Above: Robert Stackhouse, St. Louie Bones, 1987.
As part of our 35th anniversary celebration, the Curatorial Department at Laumeier Sculpture Park has initiated a new program titled, Sculpture Focus. This monthly program will feature one work from the Park’s collection, providing an in-depth look at the chosen artwork in regards to its meaning, the artist’s concepts and its placement in the Park’s landscape. Additionally, Sculpture Focus will include the thoughts, opinions and stories from a variety of voices from the local community. By combining an assemblage of voices that help shape St. Louis’s broader cultural landscape with the curatorial narrative of our collection, we hope to open up the dialogue about the history of Laumeier, the evolution of sculptural forms and the future of sculptural practice in the public realm.
Is Eye the funniest sculpture at Laumeier? You’ll be forgiven if you guffaw the first time you see it – it’s just so goofy. Kids, in particular, love how funny it is, prima facie. It’s probably the only sculpture on the grounds that stares back at us. Indeed, it’s the sculpture that mocks us for strolling about looking at art; i.e., it mocks the visual routine by pointing it out and pointing it up. It’s also, from what I understand, the most photographed sculpture at Laumeier. Families love to get their photo taken standing next to Eye. Eye takes it in good humor. Eye abides.
And then Eye turns serious. It looms over us in our image, like the gods we imagine to take human form, or like the horrible, all-seeing sentinel-god Sauron from “Lord of the Rings.” It judges us in silence. It invites us to a staring contest, during which we always blink first. It resists categorizing, because, when all is said and done, it’s representational sculpture, no better or worse than our human bodies, and ourselves. And late at night when the Park is empty and no one’s around, Eye watches…and it knows.
Byron Kerman performed a monologue, “That Eye’s Got a Mouth On It,” as the voice of Eye as part of the Poetry in Place series in 2010. He is a freelance journalist.
Approaching Juan William Chavez’s untitled sculptural meditation on the buildings of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, I finally saw Pruitt-Igoe. Through research, site visits and examination of every photograph and blueprint I have seen, I have tried to construct a Pruitt-Igoe tower to experience. Never have I been able to pare down the buildings to the elegant ghost form of posts that now stands at Laumeier. Based on one of the single module towers, which were 180’ wide, the installation suggests a ground-level scale that is approachable. In fact, I could walk in, around and through it in any number of ways. This tower form is not threatening, but open and even vulnerable. Of course, it is built out of an impermanent unit – not reinforced concrete that resisted even a spectacular explosive blast.
The material of the piece conjures connections both manifest and diffuse. For one thing, the ragged wooden utility poles were the gift of Ameren, which still maintains an electric substation inside of the Pruitt-Igoe forest. Appended to the little brick substation, which was built to serve Pruitt-Igoe, is a single pole on which is mounted a light. Some nights, within the pitch, the woods are broken by the glow coming form that light. Seeing the installation echoes the solace that a functioning utility system provides when present on a site that seems to have gone wild. That paradox is reversed in Juan’s piece, where the posts are broken and functionless.
The other references that Juan’s piece evokes are less literal. The wood could well be the rough and strange trunks of Pruitt-Igoe’s volunteer canopy-bearers, which make the site into a living timeclock of the city’s rebound from fateful decline. Then again, the simple posts echo the structural grid of the lost towers, suggesting building anew may be imminent. Even further still, the rugged wood reminds me of Richard Serra’s plan for installing Twain amid a forest-like canopy downtown. Like Twain, Pruitt-Igoe was a materially-stark modern monument, and like the sculpture was supposed to be (but never quite have been) its vestiges would become cloaked in natural life. Suggested is that the power of nature might be the most potent on the lives of people – much more than manmade modern architecture, no matter how overscaled. The complexity of Pruitt-Igoe can be quantified (stilled), while the living complexity of a forest is unknowable (growing). Juan’s piece presents that opposition, and then makes us resolve it. Are we beholding a single tower, or a forest of trees, or both?
Architectural historian Michael R. Allen is the Director of the Preservation Research Office, a St. Louis-based historic preservation and public history firm. Allen served as co-manager of the Pruitt Igoe Now ideas competition throughout 2011 and 2012.
