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 ART BUSINESS NEWS | APRIL 2005  (large Images are loading).
 

 TEXT VERSION

Site-Specific Art
Sets Mood In Many Locales

by Jessica Lyones | ABN Contributing Editor

Installations blend art and environs. The result:
aesthetic surprises indoors and out.

Beginning in the mid-1960's, many artists abandoned gallery walls and looked to the earth as they pursued site-specific art. These artists wanted to create art that would be best showcased outside the traditional gallery setting. At its very best, site-specific art integrates so seamlessly into its surroundings that it's difficult to tell where the piece ends and the surrounding begins. That is, the art becomes part of its environment.
    For example, Robert Smithson,  who left New York for Utah's Great Salt Lake, Jetty 35 years ago. The work is a 1,500-foot spiral sculpture that coils out into the water.
     While Smithson's monumental piece is an extreme example of an earthwork, site-specific art may be large or small, and it may explore its relationship to its locate, whether indoors or out -- to an office space, a city park, an arid desert or a pond.
     "With site-specific pieces," says Brent Sverdloff, marketing director for DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, "you see a very harmonious blending with its surroundings."
     The park sits on 35 acres of rolling woodlands in Lincoln, MA.
     Sverdloff points to a piece called "Rain Gates," by Ron Rudnicki, a sculptural landscape created from granite, water and plantings about passage -- up or down the 20-foot climb over craggy bedrocks, along the flowing water and meandering step-stones and through the shimmering rain curtains.
     It takes the viewer on a journey from one point in the landscape to another. "It's so thoroughly dependent upon the hillside where the fountain is built, and it drips down into the grotto," Sverdloff says. "You would be hard-pressed to tell what the actual configuration of the turf is, and what the artist had to actually dig out. The two are so seamless."
     DeCordova's permanent collection also features "Little Red Riding Hood and Other Stories," a granite site-specific installation depicting a door, a flying carpet and a granite floor by Carlos Dorrien. The piece was designed expressly for the promontory overlooking Flint's Pond, and it looks as if it's posed to launch itself over the body of water. The door and the flying carpet symbolize vehicles used to access imagination. And about the floor, Dorrien says, "The carved slab opens up the spatial life of the object and its surrounding space. Also, the slabs can inspire in the objects on top of them a sense of ceremonial mystery."
     In a very different part of the country, painter and sculptor Benini has created a 140-acre venue in the Texas Hill Country (Johnson City, TX) to showcase large-scale, site-specific sculpture. Or rather, as Benini notes, "the site is creating itself."
     All the works at Sculpture Ranch are for sale, but each piece is highly attuned to the natural landscape and vegetation, like the black granite "Montezuma" by Benini that stands at the entranceway to the ranch, and the "Blessing Counter" piece that stands 11-feet tall on a hill top to catch the wind.
     "When the winds blow, as they often do in the Texas Hill Country, and even more on a high site like this, the beautiful timbre of the steel song suggests that one count their blessings," says Lorraine Benini, the artist's wife.
     "As artists visit the Sculpture Ranch," Benini says, "they respond at their own environmental level. The only guidelines are dictated by the harsh Texas environment--the winds, sun and occasional flash floods for example."
     When the couple bought the property--formerly part of President Lyndon Baines Johnson's ranch--in 1999, they didn't intend to develop it as a public cultural facility. The began placing sculpture on the rolling grounds, and soon artist friends began displaying some of their own pieces on the land.
     "At that point, the name Sculpture Ranch was born to convey the notion that while the terrain could not be cultivated, it does lend itself to host large-scale pieces in tune with the environment."
     Site-specific can also apply to installations created specifically for a particular place, like the pieces commissioned by Progressive Insurance for its four campuses in Cleveland (tw0), Phoenix and Tampa.
     Former CEO Peter Lewis originally conceived Progressive's award-winning art collection in the early 1970's. Today, it includes more than 6,000 artworks displayed throughout the company's offices. It began as a print collection, but now includes 15 site-specific pieces.
