Tag Archives: landscape

Fence Me In

In William Cronon’s book, Changes in the Land – Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, he painstakingly investigates the multitude of uses versus non-uses that the American landscape has endured and the resulting changes it has weathered – uses that were imposed for sustainable, cultural, economic or belief-system reasons. In among the eco-ethnological interactions that he discusses (and it is all engaging), what stood out when I first read the book about 15 years ago and what still floors me is the concept of bounding and separating land – something we just take for granted now. Fences.

As a long-time admirer of fences and walls, I was made aware of their origins, purpose and form after having studied landscape history and reading this book. Walls and fences were the first renderings of physical boundaries in the New World (copied of course from the Old World), and their introduction into the environment gave glimpses of the land divisions and sub-divisions yet to come in the ravenous and commodious future. These first fences must have boggled the minds of Native Americans considering that theirs was an open, borderless landscape.

Cronon says that fences were the result of “an effort to control the relationship between domesticated animals and crops.” So, fences became “not only the map of a settlement’s property rights, but its economic activities and ecological relationships as well.” Gardens were separated from cornfields, meadows from pastures – divisions of labor and purpose that ended up repurposing the land’s ecosystems with fixed ideas about boundaries and use, as well as a proprietary stamp.

As the acreage was sliced and diced, the fences and walls became the three-dimensional lines drawn. Nearly 400 years later, fences abound. They exist in every type of landscape imaginable, often more for keeping human animals within or without spatial delineations, and still, in rural settings, to keep both wild and husbandry animals separate from domestic crops. But they also have become a design element on the land; a way of expressing something about where your place is situated, or perhaps, where you would like it to be situated, or how you might want to locate it in some meaningful historical context, or disconnect it from a lousy neighbor, or maybe, just keep dogs from peeing on it. It is quite rare to see an unfenced property except in what we call wilderness areas. Fences now, just as in Colonial times, are a sign of an “improved” property. This begs the question: Are the fences themselves improved?

Fences are mostly purely functional, but they can also be stylish or even whimsical. Sometimes I think the whimsical ones are trying to give something back while they take away access – an apology of sorts. I am intrigued by the artful choice of materials, the spacing of the upright pieces, the height, the mass, and I am especially wowed by a curved fence or wall, because, let’s face it, most everything in the world of real estate is rectilinear. Curviness is unnecessary, unless circumnavigating something round like a tree, and because of that it is extraordinary; plus, it takes someone skilled to build a curve well.

When a property owner puts some character into a fence, when a fence expresses something about its site or the site’s inhabitants – that’s when it gets my attention, when it is not merely a boundary but an artistic endeavor. It is the evolution from a functional accessory into something that is personal and unique and which provides placeness, that makes me pause to ponder it, not the prefab sections from the home-improvement store. Fences can be aesthetic statements, they can be clever or just plain fun. They can be made from fabricated materials or found ones. Because there is no mandate to go the extra bit beyond standard fencedom – to make something protective so attractive or eye-catching – that is why it is so noteworthy; creating an underline or outline, rather than just a line.

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The S-sence of Art

Grass is grass. It’s green, it grows. You mow it or you don’t. That’s it. Marketers of the stuff try to commoditize it by enticing the homeowner/snob with exotically named boutique-y brands that come with promises of sexy lushness bound to defy nature and impress neighbors with your apparent richness. Still, though, and frankly – just lawn.

For 26 years we, cement-locked city dwellers that we are, have not felt the lawn lure of grass envy because, quite simply, we do not have land around us on which to grow it, even if we wanted to, which we didn’t, and don’t. Now, however, aging life-affirming-peace-seekers that we are, we have a second (soon to be only) place in a more rural, less congested, quiet and humane spot – complete with three-fourths of an acre of grass. It’s green, most of it, and, boy, does it grow. And about that mowing part …

We can’t free ourselves to make the hours-long drive to get up there more than every 2-3 weeks, and so, during that time, the grass’ reach exceeds our grasp. It’s amazing how quickly the stuff goes from kempt to crazy. In a rural setting, there might not be much to do except watch the grass grow, but, where our house is, it’s like viewing an action-adventure film, or sci-fi. And we simply can’t afford hiring someone to keep the grass mowed on a regular basis; besides, being the kind of folks who have lawn-care workers is just not us. Having, for the moment, two houses seems enough to cement our bourgeois-pig credentials – having groundskeeping help would put us over the top, or, perhaps, below the bottom.