There’s an U P S I D E puzzle for the nocturnal possums and pagans who come out to play at Laumeier Sculpture Park. By day these works look like eccentric shaped fuse boxes set a top ship masts, jaunty public art for all…OH YAY! By night T Kelly Mason’s lollipop shaped streetlamps illuminate the park with various cranky neon text messages, like a stalker or needy girlfriend, but only between hours where the public cannot enter the park. Unless there is a special event the Park Ranger will eject you (bring face-camo, dark clothes and play dead if you do venture out). So it’s a work designed, in part, not to be fully seen under normal or even legal conditions. However, if you do get a legitimate invitation to an evening event at Laumeier you will be able to booze, schmooze and most importantly read Mason’s poetic observations about the park at midnight. All of it compiled while he camped out there for research. As the spooky words rise up in the cool of the evening to whisper their sweet nothings in your ear don’t panic--It’s okay. The experience of the park world is just momentarily turned upside down and the gravity shackles run wild, that or you had one too many glasses of Champaign.
Daniel McGrath is an adjunct professor in the art departments at Lindenwood University and University of Missouri-St. Louis. In 2000, he earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of California – Los Angeles. In 2005, he received his Master of Arts from Kings College London – University of London. He is the director of Isolation Room/Gallery Kit, was co-director of Sweetboy Projects in Los Angeles. He is a contributing art writer for Art Papers, Art US and St. Louis Magazine. He has exhibited his work at Hunter College MFA Studios, New York; Office Space, Los Angeles; SweetboyProjects, Los Angeles; Pirate, Burford, UK; PSTL, St. Louis; and the Hunt Gallery, St. Louis.
At the Hedenkamp Family's Former Orchard Valley Estate
(After Mary Miss’s Pool Complex: Orchard Valley, 1983-85)
by Jessica Baran
Giving up on the pool
meant giving up on the complex
of vanished luxury, how ivy
flourishes just as well
in leisure's wake. The mass
of age-ruined tiles suggests
how to retreat properly
into wilderness, letting go
of safety and surrendering
explicit purpose for augury.
Rusted pipes, rusted pumps,
the graceless lunar surface
of an emptied swimming basin—
the place tells two times.
Its sunken walls snake
through the insistent forest,
left to indulge itself as dull,
a wound on green. Follow it.
Take the absent robe off the hook
and cover yourself. Concrete cleaved
and mud-veined, the weird
unwatered expanse articulated
with timber: a tall row of bare wood,
a circuitous boardwalk, the plain
square pits for socializing.
Don't worry—no one sees you.
There's nothing chatty here.
It's no one's special party.
Nothing but the reek of humid soil
and the rapid panting of locusts.
Nothing here that's finer than nature
acting as the ocean's necessary surrogate,
the important middlingness of it all,
the way things get washed out
with an inevitable lack of restraint
letting anyone in, and any thing.
Jessica Baran received her M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis and her B.A. from Columbia University, New York. Baran is an art writer for the Riverfront Times and has published exhibition reviews in Art in America and Art Papers. She has curated exhibitions for COCA and White Flag Projects in St. Louis and has participated in a number of readings including an upcoming reading at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Apostrophe Books recently published her first collection of poetry titled Remains to Be Used.
Christopher Parris a performance poet who has read his work at art spaces, music venues and poetry events in his native New Zealand as well as in Boston, New York and St. Louis. Parr has been an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Webster University since 1998. He is a co-founder of the Chance Operations collaborative that organizes monthly readings and performances in St. Louis.
Mel Watkin on Robert Lobe’s The Palm at the End of the Parking Lot, 1995.
I have been to Laumeier Sculpture Park countless times, but I’ve only purposefully visited Robert Lobe’s Palm at the End of the Parking Lot twice. While my second visit was made last week in preparation for this piece, my first visit was with Lobe’s wife, New York painter Kathleen Gilje, who was in St. Louis for an exhibition opening. The year was 2002 and she, her husband and children were still reeling from the attacks of 9/11/2001. (They live very close to the twin towers site in lower Manhattan.) These two events are now forever connected in my mind . . . Walking out to see Lobe’s tree and listening to Kathleen describe the disbelief and terror their family experienced that day.
Palm at the End of the Parking Lotconsists of a dead walnut tree, roughly 12 to 15 feet tall and three to four feet in diameter, covered in slightly overlapping aluminum plates. The annealed (hardened) aluminum plates are at least ½ inch thick and held in place with heavy bolts. I don’t know if their surface was hammered ahead of time to mimic the texture of tree bark, but it seems like molding those heavy plates around the tree’s trunk and branches would have required the enormous force of a swinging sledgehammer. The plates grip the tree hard and clasp its stunted branches. In the bright sun light it radiates heat, glimmers and sparks.
