preservation and reuse of the site – a former state fairgrounds – was commendable; the land dates back for that purpose to 1888 and was the site of agricultural exhibitions, stunt shows and daredevilry, including a shooting match between Annie Oakly and Miles Johnson. Many of the extant buildings were constructed from the 1920s to the 1940s and they are architecture worth saving. The fairs occurred on these grounds for nearly a hundred years, and then the area was slated for development and went up for auction. The fact that the Johnson Atelier – a bronze-casting foundry used by many artists, including its namesake – saw the value of the land is fortunate, and not only to extend the life of a piece of New Jersey history but also to make the site viable, which it is.
But this blog is focused on finding placeness, and sometimes, even in the most unexpected situations, it can happen. Unfortunately, here it has nothing to do with the artwork, and not even most of the gardens. The best thing that this park achieves is the transitional spaces: the paths made of steel grids and gravel; the maple allee – a narrow curving walkway with densely planted trees, more an alley than an allee; two stone tunnels that connect gardens but feel like tomb entrances; a wisteria arbor that is like another more garden-y tunnel; a rock cliff as a dolmen entry; and, nearby, a stone-walled portal reminiscent of a Mycenaean tholos. All these passageways have what most of the sited and designed areas they connect do not: a feeling of place, a unique connection between the obviously manmade component and its setting. Interestingly, they are feeders to what are supposed to be the main events, but they have more life in them than the destinations do, as if more thought went into them than did the selection and placement of the sculptures.
And, too, there is another larger space that works to good effect – again, not because of the art. The Water Garden, a tad over the top but still compelling, is a walled courtyard, a group of interconnected rooms that all have water in common. Attached to the Domestic Arts Building, this enclosed and hard-surfaced garden gives the courtyard garden in Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle” a run for its modernist money. Extremely geometric with high walls, there are changing elevations, some rooms are open while others are more hidden, window cut-outs both high and low allow glimpses into other rooms, water moves through and around it all. There is just about every kind of water feature one could imagine, some still, some flowing: pools, fountains, rivulets and runnels, steam, bubblers, waterfalls, rain. Although there is complexity in its puzzle-like spatial flow (if you look up, it could feel like you are in a rodent maze), there is a strong sense of place – something rare in the park at large. There are references here to Persian gardens, cloister gardens and, too, the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. Of course, it is not the Hirshhorn, in its design or in its collection. But there is a thereness to it. On the edge of kitsch or even the stuff of malls, this courtyard manages in its use of space to find itself, to find us in it, and to make our experience special, something beyond the fray.
It is, after all, what we seek. And it can be found. Even here.