Artfully Altering The Arboretum

Posted: August 07, 1988

Since they began in 1975, the outdoor sculpture exhibitions organized by Marsha Moss have become major summer art events in Philadelphia. This year, though, the show nearly turned into a non-event when the financially beleaguered Goode administration reneged on a $20,000 pledge of support.

Moss managed to cover the loss from other sources so that the show could open on schedule today. She has applied for a Class 500 grant of $10,000, but the grants are not expected to be awarded until later this month.

The city is listed as one of the exhibition's co-sponsors, along with the Fairmount Park Commission, the Cheltenham Art Center, Nexus Foundation for Today's Art, and Sculpture Outdoors, the organization that Moss created to put together these exhibitions. The total budget for this year's exhibit is $40,000.

The show, "Altered Sites," consists of 25 sculptural installations placed about the Fairmount Park arboretum at Montgomery Drive and Belmont Avenue. Each piece is designed to physically alter the space it occupies or to modify the viewer's perception of that space.

(The show's title expresses an unintended irony - that nature, by inexorably reclaiming the arboretum's perimeter, is altering the site far more profoundly than any group of artists ever could do.)

The arboretum grounds are alternately open and wooded, level and hilly, manicured and overgrown, offering artists a variety of environments to manipulate. The 27 participants (two pieces are collaborations) appear to have exploited most of the possibilities available to them.

It's those possibilities that make the exhibition intriguing: How dramatically can the introduction of sculpture affect the way one perceives a familiar space? Are the effects lasting or transient? Does one perceive the sculptures as pleasing amenities or as curious intrusions on an otherwise naturally resolved landscape?

Much depends on how artists choose to address the park site - on the locales they select and on whether they opt for a strategy of integration or one of counterpoint.

As previous exhibitions in this series have shown, it isn't easy to achieve the proper equilibrium between sculpture and landscape. It isn't simply a matter of scale, color or materials; it's more a matter of attitude, of being sensitive to the nuances of the site and choosing an appropriate way to enhance that site without effacing its essential character.

A New York artist who calls herself Hera has accomplished this in a secluded and unlikely setting, by using a storm-water drainpipe set into a steep hillside in the southeast corner of the arboretum.

This is the shaggiest part of the grounds, a place beyond the paved walkways, where only the intrepid and the curious might venture. Hera has constructed a small, angular, wooden platform that nestles into the concrete abutment that anchors the pipe, creating a place for a person to sit and contemplate nature.

Water coursing from the drain and rattling down a rocky channel, debouching into a stream that runs through this corner of the arboretum, provides the music (when it's running, of course), while mint and wildflowers that the artist has planted around the platform will supply, when they come up, pleasing visual and olfactory accents.

By embellishing an obscure and functional structure, Hera unobtrusively called attention to an area of the park that otherwise would be overlooked.

At the other end of the arboretum, near Belmont Avenue, Janet Biggs and Richard Torchia have instigated a tongue-in-cheek dialogue between the park and its visitors. They accomplish this by mixing the real with the contrived, so that one sees the natural landscape in a domestic format, as a picture.

In a glade at the edge of an overgrown meadow, they have created four framed views, each of which includes an artificial element - a lawn ornament, a plastic topiary in a pot, a wooden silhouette of a "knoll" covered with bright green plastic grass and a shimmering "pond" made of spangles hung on a vertical sheet of plywood.

One surveys these tableaux from a central enclosure formed of vertical panels into which Biggs and Torchia have cut openings surrounded by prominent picture frames. Titles such as Landscape With Lawn Ball engraved on brass plates complete the jest.

Nearby, in the more park-like quarter of the arboretum, Fritz Dietel has chosen another option, a structure totally extrinsic to nature that establishes an alternative, albeit empathetic, environment.

Dietel's Spellman consists of two interlocking concave walls. (From above they would resemble an "S" with the center removed.) Each wall is pleated, and alternate pleats are painted in bright, contrasting colors.

