Art that teases the eye, plays with preconceptions

Review: The artists represented in a new exhibit at Evergreen House draw on natural and man-made elements.

June 01, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The artists in a new show at Baltimore's Evergreen House use non-traditional materials to play with our notions of what is natural and what is man-made, often finding surprising juxtapositions.

The exhibit, which presents 10 regional artists whose work explores the relationship between art and nature, was curated by the critic and educator Michael Brenson. By its very nature, outdoor sculpture raises questions about that mysterious connection.

For instance, John Ruppert creates large, elegant vessel forms from steel and aluminum prison-grade chain-link fence. His pieces recall the shapes of many natural objects -- shells, fruits and vegetables -- but their scale and the materials they are made of remains defiantly "unnatural" in both the physical and metaphoric senses.

After all, fences don't exist in nature; they are wholly man-made, and designed for human purposes of separation and confinement. Ruppert's forms are not only made of "unnatural" materials -- chain-link instead of wood or stone -- they also are built on a scale completely out of proportion to the natural shapes they evoke. For instance, has anyone ever seen a 15-foot-tall squash?

Yet the chain-link fence is also a ubiquitous part of our environment. Its presence is so pervasive it has become, like wood and stone, almost a given; we are likely to encounter it virtually wherever we go. It has become so embedded in our visual landscape that it is literally part of the natural environment we experience.

Ruppert's sculpture makes us wonder: where does nature stop, and artifice begin? Viewers can enjoy this work as much for the subtlety of the issues it raises as for the formal elegance and clever execution of its design.

Jann Rosen-Queralt is another artist who uses unconventional materials to question the difference between art and nature. Queralt uses the kind of steel and aluminum tube railing that's normally used to guide park visitors along marked routes. Instead, the artist creates a metaphorical image of water and sound waves.

Queralt's piece straddles a small brook that runs through the Evergreen estate grounds. But the sculpture she has created refers to more than just the natural environment in which it's placed. The rings of radiating waves also evoke the concerts formerly held on the estate grounds to entertain the owners' music-loving friends.

What could be more ephemeral than waves radiating from a drop of water, or the notes sounded by a musical instrument? Yet Queralt has given these all-too-fleeting impressions a visual form that emphasizes their relationship to both their natural environment and to the social world it frames

Pointing the way

Maren Hassinger's "Golden Floor," a long gold rectangle that lies flat on the ground in the garden behind Evergreen House, puzzled me until I realized it marked a hidden passageway created by a row of overhanging trees. The piece draws the viewer's attention to the interplay between the natural and constructed elements that make up the environment of the estate grounds.

Beth Ann G. Morrison, the show's youngest artist, also pays homage to the parts of the landscape that have been left unmanicured. She has muddled the line between nature and art by weaving together vines, tree trunks and stones found on the site to create a refuge, or sacred spot where viewers can commune with nature's mysteries in solitude or in the company of like-minded pilgrims.

I was greatly entertained by Derek Arnold's fantastic Tyrannosaurus Rex made out of recycled tractor parts, which is sure to be one of this show's great hits among children of all ages.

Similarly, I was almost fooled (from a distance) by Leonard Streckfus' feral dogs made out of found objects -- bicycle seats, old boots, etc. These creatures all shared a certain humorous menace along with their junkyard construction, which revealed their common descent from Picasso's famous bull's head made out of a bicycle seat and a pair of handlebars.

I also enjoyed Gale Jamieson's lovely fabric kimono mounted on the walls of what used to be the estate's carriage house, and now is a banquet and concert hall. Jamieson's piece refers both to the trellised hanging ivy that formerly covered the carriage house wall, and to the Garretts' passion for collecting Asian art. I'm not sure this piece bears the conceptual weight of some of the others in this show, but it certainly is beautiful to look at, and in this case, at least, its visual sumptuousness seems satisfaction enough.

Garrett's mansion

The exhibit also has the happy consequence of bringing visitors to the Evergreen House, one of Baltimore's under-appreciated cultural gems. The great Italianate-style mansion on Charles Street between Loyola University and the College of Notre Dame of Maryland was for two generations home to the Garrett family, whose fabulous wealth from the railroad industry helped make them some of the city's foremost collectors and patrons of the arts.

This exhibit, the first of a planned biennial series of shows devoted to contemporary art, highlights the unique role this institution has played in supporting the arts in Maryland.


What: "Sculpture at Evergreen"

Where: Evergreen House, Johns Hopkins University, 4545 N. Charles St.

Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through October

Call: 410-516-0341

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