Because in my mind the tree is linked to the attacksof 9/11/2001, I found myself strangely afraid when I went to visit it last week. Robert Lobe may have simply wanted to preserve this once living tree in aluminum, but I could not help anthropomorphizing. Like my recurring memories of 9/11, I wanted to ask . . . does the tree feel frozen in time, fortified and ready for another attack or trapped and unable to escape? Now, what I want more than anything is to see a sprig of new growth forcing its way between the aluminum plates announcing the tree’s return to life. -Mel Watkin
Mel Watkin is an artist and the founding director of the PPRC Photography Project, sponsored by the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri St. Louis.
Bill Wischmeyer on Jackie Ferrara’s Laumeier Project, 1981.
I won’t be around when this diminutive monument disappears from the collection, that is, if they will let it go this time. What you see now is a what: a copy? a second edition, a depiction of the original? I can fully sympathize with those who prevailed a few years ago when the decision was made to rebuild the original after 24 years. It’s a delight that engages the mind and all the senses, best of all, the sense of play. Can’t you hear the thumping on the chests of some six-year-olds? Games of hide and seek….and peek-a-boo. The elusive momentary play of light. The scent of wet wood. So at peace in the snow on a winter’s night. And of course, splinters; a little something to take away. How could one permit this to disappear?
Let me argue that it should. Embedded into the piece’s very nature is its graceful demise. After all, it’s made of wood and left out in the rain. Decay is in its DNA. And entropy is a legitimate subject of art. Robert Smithson wrote on the matter:
On the whole I would say entropy contradicts the usual notion of a mechanistic world view. In other words it's a condition that's irreversible, it's a condition that's moving towards a gradual equilibrium…
Ferrara’s supremely crafted monumental form should be left to ultimate subsumption. It would only add to the power of the piece and speak to the human condition. Let the fourth dimension overtake this orthogonal tour de force. I know it is presumptuous of me, but were it mine, I would remove the futile gravel frame that separates the piece from its fate.
Like the archetypal grandmother, she extends an arm to welcome play and delight. She should be left to gracefully age and ultimately disappear. No more euthanization. Left to her own ends, she will recreate something beautiful. It’s in her nature to do so.
Bill is an architect and faculty member of the Washington University College of Architecture. His work over the past 30 years in St. Louis includes the realization of Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. He is a member of the board, and former president of, Landmarks Association of St. Louis.
Jim Schmidt on Dan Graham's Triangular Bridge Over Water,1990.
It was a clear day but not particularly bright. I had seen Dan Graham’s Triangular Bridge over Water, 1990 several times just after it was installed, but it had been many years since I headed down the eastern woodland path. Visiting the work again, I had one of the most remarkable encounters with a work of art since my visit to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Walking through the bridge structure at that time of year when the creek is dry, the trees without foliage and the visitors absent, presents the work in its most stark form. One can see and feel the entire structure for what it is.
The work, physically, is a bridge with an A-frame gridded structure, one side consisting of panels of mirrored glass. When water is running through the stream and the trees are in full force it reaches its conceptual and philosophical peak. At that point it serves well those who like to talk about art – those whose words all too often transcend the reality of the art object the value of which can never be determined.
Whereas nature was a canopy while walking down the trail, the viewer is now within a carefully defined structure. The nature is still there, but the space within the piece provides the viewer multiple emotions. Although this work may relate to the historic wooden covered bridges throughout the Midwest, the sculpture is made primarily with modern industrial materials. The glass grid both reflects the persons standing within it and defines the setting within its panels.
Walking down the hill just above Graham’s work I was aligned with the side of the grid facing the low winter sun. At that exact moment the sun exploded off the mirrored glass. It was blinding, the structure seemed on fire. Bright spots of a deep dark red appeared illuminating the surrounding woods as though theater lights were being played upon the trees.
Whatever Graham intended for this sculpture to convey, I doubt that he would have anticipated such an enchanted moment; the work seems primarily to be designed to play out its magic from within. Perhaps this effect occurs at other times – perhaps daily as the sun moves through time and space. However, I felt I was seeing something never seen before and I felt lucky indeed. -Jim Schmidt
Jim Schmidt is the director of Schmidt Contemporary Art, St. Louis.
Ellen Curlee on Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Four Shades, 1994
You might walk right past the little ring of trees: elm, sycamore, pine, and basswood arranged in a circular pattern around a mound of dirt. But walk into this mysterious haven. Once in the grassy shallow bowl, you will feel completely private and isolated from the activities of the garden. Is this a meteorite hole, a place of ancient religious ritual, or a meditation garden?
