• Igor Mitoraj
    Testa Iberica, 1989
    29 x 38 x 31 inches
    Edition of six

Outside In; sculpture and the natural world

September 10—October 23, 2004

The Ancient Greeks? The Romans? Or do we look back further to the Egyptians? Certainly by the Renaissance and Baroque, princes and prelates alike had embraced and promoted the enigmatic poetry of sculpture placed in the context of a garden, grove, or grotto. But the pursuit of who and when is academic, and, dare I say, a bit snoozy. Perhaps the more significant issue arrives in the acknowledgement that in recent years the phenomenon of sculpture sited in nature for either public delight or private consumption has become of heightened interest. In short, it has come to define an important aspect of contemporary culture that, in turn, offers a distant reflection on historical traditions.

Consider the following. Any survey of critically acclaimed contemporary sculptors reveals that most devote significant attention to the creation of works anticipated to flourish beyond the confines of a gallery space. Several options exist. Colossal public commissions frequently make the headlines as bold initiatives intended to define a place or event. However, more reserved and contemplative efforts are found in any number of sculpture gardens, terraces, and atria that have been developed over the course of the last half century by museums, cultural institutions, even corporations. Here, object and viewer are afforded a plein-air chapel. Beyond such intimate boundaries the grander, seemingly limitless cathedrals are sculpture parks. As larger, perhaps braver, initiatives than gardens, these parks provide innumerable opportunities for sculptors and audiences alike.

Although each of the aforementioned is communal, there remains the private environment. This is the option of sculpture placed outdoors in a domestic setting. For some, it may be a singular iconic work, for others it may be a collection of numerous beloved and well-chosen sculptures. In Anglo-American culture such arrangements insinuate traces of Victorian gardens replete with gazing globes and reproductions of antique garden statuary. There is also a rogue notion that it represents an informed alternative to the mass produced, animated gnomes and contemplative figurines that are diluted echoes of historical traditions. With accuracy, it can be said that, like museums, private collections have managed to escape the confines of interiors.

Taken at large, the notoriety of contemporary sculpture sited in nature illuminates several important facets about the valuable position of the visual arts in today’s culture. Foremost, it reveals a debt of gratitude to mid-twentieth century masters like Henry Moore and Alexander Calder each of whom pioneered a significant repertoire intended to be placed beneath an open sky. Moore himself shared with us, “I’d sooner have my sculpture surrounded by natural landscape than with man made architecture.” Beyond, a legacy extends through numerous public commissions that from the late 1960s forward welcomed sculpture to the fabric of community life; here, ideas of monument or memorial were often vanquished by pure civic enthusiasm. Although the aesthetic merits of given works may not have been understood at the moment of dedication, many communities have rallied around their public sculpture and taken the effort to understand the sculptor’s intent. Finally, one must acknowledge two seemingly divergent trends in contemporary art that furthered the role of sculpture placed in the natural world. The use of industrial and newly developed materials on one hand and, on the other, the incorporation of nature and use of natural materials helped redefine issues of scale, installation, even message for innumerable sculptors and multi-media artists. By the dawn of the 21st century, sculpture was readily associated with the outdoors and most Americans had been afforded at least some comfortable exposure even if museum going and gallery hopping remained foreign.

The most poignant cultural commentaries are perhaps found beyond the pomp of large, public settings. A certain quiet exists in a garden that allows viewers to interact with sculpture in a fulfilling way. Often there is the luxury of space that allows for full consideration of an object and the ways in which that object engages and transforms the immediate environment. When so much in everyday life is dominated by the two-dimensional, how enticing the opportunity to interact with something that can be described as anything but flat and digital. In a ringing, beeping, messaging, flashing world, stillness and quietude may have become synonymous with paradise. Beyond, there is the opportunity to examine the natural along with the human made. Concert or conflict? For some the union of art and nature may define a postmodern sanctuary, while for others it may serve as a type of informed folly. Still it must be noted that the opportunity to experience works of art in the natural world fulfills a need to connect with nature or conversely to meditate on the ideas an artist may be prompting through their work.

Sculpture as ornament? Yes, the concept and practice still exists, but in the hands of lesser artists. At base, the term suggests sculpture as inferior to its setting or works simply as accent. But a much a higher ground exists. The reality is that across the international scene, there are numerous accomplished and emerging sculptors responsible for work that is recognized not only for fine execution or craftsmanship, but capable of communicating levels of meaning that hold true or continue in revelation season after season. It is this level of sculpture that capably co-exists within power of a natural setting and more than survives, but thrives, beneath an open sky. It is when the level of sculpture represented in the present exhibition is sited out of doors that one can begin to think in historical terms: the stateliness of the antique, the romantic echo of civilization, the whim or the wisdom of delight. The timeless synergy of sculpture and the natural world remains attainable.

For an art historian long fascinated by encounters with works of art experienced beyond the parameters of a gallery, the opportunity to help define the collection of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park has been most rewarding. At first the ability to visit innumerable public and private sculpture gardens and parks was as daunting as occasions to come to know some of the most profound and promising sculptors working today. Many of are featured in the present exhibition. Upon returning from the first voyages, my initial concerns about forming and placing a collection in the Upper Midwest, quickly gave way to a realization of great promise. The fullness of the seasons! The cool bliss of summer, the crisp light and air of autumn, the heartening severity of winter, the unpredictability of spring. What a range of emotions and experiences afforded by each sculpture standing true before the tests of mother nature and father time. Some works are nestled in thickets or placed in woody groves, others are near manicured lawns, prairie stretches, or wildflower meadows. A native environment is stressed as is the credulity that you, the viewer, have this place and moment for yourself. A unique treasury exists when sculpture is placed nature.

For Francesco Forgione