The 16 sculptures and installations comprising “Shelter” constitute the first outdoor exhibition in two years on the grounds of White Pines, the historic house owned and maintained by the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild. The theme is especially relevant following the isolation of the pandemic, when we all took shelter.
The show is a collective stock-taking that resonates with nature as well as the healing of human trauma. The pieces range from a site-specific temporary structure to a steel-rebar sculpture mostly fabricated in Brooklyn.
A stroll across the terrain of lawns, forest, streambed, and terraced stone surrounding the former rustic mansion of Ralph Whitehead and Jane Byrd McCall, founders of the Byrdcliffe arts colony, is pleasant under any circumstance, but the hammerings of woodpeckers and tree-clad vista from the hillside take on magical properties when seen through the lens of the imaginative realms that surround and are defined by each piece, which in turn interact in interesting ways with each other.
Curator Melinda Stickney-Gibson, who partnered with each artist in deciding the placement of each piece — a task that involved extensive clearing of 100-year-old wisteria vines — has done a magnificent job of ensuring the dialog between artwork and environment is consistently intriguing. Each reflects, in very different ways, some aspect of the idea of shelter — “a basic need not only for humans, but … all living organisms,” according to the statement printed on the map one can pick up on the porch. It’s a theme that relates more generally to the notion of protection, “a place that feels safe in your soul,” as Stickney-Gibson put it.
Varieties of shelter
At the entrance, one is greeted by Tristan Fitch’s Space 3—3D, a sprightly Modernist hieroglyph formed of russet-stained boards taken from the Russian Constructivist playbook. Fitch has cleverly hinged two identical, multi-sided flat forms consisting of several intersecting triangles along the top plane to create a three-dimensional structure casting a spiky shadow.
The dynamic form, conjuring up a racing flame or giant insect, contrasts with Christine Genaglia’s closed gable-roof-like piece, entitled “fills and empties,” located nearby. The architectural structure’s premise of solidity is undermined by its suspension a foot or two above the ground, suggesting the portability of a caravan. The four black circles painted on the slanting plane of one of the clapboarded roofs suggest holes or portals, an illusionistic carving out of space.
Farther up the driveway and to the right, in two cleared areas, stand Dan Devine’s Stranded, a chunk of white Portland cement resembling a ruined architectural fragment, and an actual brick building covered in crumbling cement with a gabled roof formed of two bluestone slabs.
Covering the opening of the building’s cement face is a plexiglass rectangle etched with an abstract design resembling a network of roots. Stickney-Gibson said she and artist Suzy Surek discovered the structure after removing a dense growth of wisteria, revealing a shrine with a cast-bronze crucifix housed within the opening. Surek installed cut roots and solar-powered LED lights in the space and then placed the semi-transparent plexiglass across the opening, which glows with a golden light at night.
“Shelter and home seem an outcome of atrocities of displacement,” Surek wrote in the artist’s statement referencing the Russian pogroms that uprooted her Jewish ancestors as well as the current displacement of Ukrainians under siege by Russia. Hence the title of her piece, UpROOT.
A mixture of materials
Moving toward the house, three stones wrapped in copper wire sit atop one small section of the low, winding bluestone wall bordering the terraced lawn. Their irregular forms contrast with the wall’s ordered geometry even as they are made of the same stuff. The integration of the wire with the stone to this viewer’s mind was most successful on the left-hand stone, where the wire covering is thickest, rusting in places, created a tension with the inanimate stone, which seems to be pushing against the bonds like a large fish ensnared in a tangle of fishing line. The title of the piece by Jared Handelsman is Bound Rocks.
Sprawling across the lawn is Stuart Farmery’s Time Apart, an assemblage consisting of two cage-like structures built out of pallets connected by a long, sinuous tree branch, hewn and stripped of bark, broken in two pieces. Visual interest is created by the subtle differences between the tilted cages and the way they are connected to the branch — it’s inserted into the open end of one and runs along the spine of the other. The organic quality of the tree provides a contrast with the vernacular prefabricated material of the cages.
The simplest of means spurs a rich allusion of meanings. For example, the breaks in the tree trunk could refer to breaks in time, and the two cages to two individuals or distinctly separate experiences. Or the cages could refer to the matrixes of time itself, linked by a thread of memory. The piece also suggests a kind of lumbering organism, and through that association plays with scale, as literal object or tautological model.
White Pines itself is brought into the fold: a series of colored neon scripts are displayed in the front windows, each expressing the concept of homesick, the title of the work by Erika deVries, in Japanese, Ukrainian, and Spanish. Around the corner, the neon script spells the word out in English. The piece could refer to White Pines’ history as the former home to many artists in residence, or it could be making timely references to issues of immigration and war. Or both.
Like deVries’ piece, Eileen Powers’ A Room of One’s Own is an outlier in this nature-themed show. The Powers work consists of four yellow ladders propped together to form a teepee-like structure, within which hangs a long red sleeveless formal dress. The piece has a theatrical quality, as if it were part of a stage set. Its placement close to the side of the house, whose dark wall creates a kind of dramatic backdrop, invests the piece with psychological tension.
One could read it as a symbol of the exile of a fictional girl or woman living in the house who felt she didn’t belong or more generally to a kind of dream consciousness accompanying the traditional female role. Together, deVries’ and Powers’ artworks communicate a conversational narrative.
