Monday, September 17, 2012

Environmental Sculpture at the Anderson Center, Red Wing, Minnesota

Looking Forward, Vincent Donarski, 2002

The Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Red Wing, Minnesota offers visitors the pleasure of a sculpture garden situated on fifteen acres adjoining reclaimed grass prairie on one side, and a cascade of ancient burr oak forest descending sharply to the Cannon River on the other. The sculpture park itself is planted with rows of young oaks of several varieties, helpfully identified with markers, just like the sculptures are. “Art and nature thus allied…” are equally married. This was the intention of the Center, which developed the garden in 1996 with the assistance of the Red Wing Environmental Center and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.  

Young oaks at the Anderson Center nature walk
During my September residency at Anderson, I refresh myself, staled from my writing, by strolls in the sculpture garden to enjoy the sweetness of the environment’s transition to fall, and to consider the impressive variety of monuments designed to be viewed outdoors. 

The factor that has struck me the most is the generic quality of the garden setting and its effect on individual works. In other words, I’ve come to think that environmental sculpture might do best when it’s designed for a particular place, not simply to be placed outdoors without specific reference to surrounding landscape or architecture. This is a thought in process, however, because I like some of the sculptures very much just for themselves, and others I don’t enjoy for similar reasons of design, materials, or concept. What is the relationship of my taste to my assessment of siting? I’m not sure I can (or necessarily should be) able to answer that, but it’s a substantial something to chew on.
Looking Forward, another view. Note the sweeping arc shadow.

Environmental sculpture works at least two ways. First, as a significant (not always enormous) event that one studies in its shadow, circling, perhaps touching, considering its materials, components, construction, and relationship to one’s own size and body. It is also an event that can be come upon from any direction and seen from any distance; something that relates to its environment in many ways apparent and disguised. In this sense these sculptures are literally environmental—they are integral to the world they are in, not simply artifacts deposited in it. 

Vincent Donarski's Looking Forward is one of the sculptures I delight in, for being a piece that invites attention from every angle, and sits on its plot with grace. It's scale is not overwhelming; it's taller than a human being, but is composed of knees and curves, books and spades that all bring to my mind human bodies and work. I love the balance of dynamic and stable forms and their relationship, which harmoniously changes as one moves around it. Its aspects are very different, but I never lose sight of the impulse that it came from. From every angle, it stands against distant trees that provide not only background but reinforcement for our sense of its proportion. We know where and how it fits. I love the sculpture, I love the shadows it describes, and I love the ease and stimulation I simultaneously feel around it.

Physical Tension, Megan Madland, 2003
Close to Donarski's work sits Megan Madland's 2003 Physical Tension, composed of two large sheets of a composite, stone-like material with iron supports. Rather than circling the work, one walks between the plates as through a canyon's ancient topography. Compared to a piece like Looking Forward, it's difficult for me to understand Physical Tension in its context. It's interesting to walk the narrow canyon between the plates, and to imagine the by-now-trampled path to be the base of the profound, dark, and somehow sacred place that's created inside. 

Inside Physical Tension
Once inside, the sculpture creates its own environment. But that doesn't obviate the fact that the piece is primarily exterior, and that it does indeed stand in relationship to the natural environment that surrounds it. As such, I find it as sorry on the outside as it is intriguing on the inside. It is supported on each side by two rusted beams that are themselves anchored by rods. The beams are attached to the concrete in a utilitarian way that fails to add, to this eye, any utilitarian aesthetic. So nothing on the exterior has its own beauty or relationship to nature—that's all inside. Which, granted, may be part of Madland's intended point, and a good one. But as an addition to a nature center, I think it's a poor choice. This, like several other pieces, would be clarified and its importance greatly enhanced in a setting less natural and inherently competitive with content about the earth and manmade contrasts to it. I'd put this in  the city, where it could be heard.

Erik Legrey, The Grand Couple, 2003
The Grand Couple by Erik Legrey is another appealing sculpture that seems lost on the prairie. It's a light-hearted work that would seem to be right for a small garden-like setting, to be seen where one pokes about of a fine afternoon. A basically flat work badly needs close surroundings to create the little room for it to stand in. The Grand Couple gets lost as soon as one moves away from it, or from any position that is not frontal. Even against the dark green of the distant oaks, this one grows a little faint; from the side, there's almost nothing to see, and upon approach, it's smoke only. This sculpture needs a good home.
Hiding among the trees, The Grand Couple

Several of Anderson's sculptures appear as if the were made to be where they are though: They are commanding and celebrate the opportunities of their plots and the particular landscapes they form parts of. They are as integral to their sites as any thing rooted to it.