Besides, we just don’t think that, other than for societal acceptance, lawns need to be manicured. Most of the other property owners on the same side of the mountain that we are have well-tended, rolling carpets of green. Seems dumb to us, which is why, over time, we’ll replace most of the grass with no-maintenance ground cover. Until then, we’ll tackle the job of controlling nature in the most natural way we can, short of accumulating a flock of grazing livestock. We will continue to mow some of it, but with old reel mowers – no motor, no fumes, just muscle power and the pleasant clip-click of the blades. Like walking instead of driving, pushing one of these old mowers gives the place a placeness – it’s not a flyover … you see the land, you notice things, you can hear your own heart over the rickety clatter of the basic machine. There is an artfulness in the act, full of memory and history, a kind of elegiac experience. It is almost like walking with a divining rod, one that will dip when it finds that frequency where you and machine and Earth all hum as one. It’s physical, it’s tiring, it takes a lot longer to do the task than if you used a power mower, but it’s worth it to feel the connection that comes up from the land, through the machine, into your arms, up through you to the sun, and it lulls you into a contented complacency. 

We have decided, too, to give over a big swath of the land to meadow, just letting the grass and clover and weeds (which is the natural world’s answer to the computer world’s “undocumented feature”) and wildflowers and whatever do their thing. Some of it is practical and self-centered: the more meadow, the less work for us. Elegiac is one thing, keeling over heart- and heat-stricken is another. But here, too, art can find its place. Where mowed grass meets Zoysia gone wild, we have shaped the border into a lazy S-curve that flows down a hill to the edge of a stout hemlock. With that simple imposition, art is made – there is visual interest, certainly, but beyond that is the creation of something not found in nature, something clearly asserted onto the land by a human hand, which is self-conscious and artificial, and yet resonant and imitative, all of it grass but establishing a diversity of likes, a debate of material and intent and choice. All from just a simple swerve. Arslocii can be like that, and often should. And to return at the end of the day to the tool shed, with the lawn mower clopping behind, shooting off sparks of cut blades, and to look back and see that place where nature ended and you intervened, but not too drastically, respectfully but artfully, is like scratching a masterpiece in the sand, knowing that the tide will come in and erase your lines, but also knowing that you’ll be back to create your simple, impermanent but imperative art again.

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Paths of Enlightenment

Like Tolstoy’s happy families, all gardens are alike … fundamentally. Of course, the Humes Stroll Garden would never be mistaken for, say, Dumbarton Oaks; and no one is going to be taken, blindfolded, to Chanticleer, have the mask removed, and think that he is in Bellefield. Size, style, history, level of theatricality – all these vary from one setting to another. But the building blocks are the same: a swath of land, designated and designed planting areas, and a ribbon or network of walkways to get you to things and around the place. It’s the similarities that define “garden”; it’s the differences that define “art” and “memorable.”

Of the elements that make up gardens, the one most overlooked and kicked around, literally, is the walkway. And, yet, it can be as vital to the entire garden-appreciation experience as the choice of perennials or the water feature. Where you view something and the way you move about it can be as intrinsic to pleasure and understanding as what is viewed: too close, too far, wrong angle, too high, too low, confusing circulation, too authoritarian a mandated traffic pattern – whether noticeably or subtly, all are ruiners.

But, even taking these characteristics into consideration and doing them smartly and well, most gardens we’ve been to – and we’ve just returned from a journey to some snazzy ones – seem to give little or no thought to what the walkways are made of. Gravel or cement, asphalt or mulch, or whatever, little preferential effort – beyond the imperative to keep visitors from stumbling over chunks of things – appears to have been  invested in garden-path design. If anything, sometimes you can see ecological philosophy at work – permeable surface vs. non, natural material vs. manmade – but not much more.

Everything counts, god is in the details, blah, blah, blah. We all know this, or have been told it. But the walkway in a garden? Who cares, right? It’s only the flowers and plants and trees that matter, no? Nobody goes to a garden to see the paths. A path is just “there,” not there to note.

But what a lost opportunity for added expression, distinctive identity and artfulness of place. I will not, I know, hold in memory for long the patches of green and colors that we walked through at Thuya Garden and the nearby and related Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, both on the ritzy south shore of Mt. Desert Island, Maine, beautiful though they were. What I will remember, and what I can see, vividly, in my mind’s eye even now, are the sculptural rakings of the crushed stone that makes up the gardens’ hardscape. 

Early in the morning, before visitors arrive, a worker rakes the narrow paths in a way that would please and even elicit admiration from a Japanese garden’s master artist. At Thuya, especially, the sweetly crafted but nearly imperceptible patterns vary from place to place: here, serpentine; there, herringbone; beyond, cross-hatch – and variations and combinations of those, and others. More: Once one notices the path art, it is already too late to avoid destroying it – you see the beautifully rendered squiggles and geometry now obliterated by your shoeprints, and you feel like a criminal, a defiler. But you also know that the path art is, like most earthworks, like much of the work of an Andy Goldsworthy, for example, designed to be ephemeral, to fade and disappear with time and the vagaries of nature … and the unthinking perambulations of man.

(A parenthetical here: One would be incredibly remiss if, in this discussion, he did not mention the notable efforts evident in Robert Dash’s wonderful Madoo Conservancy, in Sagaponack, New York – an elegant, whimsical one-off of an artist-fashioned garden highlighted by its paths composed of varied, surprising and unlikely materials. Perhaps our eye towards the importance of paths in a garden was opened in our visit to this Long Island landmark.)

This path art is so easy to be unaware of as one focuses on the flora – why look down? We rarely do, and especially if we’ve come a great distance to look up – and, yet, it is that extra something, that act that says that everything counts, that makes that garden a more magical place … that is a key ingredient in the formulation of its placeness. Not an accessory, but integral; more than a pleasant surprise at a casual gift, but an imperative relationship. Man’s intellectual beauty paired with and enhancing the natural. Arslocii.

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It is as if you are going from a two-dimensional world into a three-, not just a changeover into Technicolor, as Dorothy did when she crash-landed in Munchkinland. Spring fleshes out our world, and it isn’t just a matter of paint, although the hues are stimulating in their own right. There are two things that happen: one is the arrival of stronger light-filled days as the sun traverses its lengthening arc, and the result is the return of shadows. Shadows always create a sense of depth and substance; “he casts a long shadow” is precisely what is happening in the landscape, filling out from its wintry flatness. The other thing that happens is, that as trees and shrubs leaf out, they create more volume instead of just line, sort of like a puffed-up blowfish in danger mode. The tree’s armature of organic lines is truly welcome in the starkness of winter, but come spring, it renders foreground, middle ground and background more fully by obscuring what’s around and behind it and, also, the distances between things.

I am watching the process in its state of becoming. The trees look like largish twigs, as they have for about five months now, then, miraculously, small protuberances begin emerging from every terminus. The Q-tip-like branches, over the course of weeks, slowly start to resemble the magician’s bouquet sprouting from his thin cane. Already in early leaf, spatially defined clusters appear, causing the eye to dart from one feathery group to another, some close, some distant and less distinct. The same thing occurs with smaller shrubs as they veil the unveiled, adding perspective and mystery to that which previously had been bare bones. All this layering creates depth.

In a woody-plants class for landscape architecture, our final project was a spring-bloom journal. The task was to watch buds daily for a month and record the changes of the shapes of the soon-to-flower plants. Not at all like watching paint dry; the buds seemed initially unchanging and then, boom, they would engorge and expand. When their protective bud skins could no longer contain them they would start to burst, tiny seams appeared at first and then, one day, a pivotal one, there was more flower than bud (and you wondered how the bud contained it all in the first place). The transformation, much like a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, is amazing, transfixing. As the project was intended, it taught us about growth and change, and how every plant has its own unique pace and style. However, we never strayed from the minutia of the bud to talk about the macro of the plants changing the environment. That’s the part I like: the way these processes and their results draw our world in 3-D, creating complexity. The potential for placeness.