The stainless-steel decorative hexagonal cover of Hudson Valley Bee Habitat’s Solitary Bee Habitat, positioned on a post near the house, recalls the nature-inspired motifs that graced the crafts once produced at Byrdcliffe. It provides access to the wooden bee habitat, consisting of numerous drilled holes hidden behind it.
Building with nature
Following the path into the woods to the left of the building, one encounters the scattered and stacked log ends of Mimi Graminski’s Remembrance, each log delicately stenciled with old lace patterns in white. The markings echo the pattern of fungi encrusted on some of the log ends, and because they will gradually fade further harmonize with nature.
Ash trees, which have been decimated by the emerald ash borer (EAB), are central to the pieces by Alison McNulty, Michael Asbill and Michael Fortenberry, and Julian Rose.
McNulty dragged a hollowed-out dead ash trunk she discovered on the property to its current site in the woods. The monumental, weathered shell, which attenuates at the top into two spiky, gothic-like spires of decayed wood, is nestled in a base of piled bluestone, sourced from a nearby quarry. The sculpture seems dreamed up by the forest spirits themselves.
Asbill and Fortenberry take a different but no less pure approach, in the sense of materials and methods used, in their piece Encroachments. They create a series of interventions on two sections of stone wall amid the wreckage of a fallen ash tree by filling in three gaps in the bluestone slabs with pieces of charcoal. Aside from these fillings, it is difficult to tell where the hand of man has interfered with the mind of nature, although one fallen log looks to have been cut and certain stones seem realigned.
Rather than attempt to impose order on the chaos of nature, the artists have taken their cues from the chaos using a material cultivated from that very chaos. “We see these collisions [where the branches collide with the wall] as symbolically central to the narrative of that site,” wrote Asbill in an email. “The builders of that utopian colony cut back the forest and terraced the slope. In periods when no one was available to tend the gardens, nature would begin the process of reestablishing itself. At some point, the ash tree took root next to the stream and then it was cut down. The living stump and roots sent up shoots, which became the three massive leaders of that tree. What had been the primary branches of its canopy crashed down on the wall when the tree succumbed to the emerald ash borer (spooling the encroachment narrative even wider).”
Julian Luca Rose has taken a smooth, polished plank of ash and buried one of its long ends in the earth, and then embedded the tops of the two upright sides with bits of driftwood soaked in red ink. The encrustations are like rose-colored fungal growths or stiff blooms, strangely otherworldly even as they seem to naturally sprout from the plank. The piece beautifully expresses the tension between geometry in the form of the plank and organic form in the encrustations. Weeds growing along the base suggest the passage of time.
The title “When my hand told tales. Motionless by the rosebush” refers to “a memory I had as a child — looking at my hands,” writes the artist. “Wondering what they’d look like as I grew. Also thinking about time is non-linear and how my hands will change, how I will change, but this moment will always be existing.”
The light and the shade
Heading back through the woods to the house, be sure to look up, so as not to miss Jan Harrison’s and Alan Baer’s Creatures in the Canopy and Ian Laughlin’s Treetop Diner.
Dangling from the leaf canopy over a burbling stream, shifting, bobbing up and down, and swirling in the breeze, are dozens of Harrison’s fired porcelain white figurines resembling fish, birds, seals, seahorses, worms, or some such combination. They are suspended on wires of different length from a web of cables devised by Baer (the cables are attached to the tree trunks by means of wide rubber tubing, which doesn’t damage the trees). It’s a piece that reveals itself slowly. First you catch a glimpse of a low-hanging figure, then you see others, then amid the light and shade of the foliage you see clusters of many more, extending into the uplifted branches, as though it were the depths of the sea.
Laughlin’s Treetop Diner is an owl house built of old-growth hemlock milled in the 1850s. It is attached to a large tree trunk 18 feet off the ground and reads, along the bottom, Who Cooks for You?, which identifies this as specifically a nesting place for the barred owl. Viewers can access a solar-powered trail cam by positioning their cell phones over the QR code painted on a block of wood on the forest floor. The on-line video will reveal the inhabitants of the owl house over a period of six months. |In his artist’s statement, Laughlin notes the need for such eco-friendly methods of assisting owls in the face of many threats, including the use of poison bait traps for catching rodents, which devastates the entire wildlife chain.
Back at the house, take the trail that leads directly behind the building to see Wendy Klemperer’s not-to-be-missed piece, NEST #6. Pieces of steel rebar are woven together, much as a bird would intertwine twigs to create a nest the size of a child’s wading pool. Beautifully positioned in a shaded clearing in the forest, NEST is also a weaving of disparate associations, of nature and industry, and in an art-historical context, to pop, specifically to the giant pencil, typewriter eraser, and ice-cream cone of Claes Oldenburg. It is simultaneously ugly and beautiful, offputting and compelling, married to the earth and utterly foreign to it. One can imagine it’s a thousand years into the future, and this is all that’s left.
Shelter, Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition at Historic White Pines, on display through October 23, 454 Upper Byrdcliffe Road, Woodstock. Printed maps are available on the table on the porch. The catalog available at the end of July will be distributed at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts.