Set in Downtown Park in Bellevue, Washington, the 2004 Sculpture Exhibition had something for everyone. The small park is a semi-formal setting, with a large pond and artificial waterfall at its center, informal trees around the perimeter, and large areas of unarticulated green lawns, all ideal settings for outdoor sculpture. But there is a danger in any bucolic outdoor setting for art. People mainly come to parks to relax and stop thinking. The challenge in sculpture set outdoors is to invite people to do more than that. The best public art is active, not passive: it impinges on viewers and expands them.
The Bellevue sculpture show, juried for the first time this year, was selected by Robert Duncan, chairman of the International Sculpture Center; Bryan Ohno, owner of the Bryan Ohno Gallery in Seattle; and Gerard Tsutakawa, a well-known sculptor based in Seattle. It included 24 sculptures in widely ranging materials, chosen from 100 submissions. My three favorites were the works of Oscar Alzate, Carlos Basanta, and Marta Moreu.
Alzate’s Corridor III was a 300-foot-long zig-zag passageway fenced off in green silk. The side walls were seven feet high. It was set not in a grassy wonderland, but off in a corner of the park in a less groomed place near some scrubby trees. The Corridor was all-encompassing: once you entered it, you were shut in, you couldn’t see out, and you had to go to the end, an unseen destination. You had no way of knowing how long it would take. But you could look up at the sky and see the reflections of the sun on the green silk. So even as you felt controlled and even trapped, you could sense that there was a larger world out there, a world beyond your reach. Alzate is from Colombia; his earlier work was about the worldwide drug war. This piece made no reference to that subject except on a psychological level. It was out of the way, it gave you only one way out, it seduced you with its surface, and it distanced you from the natural setting (there was also some tangled string that created another barrier around it). For children, it was a fun place to explore, for adults it had a bigger impact.
Carlos Basanta, a native of Spain who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, created the humorous The Man Who Stole the Golden Egg, a slightly larger-than-life stick-figure man weighed down by a large concrete egg. Basanta’s recent work has celebrated the egg shape in large and small formats, often with an aesthetic frame of metal. He regards the egg as a perfect shape that refers to positive qualities such as “hope and wholeness.” But the label on this sculpture stated that “Straining under the weight of his new acquisition, The Man Who Stole the Golden Egg struggles to carry his own greed.” Basanta’s sculpture was a great image for a park, where a plain egg as a metaphor would tend to just fade away; a figure carrying an egg engages all different ages in its humorous, but also serious, subject.
Marta Moreu, also from Spain, contributed a bronze sculpture of an elongated, weightless man holding a jump rope. He is suspended at the top of a jump, with only the rope touching the ground. As with Basanta, Moreu has attended to the environment of the park, creating a work both fun and touching. The man in the air is vulnerable and graceful, possible and improbable, harmless and perhaps helpless. Moreu’s other sculpture includes weightless figures jumping horses, like circus performers. She celebrates the impossibilities of human actions.
In addition to these three artists, several others created successful additions to the natural park setting. Shirley Wiebe placed two feathery frond-like “plants” of galvanized diamond mesh steel at the center of the waterfall. They glistened and moved in the wind and sun. Bill Vielehr from Boulder, Colorado, created cast and fabricated metal shapes that he called “3D Drawings.” Their subtle surface patterns of hieroglyphics, wrinkles, lines and squares changed constantly as you walked around them. Brian Zebold of Seattle also played on the idea of drawing with his flat steel totem-like forms.
Bernard Hosey’s Terminal Thrust consists of a complex group of steel sculptures, forms emerging from within forms in an effect akin to birthing. His recent meeting with the Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro seems to have been extremely fortuitous. In contrast to Hosey’s heavy steel shapes, Richard Swanson’s Prairie Tops, made of baled hay shaped into tops, danced across the grass. The artist is from Montana, and his use of hay brought a little prairie to the Northwest. The original work had more tops and was set in a field as a collaboration between a choreographer and a sculptor.
Surya also used materials in a playful way, weaving the larger-than-life figure The Proud One from packaging strap material. The arms of the headless standing figure unraveled in the breezes, as the sun played on the plastic material to create constantly changing reflections.
The exhibition was a survey of the range of materials possible for sculpture. In addition to those discussed above, there was chewing gum, fused glass, stone, and wood. I only wish that more of the artists had gone beyond predictable content like gates, icons and totems. The best works engaged us with unpredictable materials, eccentric forms, and unusual concepts. And, of course, humor is always the best attribute of all for sculpture in a public park.