It is Four Shades, 1994, an installation by Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. Although Finlay’s work encompasses many genres of expression, such as books, prints, inscribed stone and wood sculptures, room installations and fully realized landscapes, he thought of himself primarily as a poet. He is best known for his concrete poems: poems inscribed in stone and incorporated in the natural environment. The relationship of language and the world is most fully realized in his own garden, Little Sparta, a modern day interpretation of the Neo-classical tradition of the garden as a place provocative of poetic, philosophical, and even political thought.
Four Shades clearly achieves the artist’s goal of creating a place that provokes, and invites you to think, day dream, or meditate. Its sacred quality speaks to Finlay’s concern with the loss of piety in our secular society. The harmony of the installation is implicit in its classical roots. The placement of the work, on the edge of an untamed section of the park wild with honeysuckle and brambles, speaks to Finlay’s interest in the complex contrast between the cultivated and the wild.
The perfectly classical symmetry of the circular space is, however, marred by the intrusion of “naturalness”. One of the trees died, and has been replaced by a small sapling--An unwelcome disruption to the perfection of the cultivated environment, but a reminder of the inherent wildness of nature and of the continuum between the past and the present. In the artist’s words: “...The condition of our culture is that it feels separated from the past, and of course the past now becomes nothing more than two or three years ago. It used to be thousands of years then it became hundreds, and now anything that is not part of instant fashion is considered the past...”
Finlay might have liked that little tree. -Ellen Curlee
Ellen Curlee was director of Ellen Curlee Gallery, St. Louis from 2005-2009. She has many years of specialized experience working with and writing about photography both as founder of Photographic Resources and with her gallery’s main focus on the medium. She is a passionate gardener and currently works as an art consultant in St. Louis.
Harper Barnes on Alison Saar's, Leelinau, 1997
When the clouds slide out of the way, the sun shines through gaps in the oak canopy above Leelinau and casts warm light on her yearning face, spilling gold on the long tumble of filigreed hair that flows halfway to the ground from her perch high in the tree. In the Chippewa legend, even as a child Leelinau preferred the spirit-haunted Lake Superior woods to her home village, and, in an archetypal woman’s story, when she was faced with an arranged marriage she fled into the forest. Alison Saar, whose multiracial ancestry includes Native American, sculpted her tribute to Leelinau out of wood, steel wire and copper, and the piece is now, appropriately, half-hidden high up in the foliage of an oak tree in the Eastern Woodlands of Laumeier Sculpture Park. Leelinau clings to the trunk, face raised to the sun, leaves tangled in her hair, a part of nature. She is, for now, safe in the forest, among the oaks and the hickories and the sycamores, yet she still seems wary of what’s to come. In the meantime she has the sun and the wind and the rain and the spirits of the forest. – Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes is a longtime editor and cultural critic for theSt. Louis Post-Dispatch and has written for the Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone and the Washington Post. He is the author of the novels Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement and Blue Monday and Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis, a biography of Woodrow Wilson's ambassador to Russia. Barnes lives and works in St. Louis.
Dana Turkovic on Robert Stackhouse's St. Louie Bones, 1987
Seventy feet long, thirteen feet wide and following the contours of an uneven slope in Laumeier’s Way Field, Robert Stackhouse’s St. Louie Bones, 1987, creates a rippling silhouette on the Park’s landscape. Conceptually modeled by the presence of our two powerful waterways, St. Louie Bonesis a structure with many echoes of association. St. Louie Bonesmay look like a boat turned minimalist sculpture, but it also suggests a stage of primitive ritual. Resembling a rickety raft boat, St. Louis Bonesrecalls those who live by and travel the river: from native tribes in canoes, the European immigrants who landed via steamboats, to the river pilots that keep the local economy flowing. Both our so-far mild winter and my family connection to the rivers has inspired me to choose this work for February, remembering a time in which it held a fresh dusting of snow. Like a ship tipping into an icy wave, this uniquely seasonal view of St. Louie Bonesshows the work in a peaceful winter setting as the snowdrift uniquely highlights its undulating form. Its skeletal shape naturally sifts the falling snow; the effect is a breathtaking play of shadow and light. Underneath is a white hull-shaped frame where idea and form are linked in a visual metaphor: a platform to express a literal, imaginary or spiritual voyage.
Mary Jo Bang on Jessica Stockholder’s Flooded Chambers Maid, 2009-2010
Constructed largely of industrial materials, Flooded Chambers Maid sits in the landscape like a stage from a wild,Alice in Wonderland dream. The interactive work is a colorful amalgamation that offers visitors a multitude of experiences with the work and with the green space surrounding it. By using the language of architecture Stockholder undermines the preciousness of much art, creating a social space where visitors become living components of the piece.