A funny thing happened on my way through Marsha Moss’s suite of 25 site sculptures, “A Celebration of Art and Nature,” at the Horticultural Center Arboretum in Fairmount Park. I had gotten there early to avoid the crowd, so I was mapless in that marvelous trove of trees.
As I followed my nose from one sculpture to the next, my eye caught a “piece” that from afar seemed to be an asymmetrical collocation of antique bricks deployed on a cement base, garnished by a swatch of asphalt (as an old visitor of such arrangements, I’m ready for anything).
But as I came close, I epiphinated that my aesthetic open-mindedness—nurtured by 30 years of telling students to give the innovative writer a chance to work his or her magic—had come me acropper. What I was beholding was a vacated structure site; the bricks were placed there to reduce sueable pratfalls.
And at another point in my self-directed itinerary, I espied a stone Japanese lantern sweetly deployed with some nice old gneiss. Gadzooks! I told myself, I must be losing my eye. It was an ancient embellishment astride a culvert. But I loved its gneissness and its mossy patina and hierarchical shape.
Thinking it all over on a three-week Trailways trip to Expo 86 and back, I decided it was time to declare war, however a minority of one I might become—however gauche it may appear to be against Art with a capital A—against the cruder excesses of site sculpture.
I was pleased to pick up some moral support. In Tacoma, the voters recently passed a referendum to remove the neon squiggle sculpture from their sports arena. In St. Louis, street people pissed on Richard Serra’s Korten salute to Twain placed on the splendid axis that leads to Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, that soaring parabola of stainless steel that competes with the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. as the most eloquent public sculpture of our time. And yuppies applauded the pissing.
Note that both arch and memorial are unabashedly abstract. So this Brancusi-lover has no quarrel with abstraction per se. I love Arp and much Henry Moore and many lesser-knowns. This issue is more complicated than abstract versus realistic. I think it has more to do with the cheapening of art values through too-rapid democratization and the creeping cruddism of excessive commercialism.
At Expo 86, SITE, Inc., the world leader in quickly degradable ephemera, has included Superhighway 86, an undulating stretch of highway bogged down with real vehicles of every sort (including self-propelling Nikes), all sullied over with the pale case of concrete (to make it more universal, the SITE people boast unconvincingly). It shoots off into the sky, going literally nowhere. My emblem of the state of site sculpture.
I think my disenchantment began to build up emotional pressure as long ago as summer 1968, when my wife and I visited a major outdoor sculpture exposition in London’s Battersea Park, that lovely demotic pleasure oasis on the Thames Southbank. They had the luminaries—Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. But the median performance was technoposturing, the unhappy conjugation of high technology and low talent.
As I pondered my malaise, my eye caught a flotilla of fledgling ducks, iridescent necks fluffing in the wind, as they mastered the subtle art of river navigation.
My heart leapt up. The marvel of their species, their modest display of their DNA, made an indelible mark on my spirit. I turned to my wife and uttered what is allegedly unutterable for the upper-middlebrow: “I opt for the ducks.” My sensibility has never been the same. It was a Blakean experience, seeing the world in a grain of sand. Or Whitmanic: “The mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillion of infidels.”
The press release for the current show asserts that all of the works “reflect the artists’ visual, conceptual and / or spiritual responses to nature.” Oh yeah? Well, if true, all I can say is that their muse carries damn little current. Three dogs sniffing the next mutt’s pheromones. Ha. Ha. Cute, but silly. Though Greg Olson’s “Address: A Domestic Victory Arch,” which pokes fun at military victory arches with its homely iconography of rolling pin and serving plate, is at least moderately witty and “sited” (if I may use the term) in human history, unlike most of these tabula rasa pretenses at communication.
Which brings me to another key experience in the evolution of my sculptural taste. At Oakland’s Sculpture International 1982, supposedly the world’s greatest gathering of sculptors, I became painfully aware of the abysmal ignorance of their own craft displayed by the artists in conversation.
Just because I like to put things in perspective, I had spent several hours in the Arts room of the San Francisco Public Library reading up on the history of sculpture in the Bay Area and of 20th-Century sculpture in America. I didn’t run into a single sculptor who had the foggiest notion who had preceded him in the craft.
Their airy art began with David Smith, Mark de Suvero or Richard Serra. Humanism was the furthest thing from their minds. They wanted to connect with humungous commissions—now. They weren’t there to learn, brother. They were there to ear. The more the better.
Which brings me to Gary Weissman, who contributed not only a site sculpture in Fairmount Park, but a site performance, the centerpiece of the opening day celebration. I asked him if he had a gallery, and he said, without a trace of embarrassment or irony: “I sell realistic pieces, bronzes, down at the shore. You’ve got to play both sides of the coin in this game.”
You do? I find that kind of cultural opportunism disgusting and a disgrace. Shame on him peddling. Not that all site sculptors are cynical operators. I had a long and inspiring conversation with Herb Parker, whose sod temple was a hit of the show. He’s a 33-year-old from E. North Carolina who lives in an unheated warehouse in Albany, a visionary who is edgy about selling his stuff (“I don’t want to become a commodity”) but is burning with a benign energy to create sod ephemera that affirm man’s unity with nature.
I dig him. I’ll take Herb over Gary any day, not because I believe in voluntary poverty—especially in the realm of ideas—but because Art is significant only when it humanizes, deepens the individual and / or strengthens the bonds of community.
Precious little of that is going on in our current art scene, which is trying to assimilate thousands of art grads each year into a system of school / museum / gallery / media that is already revoltingly venal.
Marsha Moss said on WHYY-FM’s Fresh Air that the 400 entries, from which she chose 25, were amazingly diverse. I don’t believe it. They’re always goofy, sometimes—but rarely—well-crafted. And always searching for a sellable signature. Dark thoughts, I know. But that’s the way I see it.
While I was waiting for the map, I fell into an instructive conversation with the head of the arboretum, John Allen. He said there were more than 300 species in his gorgeous grove (they are so succulent it took a great deal of self-discipline to keep my eyes on the sculptures). And I noted two new plantings, with simple but eloquent headstones, tiny sculptures saying what the trees were for—to honor the memory of two former managers, well-beloved.
Ducks and trees. Go look at those trees and tell me if all the loose talk about artists being “creative” is not presumptuous beyond belief. Let there be some mimesis. And more mimosa. We’ve had it up to the ridge of our noses with Bauhaused artists who struggle mightily to create ex nihilo and end up with only an emptily narcissistic nihilism. Go for the trees.
And get behind that marvelous, prize-winning proposal made in July to strew black-eyed Susans on every square inch of waste ground in Philadelphia. Nature is mighty. And man better get his tiny act together by fitting in, rather than playing God.
Ex nihilo? Nuts.
Patrick Hazard is a freelancer presently living in Holmesburg and one of the most prolific writers since Alexandre Dumas developed finger cramps. Starting next week, Patrick will have a roughly weekly column, “Hazard-at-Large,” running in “After Dark.” Be prepared.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, September 17, 1986
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