Half of the arslocii team has been eager to see as many sculpture parks as can be viewed. The resulting reviews for those already visited, most of them located on the east coast, and a couple in the midwestern United States, are a mixed bag of placeness criteria – some superb, others lacking. Of the parks previously seen, I would rate the top three, thus far, as, at number one, Storm King, The Fields at number two, and Nathan Manilow coming in third. Recently I journeyed to see Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The grandeur of the entrance, the constant movement of trams and the amount of parking slots being equal to the number of picnic areas – all of this made me a bit worried about what awaited inside. And the gardens, too: although they were nice collections and displays, the whole was a little too squeaky clean and informed by crowd-control planned movement. Plus, their big draw for the season was a comprehensive show of Dale Chihuly glass works – weaving through buildings, arranged in gardens, hanging from ceilings, poking out of ponds – so omnipresent that I wondered if this was his entire oeuvre carted here. Seeing that, I was still worried, maybe even more so. I have to say, I was starting to question why I had driven more than 600 miles for this when it was looking very much like Grounds for Sculpture, which I dislike but is only about one tenth the distance from home. Why go so far to be disappointed when you can do it close by?
What I didn’t realize going into this, is that the sculpture park is just one garden area in the entire park complex and is probably the least populated by visitors. The other gardens felt too coiffed while the sculpture park, despite being designed, was more naturalistic in its flowing hills and valleys, and seemed more probable in the surrounding landscape. Plus, the art within the sculpture park was better than I expected, based on what was around in the other garden areas. And, yes, the omnipresent Chihulys were scattered about there, too. But if you looked past them, the permanent sculpture collections and their varied settings were quite thoughtfully paired, and some were impressive.
Of particular note are two named sections of the sculpture park: The Hollow and The Gallery. (They appear to have named every walkway and designed area of the park, much like the hallowed grounds of Disney, but the sculptures these two areas contain are good works and well-sited.) The Gallery is a formal garden, in the European style, a series of small viewing galleries each with sculpture – similar to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, but with a little more risk-taking in color and design accents at Meijer. Many of The Gallery’s sites are geometric curbed islands filled with various interesting plant materials, ground-level green roofs or, rather, carpets designed to set off and enhance the hovering artworks. Tony Smith’s For J.W., a black, solid, oblique parallelogram is seated in an oblique shaped “bed” of yellow sedum. The contrasting textures, shapes and colors are kind of breathtaking.
Generally speaking, the pavers in The Gallery are too new and suburban looking, but the intelligent placement of the sculpture in its environment helps to overcome the connecting pathways. Not too far from Smith’s work is Anthony Caro’s Emma Sall, a geometric piece with a lot of movement, complemented by a nearly-as-complex installation – an angled pedestal, interlocking varying curb heights and a carpet of lavender alyssum against the teal blue of the painted steel.
The Hollow is, in contrast to The Gallery, a more in-the-rough site, with unmown grasses and wildflowers. The artworks still manage to have distinct areas even though they are not as well-defined. In this section, the sense of surprise is key, since it appears to be a wild area and not a real garden. In a small clearing of a woodland is Antony Gormley’s One and Other, a figure encased in iron, isolated, alienated, trapped – a kind of upright sarcophagus – a frightening vision found in a hidden glade.
A nearby open meadow offers Sophie Ryder’s Introspective, a bizarre grouping of figures that are half human/half rabbit, in some sort of stop-action poses, or, perhaps, a new take on the Ascent of Man. This work has a similar effect as the previous one, in that you don’t know whether you should be privy to what is taking place – both sculptures being perfectly placed and in synch with their environments.
Also “planted” in The Hollow is the Oldenburg and Van Bruggen Plantoir, another of their tools on steroids, this one comically painted up but standing erect on an untended hillock – looking completely in and out of place.
Back on the major encircling walkway of the sculpture park, and high on a rise, stands Andy Goldsworthy’s Grand Rapids Arch, like a huge red sandstone inchworm, as it surveys the landscape. Curious for the artist to have placed it in the road like he did – the blacktop, not the earth, acting as its pedestal – it is reminiscent of formations you might see in Arches National Park – but in the roadway. The two together, the sculpture and the asphalt, seem to be saying something about the West.
So, placeness does exist at Meijer Sculpture Park. I wouldn’t say it is the overriding theme of the park but someone there has given meaningful placement to many of the artworks, resulting in a symbiosis between art and site. And given so many other gratuitous displays throughout the gardens, the instances of arslocii become all the more special. In that way, Meijer’s park is a lot like life.