It is the alteration of spatial perceptions and also the formation of places, environments – maybe somewhat the same as they were last spring, but maybe not, there just might be new surprises to behold. Anyway, who can recall the fullness of the landscape after living with it for five months as mostly stick figures? This fleshing out is a friendly and welcome face. Living in an environment with less dramatic seasonal effects would seem, sadly, less stimulating. It is the spring and its magic that gets me up in the morning, that excites the senses into action: the moist fresh air with a bouquet, the umpteen shades of green and delicate pastels, the sounds of returning birds as placeness is being arranged for them, the quality of the light – plentiful and warm – and the layering of objects in space, not lined up fully visible in one glance but, rather, playing peek-a-boo with your eyes and enriching your world. It happens so gradually, you might miss it.

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Coming in Out of the Code

Mostly, people talk about the smile.

“Enigmatic” is a common adjective used to describe it. And it is the most-discussed attribute, likely because we’ve all been programmed by school teachers to focus in on that one element of what is an overpowering whole.

Some people wax rhapsodic over the formal nature of the work, its perfect geometry, the enthralling link that directs the eye from the eerily smooth facial features down across the dark dress to the beautifully rendered and folded hands below.

Some note the elusive eyes – are they shy or coquettish, plotting or seducing?

All well and good, and, certainly, opinions with legitimate pedigree of art-critical pursuit and exploration. But, for me, the wonder and mystery of the Mona Lisa, as that painting now in the Louvre (and in a bazillion replications, modifications and satirical usages) is called, has always been in what is behind her: the odd and magical landscape against which she seems to be almost Photoshopped – a misty, flowing, timeless and rambling terrain that, actually, doesn’t seem to make much sense. All in one vista, which the eye can take in in one sweep, there are tall trees and, perhaps, what seem to be mountains; lagoons and lakes, and a primeval forest; a road that zig-zags to and from nowhere; an arched bridge that connects no discernible points nor appears to carry anything upon it.

For me, while La Gioconda herself seems an unreal and glowing thing – more humanoid than human, more theory than flesh, more love of pure painting than love of person or portrait verisimilitude – what lies beyond her is the map of Heaven, or the land we travel in our dreams. All gold and green and floating to a distant horizon, beyond which is …? More mystery.

But leave it to academics – those inveterate mystery-munchers and nit-picky killjoys, pluckers of gossamer wings, who seek to influence the macro by denuding the world of the magical micro – to try to identify, pigeonhole, define and cast in amber that undiscovered country that Lisa has her back to. News came out of Italy last week that a writer, Carla Glori, has determined, to her satisfaction, that Mona’s backyard is not a work of Leonardo’s imagination but, in fact, a real spot on this Earth. Glori, basing her “discovery” on the even more fascinating “revelations” by art historian Silvano Vinceti – who says that he’s found a true Da Vinci code finely etched by the artist into Mona Lisa’s eyeballs – declares that the landscape is that of the Northern Italian village of Bobbio. How did she arrive at this determination? The evidence, she states, is the bridge that stretches to Mona’s left, our right; the numbers 7 and 2 are, she says, almost microscopically painted on it, and those numbers stand for the year 1472, the year of the destruction by flood of the bridge at Bobbio, which, presumably, this is a rendering of. All this, and more, Glori lays out in – what else? – her new book, which is called – are we surprised? – “The Leonardo Enigma.” (Where would we seekers of truth and life’s essence be without the release of such books about that inveterate trickster, gamester, Easter-egg-hider, knower-of-all, revealer-of-some, inventor of lighter-than-air things, journal keeper of backwards sentences, and, oh, by the way, not too shabby an artist? He is the Sphinx of our modern age.)

But, let’s get a few things straight: First, the “secret code” observed by historian Vinceti appears, to others with a good magnifying glass (and, apparently, no book contract) to be little more than cracks or crazing, not to be unexpected in a 500-year-old painting. Which, second, means that Glori’s theory, based on Vinceti’s theory, has more cracks and crazings in it than the painting. And with a much shorter sell-by date. It would appear to most observers that that bridge isn’t the only thing that’s stretched.

But, third, and most to the point: Who cares? Who wants to know? Who needs to know? Who even asked? Even if Glori and Vinceti are right on the money – so what? What does their information add to the appreciation of the work? How can their “findings” be anything but reductive? Who, besides they, benefits from this new knowledge, if it is such, except maybe travel companies who can add an extra day’s stop to their “Da Vinci Code” tours?

Even if Glori is as right as right can be, by taking that landscape and pinning it to the map at Bobbio, she may give that painting and its famously puzzling locale a place, but, at the same time, destroys its luminous placeness. In art, to know is, often, to defuse; to define is to deflate; to suppress a viewer’s imagination is to defeat the purpose of having made the work in the first place. No one gains but the writer of the journal article in which the “discovery” appears.

It is important for the Mona Lisa, and the land behind her, to be unknown and unknowable, and to remain so. More important than attributing significance to a small, painted bridge and two numbers that may or may not be there is the imperative to ignore that presumption, so as not to muddy the more valuable point. We look into Lisa’s eyes for something more than scratched codes; we gaze into and drift off to the wide and watery land behind her because it is a place we know, or want to, or have seen in our souls, or in our sleep. This is art, not life; this is placeness, not location. Mona Lisa, the painting, is like two landscapes, two topographies, one imposed on the other, and no GPS coordinates or Mapquest directions can take us there, guide us through them and get us back, altered by the experience.


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Ode to Joy

Recently, in a weekend retreat program designed to seek and find joy, our task was to list the things that bring us joy in life. My list included:

1. serendipity, finding the unexpected certainly can generate joy, maybe it is joy;

2. light, mostly natural, some artificial (incandescent lamps only);

3. music, both natural and human made – I am keenly aware that I am more attuned to the latter but I can also appreciate the sounds of nature.

Some examples of natural music during this sojourn: the calls of birds, frogs and wind; a flock of sandhill cranes singing their crossing of the evening sky, like a chorus of squeaky gates; the bullfrogs’ vibrational drone, perhaps an Indian tambura; the wind through a forest of pines, a soft whoosh, similar to a distant train or the persistent ocean ebb and flow; the high pitch howl of a coyote. Magical sounds. Real sounds.

Placeness can be perceived through sound as well as sight, or feel. Or through all of these things together. At the site of the retreat was an overwhelming sensual experience, a place of spirit – a spirit of place. There, in this mid-Michigan landscape, was a pine forest planted in rows, straight lines, aisles, allees in the woods, chorus lines in an endless mirror. Row after row, uniform rows, columns, stud walls, buttresses holding up roofs of scented leaves, cathedrals of nature, a crunchy carpet of brown needles below. Upright, alert, an army of trees, battalions, natural fence posts. The wind rushing through the totemic figures, the light penetrating and generating an orange glow off the trees and thick floor matting. Space is defined, place is created. Sight, sound, feel. Joy.

Or inside an empty corn crib built of horizontal wood lath with light filtering through, corn husks on the floor. A tiny chapel for one or two who enter and notice. An odd birdhouse-shaped structure, almost a cartoon rendering of a house with no right angles. This basic, practical container becoming a beautiful space and light container, a filtering device for viewing the world, or a space all its own.

Genius loci is a concept defined by the Romans as a protector of a site, a deification of a unique place that makes it something worth defending. Random House Dictionary’s entry for genius loci is “the peculiar character of a place with reference to the impression that it makes on the mind.” Simply and modernly put, a “spirit of place.” Alexander Pope incorporated the concept into landscape design, now an underlying principle of landscape architecture – that the overlay of design should be adapted to its context – in order to express the uniqueness of place. From personified tutelary spirits that exemplify a place to a pervasive spiritual sense of a particular site, it all reveals that throughout human history, the interaction with “place” is significant.

