Tag Archives: sculpture

Art Among Art

Although it can be unfair to compare a small museum’s sculpture garden to a full-blown sculpture park, arslocii holds them both up to the same standards using the same  magnifying glass. We have been to some of the big outdoor-sculpture venues, as well as some of the diminutive ones; and we are fond of any size open-air gallery where the art’s placement is considered and complemented.

This week we visited the Delaware Art Museum, in Wilmington. First (and Delaware is the first state), let’s say that the museum itself is situated in a rather stately neighborhood. Placeness already. The Copeland Sculpture Garden is a slip of land behind the broad-lawned and broad museum building. At first glance the landscape seemed too shallow and uniform to allow any sort of interaction of art and site to occur. Walking through the main entrance and out the glass-walled back, across a large terrace and into the “yard” made me think that this was a private home with garden art. Maybe it once was.

Crying Giant

The difference is that what is immediately in your face is Tom Otterness’ “Crying Giant.” It is huge, 13 feet tall, resembling a cartoon version of Rodin’s “Thinker,” but is maybe a more accurate depiction of modern man. The piece is a cluster of geometric solids that has tendril arms and legs, and Mickey Mouse hands and feet. It leans head-in-hands, dunce cap on head, with painful swollen feet and seated on a large cube. For a series of balloon shapes, it is filled with angst, both comic and sad. Is it sad about the state of art? I was moved by its powerful simplicity, but then I wondered … about its placeness. Well, on one level, if it is pondering art then it is filled with arslocii. But then it is reflected so well in an all-glass modern gallery wing of the museum – a sort of looking glass for the angst of modern man. Also, when catching a glimpse of it through the connector bridge between old museum and new, it is handily framed by the architecture, making it appear much diminished and, perhaps, even more sympathetic.

framed view

Down a wooded path is an interesting piece by William Freeland, “Irish Pastoral VII,” a minimalist hard edged factory made of rock and steel that felt like a tombstone. Behind it and hidden below grade is an old reservoir structure, a circular pit with stone walls that looks like a train-engine turnabout. Maybe that is because it is now a labyrinth, a spiral made of gravel and stone. That day it was set up for a wedding event and, although empty of guests, it was filled with placeness by what it was and is.

Another interesting work is Robert Stackhouse’s “Delaware Passage,” a rigorously fashioned structure of square metal tubes looking, all at once, like a railroad bridge, a brise soleil, a roof, a dock and a teepee. It plays with perspective, as it is short but endless. It is a striking piece but its placement doesn’t do it any favors.

Delaware Passage

But what is this? Three large craters encircled by hedges of holly. This Copeland Sculpture Garden is not a collection in which one would expect to find earthworks, but here they are. Only … what they are, in actuality, are functional drainage pits/fields. There are cascading rocks, having been intentionally (and well) placed that lead to large cast cement cubes guarded by iron grates at the bottom of the craters. They are modern and primitive, compelling and mysterious in that they are hidden by the shrubbery. But they are beautifully rendered works that are so integrated into the environment – because, unlike most of the pieces here, they are interacting with the environment. They are of the environment and, though not “art” in its narrow definition, should be considered part of the collection.

drain field

drain house

Placeness is a funny thing. Sometimes you can gather together things that artists make and which are intentional works of art – and sometimes they can be very good representatives of the form – and they do nothing for you or to you or with you; they do not gain from the setting nor add to it, they do not relate to it in any way nor to the other pieces scattered about, all seemingly with the same purpose – display; all this despite the best efforts of art professionals to show off the work and make something of the place. And then, sometimes, something that is neither created to be a work of art nor is considered to be such – in fact, is hardly considered at all, except as a workaday intruder in the garden – can have such power or attraction or even a compellingly formal nature that it not only challenges your conception of the art and its definition, but makes the o better and the place perfectly contains it, as if it were prepared thoughtfully to do so. A rocky sluice designed to channel water runoff away from the art and into a drain can, somehow, wonderfully, become the centerpiece of the sculpture array – a questioning of the need for intention as a component of art. Arslocii can materialize from something functional as well as something artful, being the product of one or both at the same time. It just happens, and just is. Arslocii.

reflected view

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Gabion Gazing

Admittedly, I have a fascination for gabion baskets. Can’t explain it, but there it is. There is something so arslocii about them. It is the unlikely pairing of a rectangular cage and collected rocks, used mostly for retaining-wall structures or anti-erosion control, and also for enabling water runoff to occur more naturally around manmade obstructions. And, yes, all those engineering issues need solutions – but amazingly, here is a visually interesting one.

