Solares Hill, February 27, 2005.

How Important Is Site to Sculpture?

by Joel Blair


Fort Zachary Taylor State Park seems to be an ideal location for staging an outdoor exhibition of sculpture. It has spectacular views of Key West Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. There is a rich variety of sites within the park: the fort itself, its moat, a large meadow, a grove of trees and two beaches. Yet until this year, some have felt that the site itself -- as beautiful as it is -- was not necessarily a congenial location for the display of art.

Size had a lot to do with those doubts. The fort, its meadow and beaches were so vast that individual pieces seemed diminished, lost in the large expanses. This year, three things have occurred that mitigate that problem: The pieces themselves are larger; they have been placed close enough together that they can be seen individually and yet form a part of a whole; and several artists have submitted works that have multiple parts forming a larger, single composition.

A general principle for creating outdoor sculpture is that the piece should be site-specific: Where the work is to be placed should be a factor in the artist's conception and execution of it. Looking at several pieces now on display will allow a testing of that general rule. Are site-specific pieces more successful than others? If so, why?

Three sculptures now on view could only be displayed at Fort Taylor. One is "Skipping Waves" by Lauren McAloon. On the ground floor of the fort, curved iron rods with elongated S shapes are attached inside a series of arched supports. On each rod is a steel ball. Looking through the arches, one sees that the balls move lower and then higher, suggesting a cannon ball skipping over the waves. The work is imaginatively conceived and elegantly executed.

"Peace" is a project by students in the Horace O'Bryant Middle School Art Club; it was supervised by Jimmy Wray. The entire piece is made from objects found at Fort Taylor. Stones are massed on the ground to form a large circle with a peace design (from the center, spokes move out at noon, 4, 6, and 8 o'clock). Along the circle and spokes are native shells and a few aloe plants. Ceramic plaques are attached to surrounding trees, on one of which are the names of the participating students.J

And vibrant, scarlet-red satin covers the huge tree trunk along the edge of the Harbor; "Red Tree" is a draping by Karley Klopfenstein, Key West's very own Christo. These pieces, with their unique locations and materials, illustrate how site-specific art can be created, but also why there can be so few examples of such sculpture.

By focusing on the meadow and its beach--large, rather amorphous spaces--we can note the kinds of problems that most artists would have in designing pieces for such spaces. "Site sensitive," a term employed by Susan Rodgers, is helpful here; it suggests a close, but not literal, connection between object and site. Rodgers' current piece is three spheres made of molded steel rods and yellow plastic strips. It is called "Tumbleweed." Last year, she constructed a "Snow Fence" made of a metal frame holding a 40 foot length of vertical, pink tubes. A few years ago, she had vertical metal strips arranged in a spiral; it was "Sea Grass."

Rodgers starts with the location -- an open, flat terrain with little vegetation -- and then considers what one might sometimes see in such a space. And then she makes it. But each piece is an artifact, not grass, nor a fence, nor a ball of weeds. The sculpture is an ironic re-creation of what it represents. Rodgers creates appropriate objects for that particular space, but what she creates is art, an imaginative rethinking of grass, weeds and fences. The audience perceives familiar objects in a new way and is pleased, the traditional function of art.

David Fiord looked at the site, noted the wind off the water, and constructed a seven-foot fan that tilts and swings as the wind turns the spokes. The piece is fun to look at and vividly reminds us of the unseen natural force that is its source of energy, "The Wind."

Several sculptures in the meadow portray animals that might well be inhabitants of an open field. Three artists created a multi-colored, three-dimensional "Buffalo," which appears to feel quite at home. A pre-historic creature made from industrial spare parts, Derek Arnold's "Cateraptasaurus" is also quite happy. He has a big grin and a sprightly up-turned body and tail. Doug Makemson's "Barfly" and "Gator" are Florida creatures that also find the terrain congenial.

Some sculptures seem appropriate to that site because of its proximity to the open water. Jorge Segul's large, monolithic female figure suggests a severe, Norse goddess on the one hand, but also a too-human, suffering woman, a permanently mourning French Lieutenant's Woman. Or, like Jim Racchi's male figure on top of the fort, they may be guardians of the shore. Jeff Downing's "Universal Guardian," has a tall ceramic base with a dog sitting on top. The alert dog has triangular symbols on its sides: a dog or a spirit watching and waiting.

Two sculptures are of interest in themselves, but each appears misplaced in that large grassy space. Cindy Wynn's "Lucian and Clementine, the Fat Buoys" are, as is usual with Wynn's sculpture, very amusing: two huge steel balls with flags that serve as thin heads for the fat bodies. But the piece cries out for the water. Couldn't they have been placed in shallow water a few feet from shore?

And Joseph Wheaton's "Morality Dressed for Dinner" is an elegant piece of modernist sculpture. In full sun, its gold surface sparkles; in shade, the narrow elements just about disappear. A more serious problem is that the meadow is an inappropriate base for this highly stylized piece. Its Calder-like arcs and multiple planes require at least a plain, flat surface to sit on, not this grassy, undifferentiated space. Last year, Wheaton's work was placed on the upper terrace of the fort: not a perfect location, but better than the open field.

Any brief summary such as this can only suggest some issues raised by the topic of placement for outdoor sculpture. Site, everyone would agree, is an important element in the successful presentation of such art. But the heart of the matter, as usual, is in the details. All visitors to Sculpture Key West seem to agree that this year's show is an advance on past exhibits, while acknowledging the considerable achievements and pleasures of past efforts. Most would, I think, also agree that an important factor in this success is the greater integration of the individual pieces into the lovely, yet challenging, site.