There is a good argument that myths are born in moments when the sun and light are distant and the world seems cold and dark.
That thinking in itself provides a good argument to visit Grounds For Sculpture’s current myth-inspired exhibitions: Robert Taplin’s “Heaven, Hell, and the History of Punch,” continuing to Sunday, April 14, and “Mythos: Visions of Mythology and Legend,” on view to Sunday, July 28.
While a visit to any sculpture garden in winter may seem out of place, a visit to Grounds For Sculpture during the winter can offer a more focused and dramatic visit, perhaps even more than those times when, as the song says, “the living is easy.”
Accordingly, my recent viewing of the myth-charged exhibitions during a snowy twilight gave the works more resonance, as if listening to a tale to fire the mind while the world darkens.
Curated by Tom Moran, who assumed the role of chief curator in 2011, “Mythos” is a collection of works by contemporary artists who, as Moran writes in a general introduction to the exhibition, “draw important associations and meanings from mythology and legend in a wide variety of themes, personages, and archetypes.”
Having worked with Moran in the past (when he was the point person for the public art program of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts), I know that he delights in making artistic connections. And that is the case in this exhibition that extends beyond buildings and even the park.
The gallery in the ground’s centrally located Museum Building is one entrance for the show and dominated by the works of Robert Taplin (see page 22). The self-taught, Connecticut-based artist’s training in classical literature and theater are evident in the three thematic groupings arranged on the ground, in the air, and in between.
The most visually impressive of the three is his “Five Planets.” Suspended from the ceiling, these outer planets (those beyond the earth from the sun) reflect their ancient mythological namesakes and appear as classical styled figures of nude middle aged men ranging in girth, size (some are twice human form, others are smaller), and spatial relationships.
While encountering floating celestial men can be disconcerting enough, each planet features a double figure (both made of fiberglass) where one of the pair is illuminated and the other dark, suggesting a duality of personality and internal conflicts. Like the celestial bodies in the sky, the grouping is a quiet and engaging presence that stimulates reflection and understanding.
In another part of the gallery is Taplin’s “Everything Imagined is Real (After Dante),” the artist’s contemporary reinterpretation of the “Inferno” portion of the Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the 13th-century Italian poet’s allegory of a journey through hell to eventual awareness and salvation. The work employs minature representational human figures (made of resin) in theatrical settings, creating a series of stations on flat stages, puppet-booths, and peepshow booths (where the viewer needs to actively strive to see).
With the artist’s literary interpretation of lines from the “Inferno” written in panels, the physical presence of the images and phrases tease the mind with suggestions and bridge eras to talk to consistencies in the human heart. Here Dante rises from his bed, leaves a woman (Beatrice who leads Dante to his poet mentor, the ancient Roman poet Virgil), and travels through familiar looking rooms that seem haunted by disconnections between people and by hellish landscapes of violence. While Dante’s writing is filled with demons, the only evil here seems to be human. It is a quiet yet powerful statement crafted through a variety of art forms.
My favorite in the grouping is the boat that takes Dante across the river of forgetfulness, where a tormented soul seizes the boat, and Virgil — here dressed in business attire — prevents the lost soul from capsizing the boat. It makes me think of the influential mid-20th century American poets Wallace Stevens (an executive for a Hartford insurance company) and William Carlos Williams (a New Jersey-based medical doctor). While business-like in their dealings with the modern world, both were daring in their art and became guides to other searchers.
Then there is “The History of Puck,” 13 cream-white, softly defined resin figures that depict scenes of the anti-social figure who — in addition to being famous for violent high jinks in a Punch and Judy show — is like the court jester who can allude to truth while speaking playfully.
Likewise, in the variety of situations that Puck enters, we see amusing as well as unsettling portrayals of the non-illuminated side of ourselves. Take for example, “Puck Does a Trick,” where the character happily poses as a magician with his magic hat; however, instead of a rabbit the character produces an A-bomb mushroom cloud. It is a keen commentary on how the human mind can trick itself and rationalize destructive impulses.
Though Taplin’s work fills most of this gallery space, the exhibition includes the presence of three other artists whose secondary or unfinished works lead us from the warmth and familiarity of the museum gallery to outside and other sections of GFS, where the core of “Mythos” waits.
Athena Tacha, the Washington, DC, based ground-sculptor artist and creator of the Trenton public art work titled “Green Acres,” is represented by a maquette proposal for a full-scale design (U.S. 1, October 17, 2012). Called “Labyrinth11” after the famous mythical designs used to test the courage and wit of ancient heroes, the model points to a design that will use a series of concave walls to suggest a vortex and invite viewers to enter. While incomplete in itself, the model provokes the viewer into thinking of outside the confines of the building and into the future.
