Cincinnati

Gary Rieveschl

Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

The mounds, mazes, flowers, trees, and hedges that Gary Rieveschl places in the landscape seem to be earthworks about the life cycle. Rieveschl calls them “landscape sculptures.” Through his drawings and photographs and his own explanatory texts, this retrospective exhibition of Rieveschl's projects and proposals (organized by curator Sarah Rogers-Lafferty) documented the development of his work from his earliest bulb planting in 1973 to his most recent environmental sculpture. Although his early works emphasize the cyclical processes of nature and the idea of growth, the drawings, photographs, and descriptions of the works suggest that, over the years, this “sculpture” has become increasingly figurative, referential, architectural, site-historical, and even political. His primary subject is no more the life cycle than most paintings are primarily about paint.

Rieveschl's early work was solidly within the Modernist mainstream. For Spirogenesis, 1974, a large-scale landscape “drawing,” he planted 2,200 daffodils on the campus of Northern Kentucky University in a double spiral based on the Fibonacci number series, at a time when Mel Bochner, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Dan Flavin were working with similar forms. Like Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, 1970, Spirogenesis was designed to change naturally over time, but in a recurring biological cycle rather than through a long-term geological process such as erosion. Since the growth pattern of plants often corresponds to the curve determined by the Fibonacci series, the medium and the message were integrally intertwined.

Beginning in 1976, in a series of big public art projects in West Germany, Rieveschl experimented with a variety of avant-garde strategies to make the work meaningful to the public. He invited ordinary citizens to participate in his plantings; used flower bulbs to form words, such as KULTUR (Culture, 1978); and recalled historical sites and events symbolically. By 1980, the work had become more conceptual in relation to its site and more eclectic in its ideas and sources. One of his proposals from that year calls for the planting of 612 beech trees in Cologne in a configuration that would “reconstruct” the ground plan of the Cologne Cathedral at full scale. Also that year, a project entitled Herzwelle (Heart wave) was planted on the grounds of a modern high-rise hospital in West Berlin so that every year 12,000 red tulips would form an electrocardiogram of a healthy human heartbeat. When the flowers cease to bloom, it is as though the machine has been turned off or the heart has ceased to beat. Then, each spring, the pattern reemerges in slightly altered form.

Signalllandschaft (Signal landscape, 1984), done in collaboration with Karina Raeck for the Internationale Bauausstellung (International building exhibition) in West Berlin, is on the site of several buildings that served as headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS during World War II. In ruins after the war, they were torn down and their foundations paved over. In their design, most of the site—which is along the border between East and West Berlin—was to be covered with trees, which in one area would be planted to form the vanished buildings' ground plans (but with several swastika-shaped clearings strewn with cinders). The design incorporated two other features that would provoke contrasting historical associations: the construction of a subterranean “information grave” under the Wall, accessible from east and west, which would make surviving records from the Nazi period available to citizens of both sectors; and the reconstruction of the park's original 18th-century pathways.

This project is more architectural than the early works because it is rooted in the cityscape physically, historically, and symbolically, and thus similar to Peter Eisenman's West Berlin apartment building. Rieveschl responded with a post-Modern willingness to transcend the materials and the task at hand in order to draw the fullest possible portrait of the place in all its agony, ignominy, and glory.

Jayne Merkel