In "Material Terrain: A Sculptural Exploration of Landscape & Place" at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 11 cutting-edge, nationally recognized sculptors pay homage to the textures, smells, and rough-hewn lyricism of nature. Their work is a testament to the ability of artists to persuade without moralizing, finger-pointing, or heavy-handed eco-agendas.
Valeska Soares sets the tone for the show with Fainting Couch, a sleek slab of shiny metal topped with a small white cotton pillow. The artwork's pungent smells make no sense until we bend down and glimpse daylilies through the tiny perforations in this stainless-steel, casket-sized sculpture. The work hints at incapacitation and catastrophe and requires us to look deep and asks us to reclaim beauty in an increasingly sterile world.
Donald Lipski's mixed-media Exquisite Copse (Big Knot) flawlessly simulates a tree limb tied into a knot tight enough to cut off the flow of resin. There are no smells of cut wood, no suppleness where the bark curls back from the grain. This cast-resin limb could be a poignant icon for the clear-cutting of the world's forests and deaths of millions of trees. It's as hard and lifeless as the concrete walkway on which it lies.
Many of the sculptors pose possible futures in which industrial-grade materials have replaced much of nature. John Ruppert's Three Aluminum Pumpkins, scattered across the museum's front lawn, look like artificially engineered, super-sized vegetables (each sculpture weighs 700 pounds) tailor-made for environments that can accommodate only the toughest materials. Wendy Ross' Bloom resembles a 17-foot dandelion. While Ross' flower is mesmerizing (each metal petal is dimpled and powdered), her maze of cross-hatched steel can't capture the feathery weightlessness of dandelion seeds.
The campy, outrageous, appropriately titled Digestion, Sculpture is tough on animals as well as plants. When Dennis Oppenheim's assemblage of fiberglass, copper tubing, and a propane tank is fully operational, antlers burst into flames on top of the heads of two small deer whose pockmarked and blackened fiberglass bodies look chewed up and spit out by an ecosystem so compromised that its natural processes have degenerated into surreal, apocalyptic kitsch.
Standing at 10-by-9-by-12 feet and weighing in at 900 pounds, Ursula von Rydingsvard's Hej-Duk is a powerful presence in an exhibition filled with synthetic simulations of nature. This stair-stepped cedar pyramid is a monument not to the gods but to the real world and the personal memory of the artist who grew up in the 1940s in rustic barracks in refugee camps in the dense forests of Poland. Wooden beams ripple diagonally down the steps of this pyramid which begs not just to be touched and smelled but climbed so that we can sit on top of a chiseled, pungent mound of cedar and contemplate changes in behavior that may be necessary to salvage ourselves and our world.
Ming Fay's works of art are complex metaphors for some of the reasons our world is at risk. His paper and wire Money Tree is a delicate arbor of overhanging boughs, plump dark-red cherries, and golden leaves imbedded with small coins. For the exhibition, Fay also sculpted Monkey Pots, unsettling works named for Amazon jungle plants that trap the heads of monkeys who eat their seeds. One of these coiled, garish globs of pigmented foam hangs in Fay's arbor like a cancerous cherry or a desire for prosperity that has degenerated into what the sculptor describes as humans "caught by their obsessive need to consume, acquire, and conquer." Ninety Monkey Pots hang in the fine old trees surrounding the museum, bringing our attention to a real arbor at risk. Overton Park's 175 acres of "Old Forest" is what's left of a dense forest that grew along the banks of the Mississippi for millennia.
By flawlessly simulating Dry Rot and hanging it on a gallery wall, Roxy Paine introduces us to an aspect of nature we may have overlooked in our clear-cut, concrete-and-steel cities. His fiberglass-and-epoxy depiction of the rings of a tree disintegrating into fine burnt-sienna powder studded with the smooth skins of off-white mushroom is, surprisingly, one of the most beautiful artworks in the exhibition.
James Surls' art is delightfully silly but profound too. The petals of his Big Walking Eye Flower are large eyes that are also the multiple feet on which this nine-foot-tall steel and pine sculpture appears to spiral clockwise along a strip of grass next to the concrete walkway leading up to the museum entrance. Surls' all-seeing tumbleweed propels us toward an exhibition that asks us to look at nature from the inside out, to feel its rhythms, and to look again and again at a world worth saving.
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