Arslocii begins with Genius loci, but that’s only half of it. Arslocii is the combination of a special site with something else – something permanent, or something fleeting, which causes an enhancement of both and creates an experience of placeness from the two. It is the pairing and synergy, ergo the two “ii”s. It is an artful relationship, one of the spirit and of the mind, of the place and of what’s placed in the place, in tandem. And the whole is greater than the two parts.

Back at the retreat, as we moved symbolically from leaving our joylessness behind and welcoming our newfound joy, we each in turn threw a handful of glitter up into the air. It was a partially cloudy day with the sun ducking in and out intermittently, a soft breeze moving the clouds playfully. The glitter was tossed, it caught the sunlight, was carried by the wind and created magic as it cascaded in waves to the ground – a fairy veil of sparkly energy, atoms made visible, tangible sunlight. It lasted but a moment but what a spectacular moment. Joy. Arslocii.ladyfi.wordpress.com

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Square Roots

Journey to the past for a moment. Some people do it with an easy preference for the version that resides in their memory – the past being just the span of time that they themselves can remember – and at the other extreme there are those who think that the immediate now is everything. It has always been curious to me that many folks (ghost hunters excluded) have no sense that any previous tenants ever occupied the space they inhabit. Oh, there are the generational families that have a feeling of ownership based on decades or centuries of their bloodlines continuing to possess the same land or house. Native Americans had it right in that we are all temporary and our use of land is temporary, at least until the final resting place – and even that is iffy.

It occurred to me, after attending a lecture by an archaeologist (this is someone who is keenly aware of previous existences), that the making of and remaking of places come and go with needs or desires. We see it happening before our eyes, with thousands of acres of farmland being developed into tracts of mostly unnecessary housing. The frightening thing is how few of us have any awareness that a good portion of this country was once densely tree-covered, so much so that, it is said, a squirrel could have traveled from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground. And despite the apparent woodlands along empty interstate highways looking like vast forests, these tree-lined strips are often narrow boundaries dividing roads from nearby settlements. A squirrel would have to drive the distance now.

The lecture was about one of the squares conceptualized by William Penn in his Green Countrie Towne for the founding of Philadelphia. His rectangular plan allowed for a center square and four others positioned equidistant from it at its radiating corners (Centre, Northeast, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest Squares were the original names). It was Penn’s proviso, in his city vision, for public parkland, the layout of which is visible in surveyor Thomas Holme’s “Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia,” published in 1683. Looking at them in their present state, you wouldn’t be able to guess that until the 19th century these squares were used for a multitude of purposes, including public hangings, Revolutionary War soldier burial grounds, market and auction sites, animal pastures, church graveyards, munitions storage, fairgrounds, the first reservoir and waterworks, city hall and lastly, parks. Penn, most likely, would have been horrified by most of the uses since, by their very nature, “use” was not the intent, but, rather, escape from use. Then, finally, the changes in city expansion made fashionable parks desirable to the Victorians, and so they remain today, with some alterations.

Humans create and have created places no matter where or what they are or were, layers upon layers, structural foundations over the yellow-fever victims, walkways and fountains over the convicted and hanged, merry-go-rounds over a powder magazine, a casino over a Native American fishing ground: one history replacing another in a perpetual recycling of space. There is an ebb and flow, with valued space being devalued and given over to a tenderloin district, accommodations made for roadways and the ubiquitous automobile cutting off easy public access of once strollable destinations, disappearing forests and native species’ habitats. Mostly, in our country, use is determined by profitability. Thankfully, profitability can be interpreted as and influenced by a tax base who desires some green space. People make places anew every day – it seems to be a part of the animal. A place of need or desire in 17th and 18th century Philadelphia was very different from the one of 19th and 20th. And what about the 21st?

In the ever-changing adaptations of land, what gives a place a kind of placeness – not an artful one, necessarily, but one of depth – is a consideration of what it has been, what came before in each incarnation and, most importantly, how you will contribute to it, how you will leave it: Will it be better than when you found it? Are you doing justice to its legacy, to its past? Awareness of what preceded you is essential. Treat the land with the same respect that you would give an aged ancestor, for that is what it is. It has life and history just like us, only much longer, and deeper.

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Grounds for Dismissal

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.

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