Sculpture December 1997 Vol.16 No.10
1997 Biennial Exhibition of Public Art
State University of New York at Purchase College
When visiting Purchase College, I generally make a beeline to the Neuberger Museum of Art, ignoring the hospitality of the landscape, as well as the hostility of much of its architecture. However, this summer, a map and brochure locating more than 25 temporary sculptures (and thoughtfully advising of deer ticks) led me and many other visitors on meandering expeditions. Intent on placing "art in spaces devoted to everyday activities," the Biennial Exhibition of Public Art conveniently provided access to well-worn as well as less-traveled areas of the spacious suburban campus. Undoubtedly, this kind of outdoor exhibition can predispose ways that a particular place is experienced as much as persuasively present selected art by contemporary artists.
Claiming to be a showcase for artists who produce public art, the exhibition of diverse large-scale sculpture included existing works, as well as some new projects. If not unequivocally site-specific, the range of sculptures and installations suggest that site selection remains an intriguing, imprecise, and often intuitive process.
The biennial was curated by Judy Collischan, the Neuberger Museum's associate director for curatorial affairs, who was assisted by Jacqueline Shilkoff and advised by a nominating panel and team of jurors. With work ranging from Charles Ginnever to Chakaia Booker, the exhibition was an intriguingly eclectic, but generally centrist representation of sculptural strategies. Often pristine and occasionally tough, navigating the biennial was like dropping into Storm King and Socrates Sculpture Park simultaneously. Perhaps it is exactly this ungovernable quality that astutely represents late 20th-century sculpture.
Are these ambitious round-ups important? What can be gleaned or predicted from these two-year reviews? Are they opportunities for critical analysis or occasions of conspicuous display? Do they serve as a litmus test or a random accumulation? Given these general inquires, this particular exhibition ostensibly set out to gather recent examples of outdoor (and occasionally indoor) sculpture offering an overview of contemporary public art. It was only partially revealing, raising neither new questions nor clarifying more vexing ones about what public art is, its relationship to audiences and communities, how it is like or differs from other artistic production, and why the problematic modifier of "public" continues to be attached to some art. A critical question is whether "public" is perceived as a location or understood as an unanchored set of conditions.
Petah Coyne, "Untitled #687" and "Untitled #688", 1989-91 (installation view). Metal, black sand, baby powder, chicken wire.
In spite of an ambiguous exhibition title, there was an ambitious scope of memorable work. Two suspended sculptures by Petah Coyne, "Untitled #687" and "Untitled #688" (both 1989-91) had the raw delicacy, unruly intricacy, and blunt viscerality of her finest work. Installed in front of the staircase in the Neuberger Museum of Art, the public dimension of the work was perplexing. Was this a state university? A public museum? A circulation area rather than a gallery? Or was it the starting gate for an outdoor project that made art "immediately and unceremoniously accessible?"
In some cases, scale was dramatically exaggerated. Donna Dennis, who is on the sculpture faculty at Purchase College, sited her diminutive "Cataract Cabin" (1994) on the edge of an open lawn by a densely wooded area. Originally installed in the walled sculpture garden at the Katonah Museum of Art for its 1994 summer exhibition, the new location accentuated the supple characteristics of the truncated architecture. Perched on an improbable boulder, the bungalow's uncanny and disquieting sense of scale and an implied but indeterminate narrative produced a melancholic space. Nearby, Willie Cole used found objects to construct a common domestic appliance-a steam iron for the 50-foot-tall man or woman. The actual iron was an old boat with its hull sealed in plywood. The handle was a threaded necklace of old tires. The piece, titled "1500%" (1997), was a delightful misfit in the well-tended grounds.
Willie Cole, "1500%", 1997. Wood, Fiberglas, and stainless steel.
Some artists' sites were challengingly obscure. Renée Stout contributed "Ogun's Bed" (1997), a moving and understated tribute to a Yoruba deity. Modest, private, and surreptitiously assembled on the ruins of an old, overgrown tennis court, a rusted bed spring was the armature for memorial objects, including a revolver, a horseshoe, an animal skull, and ornamental iron elements. This "resting place" was surrounded by a wreath of rocks and branches. Private memories and cultural mythologies inscribed a poignant public sanctuary. Michael Singer selected a remote, heavily wooded area off the perimeter road for "Retellings: Scholar Garden" (1997) that incorporated the existing topography, vegetation, and great boulders to create two distinct spaces. One was discovered and amended; the other was more obviously fashioned. The two-part garden was a hushed response to the heroic campus architecture.
A few of the participating artists attempted to engage more specific circumstances. Ming Fay installed "Berries" (1997) high overhead in interior hallways of the Pepsico Theater and the Recital Hall. Looking like delicate nerve-endings, they were a sensual static in these austere, modern spaces. Rick Lowe, D.A. McNulty, and Dean Ruck constructed "Knowledge" (1997), a large pyramid of books adjacent to the library. A pair of functionless oars on the stationary form suggested that knowledge is often a frustrating journey-a transitory, temporal negotiation of meaning and politics. On a steeply sloped, ivy-covered site adjacent to the theater and dance departments, Patrick Dougherty created five torrents of branches and twines. These turbulent forms had become temporary habitats for birds and other creatures.
Kristin Jones/ Andrew Ginzel, Stop, 1997. Steel sign frames, mixed-media installation.
Most of the work was sited for pedestrians, but Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel acknowledged the indispensability of the car on the 500-acre campus. Using the familiar form of the stop sign, they produced golden octagons of varying sizes. Released from frames that stood empty, the octagons clung to trees and existing fixtures along the perimeter road. Minimal and excessive, these ubiquitous symbols were transformed into bedazzling, jewel-like elements.
It is surprising that few artists responded directly to the dour character of the architecture or to the mission of an arts college. On the day that I visited the exhibition the library was closed and I was unable to see Dennis Adams's interior installation. And Vito Acconci had not yet installed "Park Up a Building" (1996), an ascending row of trees mounted on the side of a building. These artists, in particular, have produced subversive works that challenge and disarm conventional notions of architecture and public space.
A memorable exhibition of sculpture sited outdoors, this biennial offered a moderate taxonomy and limited commentary on public art at a critical juncture. If the promise of "public" in the title was inexact in this first iteration, a 1999 biennial remains a great expectation. It is a project worth continuing so that intentions can be refined and larger risks embraced. There is the potential here to develop an important critical forum on contemporary sculpture and the many ways that art is deployed to elucidate the public dynamics of all institutions. -Patricia C. Phillips