So. back to the arslocii bit: this sometimes artful arrangement of metal grid in geometric skeletal form filled with natural, rounded stones; the container holds the shape revealing the shapes within. Caged nature is not what I see but rather nature being put on display. Whatever the meaning, the objects are both found and created, natural and unnatural.

I started seeing these alongside roadways cut through mountains. I am opposed to the cuts made but I am cheered by the striking appearance of minimal-meets-environmental artforms. I have also spied them used as barriers on misengineered highway projects that dead-end abruptly – many of those have been hit and “contoured” in unusual ways. Mostly I have seen them stacked, pyramid-style, like a Sol Lewitt sculpture, only filled-in with an Andy Goldsworthy structure.

Gabions were used in medieval times for military fortifications; they were cylindrical wicker woven cages that were filled with dirt, perhaps similar today to cellular confinement systems or geocells, used to control erosion and stabilize soil. 

The metal version of the sack gabion was invented in 1893 in Italy by the Maccaferri family to repair a dam destroyed by flooding. The family then patented the box-type gabion that is made today. These mass-produced berms have variety to them because the basket frames vary in material: either rigid re-bar or cyclone fence caging. And the fillings can vary by shape, size, color – river stones are particularly nice.

As another side to this affinity, I am also attuned to anything gabion-like. This remarkable fence, a clever and artful combination of metal grid and cross-section slices of trees is put together just like the outer layer of a gabion, except that it is linear as opposed to solid, and it moves like an extended folding screen through the landscape.

And, just as wonderful are these extremely clever and referential “columns” that were used as sculptural elements for a garden-design theme at the Philadelphia Flower Show by Temple University Ambler campus’ horticulture department. Not only are they natural, they are fanciful and beautiful – and such variety! But, see how they encompass the original idea of portable protection during military maneuvers, their references to structural gabions and, also, the limitless use of textures and colors of natural materials. Cool, indeed.

Apparently, I am not alone when it comes to gabions and their potential for design statements. Next time you find yourself on a more-recently-engineered highway, look for them along the roadside. They can be an unexpected glimpse of arslocii in the fast lane.

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Uplifted

They’ve taken in the David Smiths for the winter, up at Storm King, and put them in storage until it’s safe to have them re-emerge in the spring, like crocuses, or tax preparers. We’ve never quite been able to figure out why so many of the sculptures up on Museum Hill disappear every year at season’s end. Does the bronze or steel of the pieces tend to crack in the area’s bitter cold, or collapse under the weight of the heavy snows? Or are they trundled off to the indoors because they are smaller and can be moved, and that it would be good if all of the works could be nestled in shelter but are simply too big to move? Not one of life’s great mysteries, but a puzzlement nonetheless.

The mystery, such as it is, was solved recently when – on a winter walk through the browned and still beautiful (indeed, perhaps, more beautiful) grounds, devoid of all humans except for our small, select group (one of the benefits of membership) – what to our wondering eyes should appear but the realization that the hilltop area is covered with trees mature enough that, when the winds barrel down from the mountains or ice storms coat everything, large and weighty branches snap and hit the ground (or David Smiths) with damaging force. Ergo, the sculpture exodus – no sense playing dice with Nature, not when fine art and millions of dollars are at stake … and, especially, when some of the stuff is merely on loan. So, off they go, to their Citizen Kane-ish warehouse, awaiting the equinox.

Which leaves the pedestals. Here and there, poking up from the beaten down grass, the concrete rectangles remain, devoid of duty, like doormen in a doorless world. In a sculpture park, as Storm King is, or in any museum or gallery, the pedestal is the most overlooked and nearly-invisible object in the place. But they also serve who squat and support; without pedestals, there’d be a lot of lopsided pieces ruined by contact with the elements, and a lot of art lovers with bad backs from bending over to look at things situated at the wrong height. The art would suffer, too, by just being plunked there – to be on a pedestal, after all, is a figure of speech indicating honor or praise or the implication of importance … all of which a lot of today’s art could use, if only to be considered adequate. Sometimes, pedestals are what make art “Art.”