This is a conclusion I've come to with grudging admiration for Michael Bigger's Monterrey Express, surely the sculpture with pride of place over all the others in Anderson's collection of over thirty contemporary pieces. Monterrey Express stands between the north-south four-lane state highway and the depth of the Center's sculpture-nature park. From the road, the view is arresting, of mown green grass with Bigger's flat, rust-red arch; then, ranges of tall golden prairie grasses; and the ranks of burr oaks swaying in the wind beyond.
Monterrey Express, Michael Bigger, 1998

Bigger's sculpture, though not entirely alone on its flat, mowed lawn, nevertheless claims the space in the way a paterfamilias welcomes the guests on New Year's Eve. My photograph truncates this aspect of it, but to walk beneath it, one feels the sense of making an important entrance. Though the air on one side may appear to be a lot like the air on the other, the presence of the big red sculpture changes everything around it.

I am sorry to find fault with the sculpture's supporting legs, fashioned of ordinary, unmodified beams fixed to concrete slabs. "Look to the sky!" is my consolation, for all the interest and, indeed, great flights of fancy are there. I do find it disappointing, though, that the legs appear to have been given no particular thought, as if we aren't supposed to notice that they are there; that we are to suspend our disbelief until we focus elsewhere. 

But above us, Bigger uses sheet metal in poetic ways. The rusted swoops and tines 
are the contrails of swallows, the elements of well-worn rakes, mowers, and scythes. The sense of wear and tear that is part of the formal dynamism is exhilarating; the way that Bigger extends it in a long, loping, arched line lifts the spirits.

Monterrey Express through prairie grasses
The really special siting effect of this piece is when it's seen from the prairie side. Not only are the unfortunate legs disguised by the beauteous grasses, but the span floats over the grass like a wonderful reminder of the human in the natural. Anyone who has been with children for a nature walk in the woods knows that they will all leap for the empty soda can or the smashed ballpoint pen incongruously lying among the mayflowers. Signs of human life always call, and they certainly did to our prairie-traveling ancestors. Bigger's sculpture makes me think of those encounters—of the welcoming land, and the welcoming of the few people who got there first. 

Kamus, Peter Lundberg.

This sculpture, Kamus, by Peter Lundberg, is my favorite on the property. Its material, if it is not constituted partially of clay, looks a lot like the clay for which this district is well-known. The Red Wing Pottery still operates five miles down the road, and enormous clay deposits have been worked to the benefit of local people for millennia. (All the roofs at the Center are covered with tile.) 

While the sculpture appears to be merely a rough, red ring, it grows more and more complex—and fun—the longer you walk around and look at it. One thing I Iike is that it looks so hastily constructed, as if a giant child made it in nursery school and Mama Giant reinforced it with ribbon to make it last. The surface is pocked and poked and scratched for a miscellaneous look—or, whoops:  Maybe they are the marks of an ancient people and this has been carefully preserved by archeologists so that we may ponder the runes!

One of several alternate views of Peter Lundberg's Kamus.
Perhaps the most wonderful thing about this wonderful sculpture, though is that it is in the right place. It's big enough and the right shape for its outdoor spot. The winds can blow through it. It's the color and texture of the earth it stands on. The metal reflects the sun and eerily turns dull gray and disappears when it's rainy or cloudy out. 

But when it's sunny, it has a special property that I've never seen before and take childish delight in. In the photo to the left, you will see that it casts a very clear shadow: a roughly oval ring. But you will notice, too, that from that angle, the intersection of the sculpture's line forms two 
loops from the materials. As the viewer circles the sculpture, its form at every different position creates different combinations and shapes of single or double loops. Yet the shadow remains constant—the sun doesn't change her point of view. I really love this shadow-watching game, dreaming that at some point I will outfox that shadow and catch it twisting out of a position it snuck into, trying to imitate the many forms of the sculpture. But I probably won't. 

There is such a variety of sculptures in the Anderson Center's collection that any viewer can have a holiday reaching their own conclusions about the suitability or unsuitability of this or that piece for its location, stretching the imagination to find a better placement, rearranging monuments as a giant redecorating a gallery space. I definitely like it when the natural space with the addition of the sculpture add up to more space than there was at the beginning. I don't want to walk away—or around—feeling like the addition of a sculpture has caused the implosion or loss of a good place to look at the sky and trees.
Feather by Brian Unger.

Also on the Anderson property, closer to the residence, are a couple of fine examples of fortunate sitings. One example, Feather, by Brian Unger (right) is a secret like a pinecone or beetle can be, still and dark, arrested in motion.

Still, it mustn't be forgotten that the Anderson Center Sculpture Garden and Nature Walk brings the stroller to a very great deal of perfectly situated nature too. The prairie grasses, tree barks that peel and climb, ravines and plains: All sometimes distract from the art...

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