      While not open to the publi9c, it's intended to "support creativity in the workplace and promote the pursuit of innovation and change," says Christie Frey, Progressive Art Collection's registrar. "In addition, it provides a stimulating work environment that challenges our natural inclination to remain inflexible in the face of an ever-growing need to be open to new ideas and alternative perspectives."
     Progressive began commissioning these large pieces of art in 1993, when it moved into its new headquarters. Two more site-specific commissions were installed in the new 600,000 square-foot campuses in 2000 and 2001.
     "Art sets a mood, a tone in the environment," Frey says.
     In Boston, Forest Hills Cemetery functions as a public-park/open-air-museum of sorts. Forest Hills Trust Director Cecily Miller calls the cemetery, built in 1848, Boston's first park.
     "The design encourages contemplation, and thinking about our own lives--what's important to us; whether there is a spirit life; and whether there are forces larger than us," Miller says. "And this has an interesting history, like the fact that poet E.E. cummings and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison are buried here."
     For its first 70 years, the original cemetery supervisors were horticulturalists and landscape designers, so that "the physical beauty of the site was a very important aspect of the cemetery," Miller says.
     Sculpture soon became a prominent part of the environment, as families commissioned stonemasons and masons and artists to memorialize loved ones. Today, the Victorian sculpture collection remains.
     More recently, however, the Forest Hills Trustees initiated The Sculpture Path, featuring works by contemporary artists that leads from the oldest parts of the cemetery to newer areas where burials still take place. The Trust also organizes summer exhibitions of site-specific installation art and sculpture.
     "It's a very inspiring environment for artists to respond to," Miller says. "It also offers artists an opportunity to create art that speaks to issues that matter to people, but that we don't often talk about in our society, like mortality and what happens to people when they die."
     That's not to say that all the installations are somber. Some, like Leslie Wilcox's "Nightshirts," painted stainless steel screens on spruce trees, seem playful. The artist has said that she wanted to "celebrate the generations of extended families and friends that have shared these hallowed grounds for over 150 years." The figures float above the ground. They are other-worldly, yet gentle.
     At a more modern-day park, Millennium Park showcases site-specific, public art, landscape and design in downtown Chicago. It was originally planned in 1998 to create new parkland and transform unsightly railroad tracks. "We also wanted to create some public art," says Ed Uhlir, the director of architecture, landscape and design. "It was a modest proposal back then," Uhlir says. "As the part grew in scope, opportunity and size, we got the idea to add more art, and include some of the best designers in the world for architecture, landscape and art."
     Uhlir describes the park as a series of rooms, each with a different piece of art: the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion; the interactive Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa; the Lurie Garden, a combination of spatial structure, plantings and lighting design designed by the team of Kathryn Gustafson, Piet Oudolf and Robert Israel; and Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" sculpture.
     The Millennium site-specific installations help to integrate the parks' entire surroundings--the people, the environment and, of course, the art. The Crown Fountain, for example, invites visitors to watch the changing video images on the 50-foot high glass towers; kids to splash in the reflecting pool; and adults to watch the children playing.
     "All of the art [installations] in Millennium Park," says Uhlir, "beckons people to interact with them." ABN
     For reprints of this article, contact Charles Lang at 888-772-8926, ext. 266, or e-mail
clang@pfpublish.com.
Sources:
■     Benini Foundation and Sculpture Ranch, 830-868-5244,
www.sculptureranch.com
■     DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 781-259-8355,
www.decordova.org

■     Forest Hills, 617-524-0128, www.foresthillstrust.org
■     Guggenheim Museum, www.guggenheim.org
■     Millennium Park, 312-742-1149, www.millenniumpark.org
■     Progressive Art Collection, 440-461-5000, art.progressive.com
■     Robert Smithson Estate, www.robertsmithson.com

 

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