By placing Spellman in a clump of trees, Dietel emphasizes its connotations of sanctuary and enclosure, but it's a purely arbitrary and formalist enclosure that echoes the natural one in which it has been placed.

Marie Gee's Sun Altar, which sits in the overgrown meadow, adopts a more familiar stance by inviting communion with nature. This is one of the few pieces in the exhibition in which the milieu seems inappropriate. The site is amorphous, and the overgrown meadow makes the open-top Sun Altar feel like an abandoned shed rather than a ritual structure designed to metaphorically connect earth and sky.

The labyrinth called Desire, which Anthony Tsirantonakis has constructed of wood, metal and fabric, is another piece that fails to establish a logical reason for being where it is, out in the open in the most problematic area for site-specific work in the arboretum.

On the other hand, Suzanne Leahy's Disappearing Act, a set of three electric-blue house forms that appear to be sinking into the earth, orient themselves to the edge of the reflecting pool (empty, alas!) that establishes the arboretum's dominant axis.

Its vivid coloring as well as its placement near the center of the arboretum makes Disappearing Act one of the few pieces that affects one's perception of the whole site, not just the immediate environs. The nearby array of red flags by Ragnhild Reingardt is another.

The two pieces closest to the horticulture center, which is where visitors pick up maps of the exhibition, have been placed there primarily for security reasons. (Even with a map, several of the pieces are hard to find.)

Terry Lee Dill's Rolling Ball Tower, another completely artificial structure, invites climbers. Jack Thompson's shamanistic Jamina Shrine obviously belongs in the most secluded nook one could find - it's a yurt-like hut, covered with totemic animal and human heads and with a ritual figure inside - but to put it in such a spot would be to invite mischief.

Some pieces blend with the landscape so smoothly that they can easily be missed, even when you're looking for them. Just west of Thompson's shrine, Bilge' Friedlaender has wrapped a half-dozen cypress trees with "bandages" of handmade linen paper; they're really too conceptual to be seen as art objects.

On the southern side of the arboretum, near the swale where a half-dozen

artists have placed their pieces, Lanny Bergner has "planted" a small, dead tree that he painted black, wrapped with silver wire and embellished with a simulated bee swarm or hive made of fishhooks, wire and screening.

Bergner's piece, a triumph of contradictions, may be the most beautiful piece of all - it's contrived yet so "natural" that it seems rooted to the spot; unobtrusive enough to be overlooked yet compelling once you see it.

Next to the greenhouses, on the south side, Mei-ling Hom has created one of the more humanistic and pleasing pieces in the show, an arched passageway of morning-glory vines planted to climb in the shape of a "V."

The vines need to grow to establish the intended effect - a tightrope-like constriction at one's feet that expands at shoulder height - but one quickly gets the point even with minimal vegetation. Going Green is programmed to water itself automatically four times daily - the water sprays from the copper-tubing arches - and during those intervals, it's even more enchanting than it is in its static state.

The pieces in the swale are the most easily skipped, especially if you don't like mosquitoes and walking uphill, but they shouldn't be, particularly the Dream Stele that Bernard J. Felch has cut into an embankment; Ward Shelley's Configuration for Sandbags and Motherform, which also incorporates a culvert abutment; Ann Gillen's 20th Century Baroque Fountain, which straddles the stream, and Jane Greengold's "garden" enclosure, All This and Heaven, Too.

The exhibiting artists were selected from among more than 300 who submitted proposals. Other artists in the show are Anne Krinsky, Elaine Crivelli, Jonas dos Santos, Debra M. Sachs, Bert Kupferman, Florence Thorne, David Schafer, Curtis Mitchell, and the team of David Singer and Kurt Madison.

The exhibition will remain in place through Oct. 30. The grounds are open

from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and to 8 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The arboretum is on the route of the Fairmount Park trolley, which runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

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