New York

“Projects In Nature”

Merriewold West

Nancy Rosen and Edward Fry have organized “Projects in Nature. . .” which is “. . . .Eleven Environmental Works Executed at Merriewold West.” Merriewold West is the Far Hills, New Jersey, farm and weekend retreat of Mary Lea and Victor D’Arc, who also financed this undertaking. Rosen and Fry considered the work of artists they knew and of artists who responded to ads placed in art magazines last winter. They finally invited six artists from New York City and five from elsewhere to participate. This exhibition was planned as an alternative to the usual “playground” effect of large objects scattered about fields, although the D’Arcs have quite a few of those too. Making art count against or in the environment is no easy task, but it is simplified by the fact that artists can now consider a piece of the environment as they used to consider a blank canvas, that is, with a certain number of known possibilities and conventions available to them. Some conventions are a little too available, and the results here vary tremendously in intention and success.

The real meat of the exhibition was the work by Alice Aycock and George Trakas (possibly the best I’ve seen by either artist) and the less successful, but interesting projects of Roelof Louw and Alan Sondheim. These four went beyond merely presenting or altering aspects of the environment—they pulled the viewer into their work and into a more internalized perception of nature. Aycock and Trakas did it bluntly, forcing the viewer into precarious, uncomfortable conditions to grasp their work completely. “Seeing” Aycock’s Project for a Simple Network for Underground Wells and Tunnels meant descending a ladder into a seven-foot well and crawling through 25-inch-high tunnels. As usual, Aycock’s structure is obsessively sound, so clearly sturdy that you know whatever is going on in your head results from your own personal phobias (or ideas of comfort, for those who find such damp isolation cozy). Aycock’s materials and building methods are cooly contemporary, but her actual forms are layered with ominous historical precedents: caves, catacombs, dungeons, beehive tombs.

In Union Station, Trakas contrasted materials and building methods in two bridges which extended out from an elevated road into a marshy forest. The bridges, one of steel and one of wood slats (looking like a small railroad) would have intersected about 100 feet out, except Trakas dynamited the meeting point, splintering the end of the wood bridge, twisting the steel bridge back onto itself, and creating a large pit filled with water. Walking out on either bridge was like approaching the scene of some violent accident, a collision, perhaps, between the industrial and the natural. Ironically, however, the slatted wood bridge mechanized you, riveting your eyes downward in the effort to stay upright. The steel bridge was continuous, easy, liberating your vision, removing the fear of falling. In different ways, Aycock and Trakas managed to divert the romantic power of nature into their pieces. Aycock excluded it and created her own mysterious, totally consuming situation; Trakas inserted into the environment delicate man-made structures which focus that entire wooded area on a dramatic narrative and a single climactic event.

Louw’s piece, although less controlling, also involves movement and shifts in perception, this time between three large steel plates (c. 7' x 9') dispersed up a large, sloping field. Louw’s work is the most abstract, the least romantic, and there’s a lot going on in it experientially (not the least of which are interesting shifts in spatial and pictorial perceptions). But for all its supposed rigor, the placement of the plates is mysteriously arbitrary and the piece, which leans too much on Serra, seems muffled and obscure in intent and effect.

Sondheim’s project is something of a glorious failure. Sondheim had a grandiose scheme to contrast the microcosmic with the macrocosmic, explained at length and mostly unintelligibly in his portion of the catalogue, but his involvement with Merriewold yielded a strange 60-minute video tape which seems to sum up the wonders and the uncontrollability of nature. Most of the tape is devoted to looking at various drops of Merriewold water which reveal deep transparent spaces, a variety of forms and textures in constant, violent motion, all swarming through the environment, all invisible to normal sight. Sondheim complements this visual deluge with two narrations, one spoken, one typed onto the tape. The sounds are of city traffic, radios (macrocosmic). But mostly Sondheim talks and writes about the project, himself, his loneliness and sense of failure. Periodically he identifies specimens. In the end Sondheim’s personality and confessions become part of the general uncontrollable data. He is intelligent, humorous, melodramatic, self-indulgent, part scientist, part artist, part adolescent, constantly moving and changing.

Roberta Smith