This approach not only has given Moss' annual outdoor exhibitions a thematic focus, it has further enhanced their appeal, at least theoretically. The artists have been challenged to respond to the site actively, both by using natural materials and by designing works that would enhance the public's perception and appreciation of an underused resource.
During the last four shows, the artists whom Moss has chosen have produced a number of ingenious ideas, but not a lot of memorable sculpture - that is, pieces that seemed worthy of being left in place after the shows were over. Temporal and financial constraints have been partly responsible, but the ephemeral nature of the exhibitions is inherent in the concept of dialogue with the site.
Thus, one has come to look forward to these shows without expecting too much from them. Each summer, new artists descend on the arboretum and, in a few furious weeks of activity, imprint their collective personality on it. Typically the shows have had an ad hoc feeling to them, because many works are insufficiently durable to last much longer than a few months. This transient quality, in turn, reinforces the conceptual thrust of the enterprise.
So it is again this year with the fourth arboretum exhibition (none was held last year). "Out of the Woods" features 25 pieces by 30 artists selected from 325 entries. Some pieces are sculptures, others are installations. As in previous years, they're distributed all over the grounds. It's evident, in fact, that after four years, the distributional pattern is becoming somewhat standardized.
The exhibition follows precedent in other ways as well. Some pieces blend into the environment - one, by Bilge' Friedlaender and W. Gary Smith, blends so well that it's all but invisible - while others, such as John Peter's A Panoply of Colors, stand out like runway beacons.
Some pieces are integral to their sites and couldn't exist apart from them, while others, such as Robert Ressler's monumental wood sculpture called Step by Step, adapt to theirs. Some pieces are sturdy enough to survive indefinitely outdoors, while others, such as the installation by Carl Scheidenhelm and Richard Scoggins called Last Stand, are destined to be destroyed by the elements.
One difference from previous years is noticeable, though - the arboretum itself is less shaggy. The field at the west (Belmont Avenue) end has been mowed, so that the sculptures placed there seem less isolated. And the bosky ''ravine" on the south side, just east of the Japanese house, has been cleaned out, making the stream that flows through it more of a presence.
From the first show, artists have been drawn to the ravine because of its topography and the stream; this year, 10 pieces have been placed in it or at its edge. In 1986, the area was so choked with brush and weeds that the stream was barely visible; this year, the cleared ravine is the most inviting section of the grounds.
As the show title suggests, this year's entries are supposed to be inspired by nature, but the extent to which a particular piece reflects that orientation is bound to be subjective. The most pointed comments involve the environment. The passion manifest in the environmental messages is touching, and this attitude of concern makes a stronger impression than the formal, conceptual or psychological aspects of most of the pieces.
For instance, Last Stand attacks the destruction of forests to produce newspapers and packaging that, usually after a single use, become waste. Scheidenhelm and Scoggins have stacked 2,000 bundles of newspaper and cardboard in a circle that resembles a miniature amphitheather. In the center, they have placed a small pine tree planted in a hollowed-out tree stump. At the entrance to the "amphitheater" stands an honor box for the Daily Pulp, ''newspaper for the last stand."
The contrast between the adolescent tree, symbolic of renewal, and the encircling mound of waste - the stacking simulates the rings of a cut tree trunk - constitutes an elegy for a noble species sacrificed to the insatiable demands of commerce. It's a bit overheated, perhaps, but one of the stronger images of the lot.
Grove of Trees and Man's Tools, by Christopher Vondrasek, makes the point more obliquely. Vondrasek has fashioned a number of oversize wooden axes and fastened them by chains and metal hoops to the trunks of about a dozen trees. The ax is a beautiful and useful tool, an instrument of progress as well as of mindless destruction. By linking ax to tree (some quite ancient and magisterial), Vondrasek dramatizes the conflict between the demands of civilization and the need to conserve man's natural legacy.
Because they're polemical, the "save-the-environment" pieces tend to be a little strident, which compromises their appeal as art. Gail Rothschild's Acid Rain is an altruistic sentiment expressed in the heavy-handed and technically casual style characteristic of much political art.
On the other hand, the "nobility-of-nature" pieces generally effect a more pleasing amalgam of medium and message.
The most elegant of these is Wind, Rain and Pollen by Stacy Levy, an array of bright yellow windsocks with attached rain gauges, which calls attention to the elemental forces that influence the character of a natural site. (Pollen images are etched on glass plates mounted on metal stands.) Levy's piece enlivens a featureless sector of the arboretum, and is one I would nominate for permanent placement.
Tim Prentice's Yellow Zinger is the only other kinetic piece, and it's a delightfully effective one. It is hung from a tree in the ravine, and consists of two articulated elements of bright yellow plastic squares that undulate in the wind with a beguiling serpentine motion. Yellow Zinger exemplifies the pieces that animate the natural surroundings; unfortunately, it's installed next to A Panoply of Colors, a sequence of brightly colored posts that dominates that sector of the ravine.
At the other extreme is Elsbeth Woody's Ring, a ritual circle of 13 ceramic ''boulders" arranged around a turf mound. (The ritual circle, or square, in the case of Lydia Hunn's Encompassing Woods, is a common device this year.) Ring is a kind of natural stage to be energized by the observer; it's so neatly locked into its site that it seems more like a natural feature than an accretion.
Scale is one sure way to make a piece overpowering, and scale achieves that effect in Mark Gordon's Trophy (which otherwise would be lost in its isolated location); in the giant timber Sundial by Sarah Cunningham and Michael McClintock (such a simple idea; it's odd no one thought of it until now); in Step by Step, which resembles a pair of giant crutches, albeit with figurative overtones, and in Margery Amdur's enormous ground mural of painted stones.
But the piece that most insistently insinuates itself into one's consciousness, and the one you're likely to remember the day after, is Point of Contact, by Dan Reyes and Auden Thomas. They have fixed 15 pairs of brightly painted shoes to the ground at various locations around the arboretum, and one comes upon them serendipitously.
For instance, in the most remote corner of the ravine, one encounters two pairs of shoes by the side of the path, hers inside his, and one's recognition of the familiar situation is instantaneous. Point of Contact may be the most imaginative piece in the exhibition, as well as one of the few whimsical ones.
The other artists represented this year are Victoria Franklin-Dillon, Cynthia Karasek, Duane McDiarmid, Grace Knowlton, Andrew Wolff, Jesse Moore, Jeanne Flanagan, Jerilea Zempel, Kim Jones, Gregg Schlanger, and the team of Rena and Jack Thompson.
"Out of the Woods" will be on view at the arboretum through Dec. 1. The grounds are open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. The main entrance to the arboretum is near the intersection of Belmont Avenue and Montgomery Drive, and can be reached from either street.