Life and Death

Despite vandalism that destroyed one sculpture, the 'Material Terrain' exhibition at the UA goes on

Were they Luddites or philistines? Haters of technology or critics of art? Or merely drunken pranksters?

On the night of Jan. 13, just after UA students returned from winter break, parties unknown--but presumably strong--knocked over a large-scale outdoor sculpture on campus. The 1,000-pound "Garden Snare/Shade House" by artist Kendall Buster had been erected just days before, outside the notorious party dorm Manzanita-Mohave ("Manzi-Mo"). On the morning of the 14th, security guards found the kelly-green mesh-on-metal artwork rolled into the street, bashed and dented beyond repair.

"We're sad it happened," says Blake Shell, director of the Joseph Gross Gallery. "It's an important show to come to Tucson and the UA."

The late "Garden Snare" was just one of 26 big sculptures in the entertaining new indoor-outdoor exhibition on campus. Material Terrain: A Sculptural Exploration of Landscape and Place teases out the contradictions and correlations between nature and artifice, between the organic and the human-made. Curated by Carla M. Hanzal, curator of contemporary art at the Mint Museums in Charlotte, N.C., the show has already traveled to three locations and will hit six more after leaving the UA. Brought to Tucson by UAMA curator Lisa Fischman, it unites 11 artists who are thinking about the nature of nature in a high-tech age.

The artworks include everything from two realistic fiberglass deer whose antlers blaze into real flame at regular intervals (Dennis Oppenheim's "Digestion, Sculpture," 1988) to "hydroponic" works--fabric-and-metal skirt--equipped with their own light and water, and with seeds sprouting into grass (Michele Brody). A surviving Buster piece, "Parabiosis III," 2004, for example, has ambiguous conical shapes that could be either magnified flower pods or technological gizmos. Tucked safely inside the Joseph Gross Gallery, it's a large piece made of green shadecloth stretched over metal forms. It dangles at least 6 feet down from the ceiling, and has a corresponding wingspan 6 feet across. In fact, most of the sculptures in the show are so big that they fill the first floor of the University of Arizona Museum of Art and all of Joseph Gross, and spill out onto seven different sites outside. Or did.

University officials took the precaution of hauling inside another piece that might have proved attractive to mischief-makers. John Ruppert's "Three Aluminum Pumpkins," a delicious trio of silver supersized sculpted pumpkins in various stages of decay, is now inside the UAMA. The artificial pumpkins, flat on the bottom, are rotting back into the earth, and their "heavy fecundity"--Hanzal's description--contrasts nicely with the frank fakeness of their construction. Ruppert has left their seams and cracks deliberately visible. In an age of agribusiness and genetically engineered foods, can we even tell the difference between real plants and hyper-hormonal varieties?

(Another Ruppert work, "Vessel," a giant pot-shaped piece in chain link, wittily placed near the pot-rich Arizona State Museum, was also attacked, but not fatally. It remains outside.)

Donald Lipski also uses manmade materials to simulate elements of nature, crafting exquisitely realistic tree trunks out of colored cast resin. The way his faux bark curls back from the smooth brown trunk underneath, it would fool any squirrel. But Lipski twists these realistic elements into surrealistic forms impossible out in the woods. "Exquisite Copse (big triangle)," 2002, is a pubic-looking triangle hanging on the wall at UAMA. "Exquisite Copse No. 17," 2002, is a roller-coaster twist of fake log sitting on the floor.

In Roxy Paine's hands, the earth becomes art. Her "Dry Rot" is a wall piece that looks exactly like forest floor. It charts the life cycle of decay and growth, proffering both a disintegrating tree trunk and sprouting mushrooms. Made of fiberglass and epoxy, it's hung like a painting on the UAMA wall.

Unlike the artists who use industrial-age materials, German-born Ursula von Rydingsvard uses real wood. It's raw and unpolished, but she's broken it down into tiny chunks that have to be re-assembled in situ to create her enormous works. ("They were sent with instructions," explains Shell.)

Her wondrous 6,000-pound "Hej-Duk," 2003, is a magisterial staircase of cedar blocks at Joseph Gross. To our Southwest eyes, it suggests a Mexican pyramid, but it could also evoke the rooftop of a medieval German house. Born in 1942, von Rydingsvard spent part of her childhood in post-war refugee camps, and the rawness of her piece also conjures up the roughness of the camps' temporary structures. Her work goes in the opposite direction of the other artists: She starts with natural materials and simulates a human-made architecture.

Brody's grass works are among the most amusing in the show. She's responsible for the green grass now sprouting inside Joseph Gross' stark walls, but don't go expecting a lawn. She sows her grass seed into constructions shaped like women's skirts.

Her "Grass Skirt IV," 2002, has a swathe of tea-stained lace draped over a metal skirt form that rises more than 5 feet high. Grass seed is sewn into horizontal bands in the fabric. Thanks to a warm lamp above and tub full of water below, the seeds had already started sprouting just days after the show went up. Over the course of the exhibition, the shoots will grow to full size, then die and decay. Her "time-based sculpture" relies on natural cycles but also tames them, becoming a metaphor for humankind's efforts to dominate the environment.

Outdoors, Wendy Ross' giant works combine delicate petal patterns with tough welded steel. "Bloom," 2001, is like a giant dandelion puff emerging from an elegant aureola of crosshatched steel pieces. Ross is a weaver in style, borrowing from nature's own designs. James Surls also favors flowers in steel. His "Big Walking Eye Flower" is exactly what it says it is: a steel and wood pinwheel of petals, each with a human eye at one end, that seems to be striding cheerfully forward.

Ming Fay wins the prize for the most cheerful piece. His "Money Tree," 1999, is a joyful garden in colored paper and wire. Covering two long stretches of wall at the UAMA and hanging down from the ceiling, his "Tree" stretches its exuberant tendrils across two long stretches of wall at the UAMA and hangs down from the ceiling. The wire vines and stems and branches sprout all manner of giant paper flowers and fruits, in every shade of green, and in ocher, gold, amber, orange and red.

Curator Hanzal tells us that the work addresses serious themes of growth and decay, life and death, but it's hard to think somber thoughts when you're standing inside Fay's garden of earthly delights. Perhaps if the art vandals had dipped into its manifest pleasures, they would have been too kindly disposed toward the world to destroy "Garden Snare/Shade House."

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