Sculpture Park-ing

Sculpture parks are tricky places, trickier than you might think. If you have ever hung art in your own home, or placed garden objects in your own yard – carefully, that is, thoughtfully, intentionally – then you have a very miniscule inkling of what it must be like to populate a park. How does one place a two-ton object? A little to the left, I think. How does one visualize the art object in its site before placement? In a dream, maybe.

Oh, sure, there are computer-generated CAD renderings and even 3-D mockups, but it is nearly impossible to see the actual, as opposed to virtual, thing in its setting, unless and until it is there. And once it is there, it is there, on a poured base bolted into place. Sometimes, depending on its size, the depth of the moorings can penetrate various strata below the earth’s surface. The thing that is mystifying to me, beyond the physical maneuverings to seat the work, is that some works are situated just so perfectly, while others are not – quite the opposite, really. How can some be so right and others so wrong?

Storm King Art Center gets it right more often than not, having had its origins in display – this is still visible in the smaller works that are pedestalled and grouped around the museum building as a kind of bow to garden art (really good garden art, that is). But venture beyond the patio and the near planting beds and go out into the fields and meadows; that is where the relationships occur. Here, the Storm King team are masters of the setting and the pairing of art and site.

The only sculpture parks other than Storm King that I have seen come close to achieving this kind of parity are The Fields Sculpture Park, in Ghent, N.Y., and Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, in University Park, Ill. All three of these mentioned have interesting land: mountainous terrain, undulating rural fields and prairie swales, respectively. Perhaps the choice of natural landscapes make the difference, but that isn’t the full story.

deCordova Sculpture Park, in Lincoln, Mass., has a perfectly fine site with rolling woodlands and lawns. It is possible that size does matter in these matters. Whereas deCordova has 35 acres, The Fields has 60, Nathan Manilow has 100 and Storm King tops off with 500 acres. The idea that deCordova manages pretty well in placing its works in a smallish-for-a-park space, and the fact that they are mostly temporary installations, gives extra points to their siting team. Impermanence is more challenging in getting it right; if it is not for posterity, endless design and planning would make less sense.

So, that being said, and with my not knowing which works are from the permanent collection or on loan, there are some worth noting at the deCordova as they relate to  art-and-site merging. Bob Boemig’s Sisters is surprising because it has the appearance of so many steel works that have come out of Abstraction and Minimalism, but these are rendered as elliptical planters filled with soil and myrtle. Resembling large hoop earrings with a Chia pet sensibility, they sometimes disappear into the landscape and then re-emerge, giving them more dimensionality than they really have. The interlocking geometric shapes, if not integrated with the land, might look something like the Olympics symbol. But their tilt, and the fact that they are on a steep slope, could almost lead one to believe that they grew there as freaks of nature/nurture. Conjuring images of old wagon-wheel rims lost in history and reclaimed by the site, they reveal a sense of time as well as timelessness.

Okay, I am a sucker for train tracks, and George Greenamyer’s Mass Art Vehicle sits  atop a large rock outcropping, almost lurking behind some tall bushy growth. Its setting is a sort of miniature version of the very same landscapes that train tracks always seem to inhabit: rocky, nearly impenetrable mountainsides; high grasses alongside the railbeds; slightly hidden from plain sight; and the tracks disappearing – in this case, abruptly – into the horizon. Aside from the strangely militaristic, hard-edged toy that this object is, it peeks out from its lofty perch like a cupola on a rooftop. There is something both medieval and eternal about it.

Then, if you can find it, Ronald Gonzales’ Cones is a work nestled in a grove of hemlocks, and is surrounded by nature. In fact, what surrounds the piece is pretty much the stuff that it is made of. About a dozen figures stand in some sort of unified group. They are made up of pine cones attached to steel armatures. There is a circular bed of cones on the ground below them. Are they decomposing as they lose their physical parts to the elements and time? Or are they regenerating, evolving, restructuring from the natural materials around them? The idea seems to be about death and decay. The group of figures is so reminiscent of nail fetishes, a type of African sculpture called Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi). The low-hanging branches of the hemlocks are almost a camouflage for the figures; both have limbs that are so similar. That these figures stand in a cluster, like the encircling trees; that they are built of the same materials; that they are at the mercy of the natural environment – here exists the place where art and site become one.

There are some sculpture parks that just don’t get the point of the exercise: that the works and the landscape should derive a mutually beneficial association. And I will add to that that the two elements should enhance each other to the point of inevitability, meaning that there could be no other arrangement for this art and this site, no other place could provide a more perfect union. I have witnessed this convergence of mind over matter, but its frequency is not commonplace. I have visited nearly two dozen parks and gardens and, while some are just outdoor display spaces, others are real integrations of object and site. Admittedly, it is difficult to achieve – there is an art to it. An art park should be artful, right? Artfully arranged, besides having good art.

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Culture, Nature/Nurture

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