New York

“Tableaux”

This year’s concept for the annual outdoor sculpture show on the Wave Hill estate was “Tableaux,” a galvanizing choice because of what it excludes. One: kinetic, ecological, and participatory art—because a tableau seems to require stasis and, as participants Robert Longo and Scott Burton both mentioned in their statements, frontality and framing, thereby discouraging physical interaction between environment, viewer, and piece. Two: abstract art—because of the premodern associations of the term.

Although these offerings neither actively engage the environment nor efface themselves in front of it, however, they do address themselves to their setting, either by referring to the aboriginal splendor of pre-Wave Hill America or by emphatically heightening the artificiality of the formally wrought 19th-century estate. Accordingly, their allusions tend to be either ritualistic or literary.

Of the former persuasion are Italo Scanga’s and David Saunders’ contributions, both placed in the thicket of woods and underbrush known as the “nature trail.” Not only the subject matter of Scanga’s “Fear” series (your basic elemental powers-that-be: fire, lightning, sun, moon), but also the fact that he recycled tree limbs and stumps found in the area to make these totems, suggests his concern with a prelapsarian state (before lawns needed manicures). As for Saunders, his large aluminum cutout, representing birds and a nest, at first hits as a charming echo of the natural latticework of leaf, limb, and shadow (and with its slight swaying and chiming in the breeze, it comes close to being kinetic). But the title, Easter, clues us to its mythic aspirations. In a way, though, Wave Hill has the last laugh on Scanga and Saunders. The so-called nature trail is slowly being replanted with specimens of native flora; it’s really just as groomed as the rest of the grounds.

Sort of straddling the fence between pre- and post-colonization, Thomas Rose’s A Simple Means of Viewing the River, a chair on top of a pole with a miniature string ladder descending from it, is a cross between a lookout post for Rip Van Winkle’s skittle-playing wee folk and a platform for Depression-era flagpole sitting. It sits in opposition to the mansion behind it, which is certainly a more complex “means of viewing the river.” Craig Langager corrals his vaguely mutant animals in manmade contraptions; this time his catlike creatures skulk on under- and overpasses of catwalks set up on a seedy-looking sunken terrace topped with a Cyclone fence, a hybrid of zoo and arena.

The remaining selections are decidedly arch. If tableaux could be framed these would all be enclosed in invisible quotation marks, because they both delight in source-mongering and are extremely self-conscious. There’s a contemporary birth of Galatea in William Leavitt’s rock-pile-cum-nude-torso, complete with a plexi-crystal ball and a spiraling still of copper tubing. Alchemical conversion seems to be the name of the game; rocks are the raw material for carving or chiselling, yet the figure appearing to rise out of these is cast. The nude ascending out of the stones, trunk in torsion, copper spiral alongside, refers to Marcel Duchamp’s descending nude. Pygmalion made stone into flesh; Duchamp made flesh into machine; Leavitt presents the interstice. The classical drapery of Muriel Castanis’ three figures stands in for the type of statuary predictably found dotting demesnes of the Wave Hill variety—literally stands in: the figures are gone, their self-supporting garments surviving to remind us, according to the program, of the three Graces. Frankly, they’re equally evocative of Macbeth’s “weird sisters . . . that look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth.”

Next we have Christopher Sproat’s stylized croquet game, all its components white and skewed. They are actually slanted. The peculiarly curved park bench, whose contours imitate the “open pages of a book” (the program again) or a picture-frame molding, has what can fairly be described as wildly mitered corners, while the hoops all resemble the sign for pi. It’s as if the geometrical obliqueness were the inevitable outcome of filtering the croquet equipment through an extremely idiosyncratic vision of the sport. Moving right along, Robert Longo’s Angels for a Modern World is really Paradise Lost Redux. Three figures, a woman and two men, thrust themselves out from the tops of 16-foot-high blank facades. They are nude, and either angry or in despair (the contortion of their faces and their lofty placement makes them resemble gargoyles, those other lost souls). One of the males averts his face from the other two figures and points downward—a gesture of banishment, but, to the viewer looking up, it approximates the gesture of Michelangelo’s God as he extends his finger to the aspiring Adam.

That leaves, far from least, Scott Burton’s Three Trees, a Road and a Fence, a demonstration of the vicissitudes of scale. Three trees (two pines and a yew?) fresh from the nursery look full-grown in relation to an undersized fence that likewise jumps to full-size when the whole is imagined as seen from a distance. The recessing effect, the single hidden support for the fence (which allows it to look as if it’s floating in midair), and the provision of two typically unyielding Burton benches slightly removed for viewing, all contribute to a theatrical, stage-set quality. Oddly, the dirt mounds around the bottom of the newly-planted shrubs evoke the bases of plastic trees. With their winding path “road,” they resemble those serpentine hills glimpsed through windows in Italian Renaissance paintings; however borne out by topographical or botanical fact, it hardly seems possible they could be real.

One would expect Burton to be a master of tableau-making. His kind of artful and art-full combination, however, is shared by others at Wave Hill, and proves that outdoor sculpture can be historical and imagistic without succumbing to the Civil-War-memorial syndrome. It also justifies the risk of saying that this was the most up-to-the-minute-looking alfresco show of the summer.

Jeanne Silverthorne