But, up there, nearly alone on the semi-barren rise above Storm King’s di Suvero’d landscape, one can imagine more life to pedestals than even those functions already mentioned. One can dig deep into one’s memory and try to remember the pieces that had recently been on those pedestals, and imagine them there, seeing them, the shiny burnished surfaces, the geometric forms, ghostly, like phantom limbs. It’s a good mental exercise. Then take it to the next step: use the empty pedestals to envision your own sculpture garden, imagining works that could go on them, whether they be works you know or works you’ve made (give yourself an ego boost by seeing your art in Storm King), or even works you devise out of your own creative wisps as you stand and peer at the pedestals. And, for that moment, in that very site-specific magical moment, when site impacts you and you create art, you have an essential arslocii experience that is not only wonderful and ephemeral, but entirely personal – and, yet, no less valid or “real” than if the solid pieces were standing there before you. So much of the appreciation of art is what we make of it, our “take,” the intellectual and emotional resonances, the inner gong we strike; so why should imaginary artworks, utilizing the site and your brain, have less personal impact? They don’t extend beyond you … but, then, what does?

And, then, consider the concrete pads themselves, without any whole-cloth addenda. Fanned out across the ground, low to it, quietly making their presence known, they seemed like an artwork in and of themselves: physical, minimalist in the sense of a Donald Judd or even a Serra, as well as conceptual – a piece playing with the idea of pedestals without art, engaging us with the absurdity and opportunity to imagine. Believe me, we have seen worse things that call themselves art by big names who call themselves artists in places that call themselves art collections.

We’re not saying here that anything can be art – it can’t, although some might disagree – but that sometimes the art need not be present to appreciate and perceive the placeness inherent in an art place, and that sometimes the littlest things can be art, even unintentionally, and that when art is the thing under discussion, you the observer are in the driver’s seat. When they take in the David Smiths, it doesn’t mean that they’ve taken in your senses.

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A Tale of Two Gardens

In our attempts to understand and explain the ins and outs of arslocii, we fell into a perfectly clear example during one weekend in June. It was one of those annual events in which people open their gardens to gawkers like us, for a small sum. This kind of thing echoes the class-based tradition of visiting large estates and stately homes in the United Kingdom, snooping while contributing to the upkeep of the digs of a long line of dukes and duchesses now on the skids. It isn’t quite the same here in the States, having no royalty, but there is a palpable sense of have-nots paying for the privilege of sniffing at the haves.

One garden in particular smelled of new money – an out-of-place McMansion sitting on a ski-slope-like bank on the west side of the Hudson River. The view, we admit, was breathtaking, but on closer examination, it was all wrong and not even attractive enough for the money ill-spent. What had been done was a wholesale removal of a swath of forested growth, as wide as the property’s borders and all the way down from the hilltop manse to the water’s edge. We understand the desire to capture a view, but this was more like stuffing and mounting it. The fact is, there were opportunities aplenty to play peek-a-boo with the river, to tease and suggest by selectively removing or pruning trees. But, no, the owners (and that’s what they were – not guardian-dwellers, not loving cohabitants with the land, but simply owners) decided to just drop their drawers, so to speak, to make their vista a widescreen experience. So, now, rather than a naturalistic attempt at enticing with glimpses, there is a broad lawn tumbling down to the river (the thought of cutting the grass without ending up in the water is frightening, not to mention the erosion this causes), and it ends up resembling those channels cut into mountaintops to erect power lines, or a vertically challenging 16th hole on a golf course. Aside from the scalping, dotted about the steep slope are little islands of plantings, so out of scale and incidental-looking that you almost don’t notice them. They look more like footholds for descending/ascending the river bank than considered gardens. Well, we wouldn’t want any competition with the view, right? There is no sense of place in this scenario, since there is nothing interacting with the water view. Instead there is the shock, a feeling as if a flasher has his trench coat parted — and we all know how disappointing that can be. So, yes, these folks are rich enough to denude the land but they really have given nothing back to it, let alone done something in partnership with it.

In contrast, there was another garden on this touring circuit with a less-than-ideal setting, but which was made into something special. A cluster of farm-industrial buildings of a strange Tudor design were situated right up against railroad tracks. We were told that this had been a cold-storage apple repository convenient to shipping – the land once part of a vast apple orchard production farm. To quote the owner and creator of the new incarnation of usage (as a costume factory) and gardens, “I am now eight years on from the weedy field of rubble I started out with. Sometimes I feel my intentions are starting to show, sometimes not … It’s at all times a workshop, a long dialogue with ‘Place,’ rather than the ‘design-and-install’ approach. Emphasis is of foliage, texture and contrast. Sculpture and plants are used in a theatrical context.” One of the strengths of this endeavor is the subduing of a large unwieldy space by creating rooms and transitions between them, each unique, each embellished with sculpture – the natural elements interplaying with the fabricated. In other words, there is a give with the take, a mutuality and not a dominance. And there is the wonderment of the garden not taking itself oh so seriously. It is a one-off site, and most people would not find the potential for beauty and magic in such a place. Enter the costume designer with a sense of style and whimsy to make it “sew” and you have a cohesive respite, a blending of fantasy and reality, a labor of creativity and craft with respect and a resulting air of joy. Placeness can be found here.