A long, horizontal blow-up photograph of Latin American artist Carlos Dorrien’s “The Nine Muses” calls attention to his temple-like structure (that has existed at GFS since the 1990s). Along with wall text, the image invites the viewer to make a pilgrimage deeper into the park. When one encounters and enters “The Nine Muses,” there is the sensation of entering the ruins of an ancient religious site.
A similar result happens with the viewing of sculptor Bruce Lindsay’s three-dimensional proposal for a large construction called “I, Sisyphus.” With his art enclosed in an alcove-like grouping of panels, Lindsay lays bare his artistic process through the written notes, a sketch on a pad, two fuller drawings, and four prints that surround the model depicting the often cited tragic hero. Sisyphus labors to push a boulder to the top of a mound, only to have to roll back to push again. Lindsay’s notions clearly connect the myth to philosopher and writer Albert Camus’ premise that struggle can bring affirmation and fulfillment. Most interesting was the pad sketch that showed the hero and the boulder as one.
Since Tacha and Lindsay’s proposal are designed for the recently added (and evolving) outdoor display area of the grounds called the Meadows, there is an immediate draw to the site, especially when one finds that there is fully realized sculpture by Lindsay waiting. The viewer, then, leaves the building and heads into the elements where myths were and are born.
Upon arriving at the Meadows, one meets Lindsay’s “Use of Memory,” a bronze work that depicts a nude athletically built young man standing on an actual mound of earth. On his shoulder is a burden that he seems to have gracefully balanced, and, perhaps, as with Camus’ Sisyphus, found contentment in acceptance.
The sculpture also stands as gatekeeper to the main portion of “Mythos,” which during my snowy late-afternoon visit seemed more mysterious and suggestive.
That was especially true when encountering the pond recently created and where the remaining artists were grouped together to create a dream-like landscape where fragments figures of myths and dreams thrive.
At the entrance way to the pond is a low stone wall that bears Lambertville-based sculptor Dana Stewart’s effectively constructed and unsettling horned skulls and several large-tailed rodents (other such creatures by Stewart populate other portions of GFS).
Standing between the two walls one faces the pond and sees first Brooklyn-based artist Marsha Pel’s 1985 bronze “Acheron.” Another reference to the same river crossed by Dante, this open boat is filled with the writhing skeletal remains cloaked by fishing nets. One immediately gets the sense that the occupants were trapped and were being erased from time.
The eye then catches a figure rising from the water, New York artist Michele Oka Doner’s bronze of an armless and headless “Venus # 1” (who rose in birth from the sea after Uranus’ castrated testicles where tossed into the waters by his rebellious sons). Her fragmentation makes the 2002 figure seem ancient yet present. Another headless and armless counterpart, “Eve #1,” fuses the two female temptress figures and stirs the imagination.
That stirring and unsettling continue when eyes discover more and more of Stewart’s figures grimacing and silently screeching as their placement suggests a circling and dancing about as if creatures from the hell depicted by the 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Watching all the proceedings from the edge of the gathering is Nina Levy’s 1998 six-foot tall fiber glass “Centaur,” a caged male nude with boy-size head and torso and a giant lower body.
The real-life backdrop of a distant factory and electric lines places the seeming ancient and unreal work in the context of the here and now. By doing so, the scene suggests that instead of escaping the past through progress we are enlivening and reliving the myths in an old industrial district outside the state capital.
That feeling is intensified by the work of two other artists who, while not included in the roster making up “Mythos,” contribute to the idea of living myth. Berner Venet’s corten steel sculptures made of rail-like lines in coiled arcs and lifting lines as well as Patrick Strzelec’s large bronze ball or millstone-like shapes remind one of the myth that progress and industry would be a salvation.
Leaving the pond the path leads to the south where Taplin’s large “Puck Goes Shopping With His Mother” gleams in the twilight and suggests a monument to shopping or consuming. This is especially true when one notices that the backdrop that puts the work in contexts are several stores whose signs offer the opportunity to buy everything from food to tires.
Standing there in the late twilight, my mind raced back to the miniature Puck in the Museum Building where I had started. I realized, like Dante, I too have made a journey, rather than just looked at art. Talk about a hat trick.
Robert Taplin’s “Heaven, Hell, and the History of Punch,” continuing in the Museum Building to Sunday, April 14, and “Mythos: Visions from Mythology and Legend” in the Meadows to Sunday, July 28, Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets $8 to $12. Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. For information, 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.