And also shadows. Placeness, as we’ve shown in previous arslocii installments – and what is, in fact, at the very center of the arslocii definition – is much to do with duality and counterpoint. On our website (and you’ll pardon our quoting ourselves) we, in trying to wrap our minds around the arslocii concept, talk about “a special pairing of the manmade with nature, or sometimes even manmade with manmade; the effect being a symbiosis in which neither one stands out or alone, nor would be as meaningful, beautiful or inevitable without the other. It’s an interdependence of aesthetics that goes beyond, thankfully, human dominance over nature or setting, because that has never had much grace.” The pairings and contrapuntalisms – big/small, hard/soft, open/contained, inside/outside, close/distant – doled out in the proper amounts and with just the right tilt of the head are what create placeness, and what, in turn, can mix that placeness DNA with that of art. Add to that list another pair: light/dark. It is here where the two gardens, the subjects of this piece, show their true colors. In the first, there is no accessible shade or sheltered spot – it is all sun-bleached and, though lengthy, without depth. It is an overexposed photo – everything is lighted, and lighted the same way. And, thus, there are no revelations, no discovery – though green, and with a river, it is as much a desert as the Gobi.

But the second garden – now, there, they understood that to see the light you need to have dark, and that the dark is only appealing (or nonthreatening) when one can see light. In this garden, one walks almost immediately from a light-drenched parking lot to the inviting shade offered by covered pathways and pergolas and way stations, then out again into an unprotected field adorned with small-ish sculptures … and then back again into the dappled shade of a woods – there to run into a straw man, a scarecrow, a figure that could be sinister but is rendered merely special by its location (there is no field of crops for it to keep birds from), by its lighting (only heavily filtered light, as opposed to the unremitting sun-soaked existence of most scarecrows) and by its backdrop: more light, and perhaps safety, just beyond. Back and forth, in and out, right here and up ahead.

And then, just farther along one of the winding paths, an allee of colorful parasols that comment wonderfully on the duality: in the most direct sun, they cast tiny, mushroomy pools of shade along the trail, creating a dimensionality out of very little – not just periodic protuberances to dot a landscape, as in the first garden, but ethereal definers that provide senses: sense of location, sense of style, sense of humor, sense of intelligence … sense of place and placeness. Sense and sensual, but not (like the first garden) overly sensible. Artful, playful, resonant, basic, primitive, natural … arslocii.

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Of Libraries and Museums … and Not Quite

In a recent issue of The New Yorker – the always welcome and extremely juicy-to-read Eustace Tilley-cover annual, actually – writer Adam Gopnik splashed around in the lightly roiling shallows of Internet analysis: whether it’s a game-changer, game-ender or just another variation of the same old game, like when you decide to permit the use of proper nouns in Scrabble. (And, by the way, it is terrific to have the old Gopnik back; in the past few, post-France years, he’s written more like a parody of himself, or, perhaps, Henry James writing a parody of Gopnik. We Gopnik fans are happy to hear the return of the old voice, full of clear metaphors, but with a few darker middle-age notes.)

Anyway … In the New Yorker piece, Gopnik, in a thoughtful survey of books about the influence of the Internet – striking either celebratory, worrying or get-over-yourself chords – writes:

There is … a simple, spooky sense in which the Internet is just a loud and unlimited library in which we now live – as if one went to sleep every night in the college stacks, surrounded by pamphlets and polemics and possibilities. There is the sociology section, the science section, old sheet music and menus, and you can go to the periodicals room anytime and read old issues of the New Statesman …

But, exactly … maybe. Sort of. Having the Internet is kind of like living in a library – minus the feel of a library, the sights of a library, the smells (seductive and repulsive) of a library, the attendees of a library, the weird librarians at the library, the awful cafeteria at the library … . In fact, nothing like a library, except the information in it. Maybe the having of an Internet connection is more like living with a library, sharing an apartment with a brainiac roommate because both of you are underfunded. To our mind, being connected to the Internet is like being a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (obviously, nobody who thinks that that sentence ought to have a question mark) and, asked a stumper, you use your lifeline to call IBM’s Watson (if Ken Jennings has taken his landline rotary phone off the hook).

So, not precisely like a library, but an argument could be made. In fact, Gopnik’s made it. But, we pondered, arslocii-wise, that as much as the Internet is or is not like a library, or to what degree it resembles or interfaces with us like one, what the Internet can never seem like, or make us think it is anything like, is an art museum – another public institution that we might find ourselves in for educational or edificational purposes but, in this instance, so thoroughly unreplicatable in the digital universe.

Think of it: In Gopnik’s paradigm, he’s basically equating books with what’s in them – just the words, ma’am. Fine art is different – it’s the being with that’s vital. Sure, if all one wants is to know what, say, “Guernica” looks like – complete with zoom-in, zoom-out views – then seeing it online is fine. Like looking at a postcard. But is it really the “Guernica” experience that one is getting? Isn’t it, like Gopnik’s library, merely the information and not a true encounter with art, and certainly not with the environment that art is in and itself creates. By relying on the Internet to “see” a piece of art, one would not experience scale, or see brush strokes, apprehend the true colors, feel how it “echoes” in the room – perceive its power.

One may read “The Great Gatsby” on an electronic device and get nearly the same thing out of it that you would get out of reading it in a paper and print book. But “Starry Night”? It would be like listening to “A Day in the Life” through your cell phone. And sculpture? Forget about it, even with software that allows you 360-degree views. The Web is merely like the catalog for the real show. Of course, photography fares better than other physical fine arts online, but even there, online one misses the size, and the grain, and – as good as one’s computer monitor is – the tonal variations and gradients, and the color of ink: a silver print looks like a digital capture. Ansel Adams would not be happy.

(Interestingly, the sole exception that we can think of to this dichotomous library vs. art museum, virtual vs. real argument is precisely those items in a library that are most like those objects in a museum: the map collection, the rare books – those very things that enhance our pleasure of them through the tactile, sensual encounter we have with them – the non-informational components of them, the human handiwork aspects.)

So, viewed through this blog’s placeness filter, there is, actually, a comfort that comes out of all this. Two comforts, really. First, the comfort of having incredible access to articles and books, reference and opinion, all with a few clicks or taps or swipes, right at our beck and call, whenever, wherever – a miracle, really (let’s not forget Arthur C. Clarke’s law that states that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic – the Internet, then, being one of the greatest of tricks, or illusions). But, more to the point: There is the comfort of knowing that there are some things that cannot be replicated digitally, ever – that to not just see something but to live it, one has to be at a specific place in order to be with it, to share personal space with it, to view it for all it is, to go back to it over and over and see more and more of it (because, each time, there is another perceivable element, and more to think about it), to feel its value by more intimately understanding the act that created it, to “friend” it in a way that Facebook never can, and to make it one’s own, in ways deeper than one can imagine we are capable of. In other words, by having a human interaction – by realizing that the power is in being with a piece in a place, and the give-and-take symbiosis of the two … the three, actually, when you include yourself. Placeness, in other words. Arslocii.

 

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I OLEV Sculpture

Part of what arslocii tries to explore and understand is how art should be seen, and where, and in what context – how the art and the site interact, and contribute power to each other, and are so integrated and complementary that they become one. As we wrote on our arslocii website, these are places “where the meaningful placement of architecture, art and/or designed landscape in their environment results in a singular and wholly formed work whose parts are inseparable, producing a heightened creative unity – in other words, a ‘placeness.’ ”

Recently, we made a quest to find the “missing” sculpture collection of Philip and Muriel Berman, of Allentown, Pennsylvania. We did so because we had been witnesses to the growth of their assemblage of works, and despite our having no connection to the couple, we felt a kind of kinship with them and their collecting history. Collectors sometimes have a good eye and amass powerful examples of artwork from their own place in time, or a previous time period, the collections becoming representative of meaningful style or thought rendered for the ages. And when collections consist of large-scale sculpture, finding appropriate “resting places” is a difficult task.

We lived in Allentown for a couple of years in the first half of the 1980s (likely an acquisition heyday for the Bermans) and there was no way to avoid their influence on the landscape of the town. For a small, formerly industrialized Pennsylvania burg, it sure had a lot of public art scattered in and around its dying, if not dead, downtown. It was, we learned, put there by the Bermans. Once we even peered over the fence of their home’s backyard, a sort of suburban mini sculpture park, and recognized artworks similar to those dotting sites in the center of town. We made a connection, there and then that, based on what we were seeing, this private art was the source of all the public art. At that time, the artworks were plunked down in front of commercial structures, the works having no particular relationship to their sites, other than there being a space available.

A few years later, living in New Brunswick, New Jersey, we spied an oddly familiar-looking piece of art sitting on the grounds near the Rutgers campus art museum. “The Bermans,” we said to each other. And, sure enough, it was put there by them. In fact, the more places we went in the Lehigh Valley and its surrounds, the mark of the Bermans’ hand extended and greeted us nearly  everywhere. We started to feel, regrettably, that we were recognizing the collector more than the artist and how, oddly, the donor’s nameplate tended to be larger on the works than the artist’s. (Although, let it be said, they knew what they liked – even if others didn’t – and they were incredibly loyal patrons of those artists who interested them.)

A couple of decades passed and, every now and then we would think about the Berman sculpture collection, and wonder where all those public and private pieces were now. We did some research and discovered that the couple apparently had given their acquisitions to the Lehigh Valley Hospital, incorporating the works into the grounds in a kind of institutionalized sculpture park within an office-park setting. Maybe they had in mind a mini PepsiCo, since they probably had a stake in the growth of the hospital anyway. It’s funny that they didn’t try something of that nature at the family money’s headquarters, Fleetway Trucking. But, then again, maybe not.

In 2009 we decided it was worth a trip back to our past to see the artworks in this strange new environment. The hospital, situated on a place-lacking lifeless tract between a six-lane  highway and an interstate, had less appeal even than a commercial campus or a mall, it did not have promise and, as it turned out, it did not have sculpture either. We looked everywhere but found no sculpture.

In a third-party listing on the web (since there was no proprietary Berman website), it stated, “The Philip and Muriel Berman Sculpture Park features 35 permanent works on 118-acres of scenic land. This is the nation’s largest exhibit of outdoor art at a healthcare facility.” We looked everywhere. No art. (No “scenic land,” either.) Maybe that is why the web listing also says, “There are currently no photos for Philip and Muriel Berman Sculpture Park.”

A year later, we heard that the Berman collection had found a home – for very big and heavy things, they move around a lot – at Ursinus College, a small, private, liberal-arts school in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia, and decided to have one more go. It’s a pretty campus that sits on hilly terrain, creating real possibilities for art in site. The Bermans obviously made a significant endowment, since the school’s art museum, now bearing their names, is front and center. The Berman Museum of Art building is a combination of an older stone structure and modern additions; from the lawn it looks as if the original structure has been bound and gagged by the addition, and is peering out, wide-eyed, above its restraints. The sculptures that aren’t placed upon a raised courtyard atop the new addition are scattered about the broad lawns. And “scatter” is the word, since the works are largely plopped into empty wedges of space not useful for much else.

Of many bad positionings, one of particular note is Robert Indiana’s “LOVE,” an icon that we – and millions of others – know well from its placement in a park near Philadelphia’s City Hall. The clone at Ursinus is situated outside the entrance to the student center and bookstore, with the readable side facing toward the building. All the potential views from every other place on campus are of the sculpture’s back side; in other words, from every place except the student center, the sculpture reads:

OL

EV

And unless the work is actually a tribute to the British government’s Office of Low Emission Vehicles, or to a certain class of Estonian mine-laying battleships, this backwards orientation simply reads all wrong. Going inside the building for a better look, it becomes apparent, moreover, that the artwork sits in a gully and, so, even from its front side the piece is cut off at the knees.

Beyond that piece, it is a revelation just how much work by Lynn Chadwick the Bermans accumulated in their lifetimes; perhaps 75 percent of the entire collection at Ursinus is by him. The works are that kind of dated-looking modern art: sort of cubist, sort of abstract, geometricized, with a surrealistic sensibility. One of his works, though, seemed particularly well-considered and well-placed. “Couple on a Seat” is two figures, one of each gender, together but apart on a bench atop a long slope, framed by some nearly ivy-league-style stone buildings. Wearing some sort of robes that resemble graduation garb, their blank geometric-solid heads stare out into the world. A perfect metaphor in bronze for college grads gazing into the void and at the future, out and away from the campus. And in this one instance, there is a meaningful pairing of the art with its environment. Finally we found the Berman collection. And, happily, there is a brief encounter with arslocii.

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Grand Rapids Quag-Meijer

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.

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