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Sculpture in the Dunes

These Parts--Lakeside, MI




Alexander Calder's orange-steel Flamingo stands in a plaza of granite pavement, strongly contrasted with black Mies van der Rohe buildings on three sides. Walking through the plaza one is struck by the brilliance and power of the voluptuously curving orange forms seen against the cool and reserved grids of the buildings. The effect is masterful and dramatic, but the arrangement fails to provide a resting place or a moment of contemplation for the viewer. One can walk right under its sprawling legs, watching the shapes move and change against the architecture, but once underneath it, there is no place to stop. One finds oneself out in the middle of a desolate plaza without a place to be. To stand near one of the legs of this piece is to feel ignored by the sculpture, like a child clinging to the leg of a parent conducting business high above. The plaza is not a place to get involved with, but rather an architectural setting to be walked through briskly en route to another location. The scale of the composition refers to itself instead of to the people who see it.

The plaza sculpture of the suburbs is doomed to an even lonelier fate. Rarely does the viewer walk under or past sculpture in suburban settings; it's far more convenient to cast a glance while passing by in a car. The suburban office-park environment has become drive-by architecture: vast parking-lot buildings connected by highways.

At Governors State University, about 40 miles south of the Loop, is the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, where more than 20 pieces by mostly well-known contemporary sculptors are situated in a parklike setting. Here the viewer can step right into the open end of a boiler tank, which hangs from a great overhead I-beam structure like a giant pendulum. In For Lady Day Mark Di Suvero offers a contemplative experience questioning our perception of equilibrium and our willingness to become physically involved. The scale of the sculpture relates directly to people as well as to the large open field where the piece is sited. However, because this piece is built of huge steel beams and cable, it refers to a specialized experience of construction involving materials and equipment that very few people have experienced firsthand. Like an iron bridge or the structural framework of an office building, the sculpture inspires awe and intrigue, but not intimacy or familiarity. A large element of the viewing experience is the consideration of these weighty materials and the process of erecting them, which is gargantuan in relation to human scale.

At Lakeside Studio in Lakeside, Michigan, right behind a big white hotel, a large ceramic fish, a prehistoric-looking thing, nestles into a plinth as if its own weight is forcing it to sink into the ground. The glistening and spiny creature seems exhausted but not yet defeated--gathering strength for one last attempt to flop across a driveway, through a fence, and into an algae-covered pond about 30 feet away. It's not going to make it. It's already starting to smell really bad.

This three-dimensional fish story, made by ceramist Jim Jahoda, represents a refreshing type of outdoor sculpture that is rarely encountered elsewhere but is prevalent at Lakeside Studio. This is the kind of sculpture found in a backyard or roof garden; it's made on a scale that relates to people in an intimate way. Whether the pieces are big or small, they depart from and return to the human body as a point of reference and they are sited in a way that encourages a comfortable and unrushed viewing encounter.

Lakeside Studio is an artist's retreat, but it's also a bed-and-breakfast inn in the summer season. After exiting from I-94 at Union Pier, you drive a few miles west, toward the lake, on consecutively smaller roads, through heavy dunes foliage, past yard sales and people mowing and rototilling their lawns, and eventually you end up on a tiny road called Lake Shore Drive. Over a little rise you come upon a beamy white edifice settled in the pines like a ship that has run aground. A turn-of-the-century farmhouse, the building grew in the 20s and became a health resort complete with huge fireplaces, porches on three sides, sauna baths, and even sweatboxes in which guests would sit, heads protruding, to be naturally cleansed. John Wilson of the Lakeside Group (organizer of the international Art Expo among other Navy Pier events) bought the place in 1968 and has developed his own artist-in-residence program there over the years. Trained as a ceramist himself, Wilson has built a ceramic studio complete with brick kilns, as well as a printmaking studio and some extra space for painters and other artists. In 1984 he added a nonprofit theater and performance arm, the Lakeside Center for the Arts. Previously exhibitions were held in the lobby of the inn, but over the last winter a small gas station nearby, on the corner of Red Arrow Highway and Lake Shore Drive, was converted to the Lakeside Gallery. Now the lobby, still loaded with art, is more like a permanent collection.

The bed-and-breakfast part of the operation is run by Wilson's daughter, Laurie Deaton. With 32 rooms, some with private baths, the old hotel is the perfect alternative to a modern, one-story, lamps-bolted-down highway motel--especially for art fanciers, because the art is everywhere: on the porches, in the halls, in all the rooms, and outdoors. Most of the work was made right here at Lakeside Studio, and all of it is shown unpretentiously, conveying the idea that art is a part of life, not a status symbol intended to impress the guests. Reinforcing this idea is the fact that the hotel guests and the artists literally live together at Lakeside, sharing meals and sometimes conversation. The conventional distinctions between artists and nonartists, the sort enforced in the typical gallery or studio-visit experience, do not apply here. You don't need to pack your travel iron when you spend a weekend at Lakeside Studio; likewise you may find some artworks that are dusty or overgrown and some artists just lounging on the beach reading the paper.

Out in back of the hotel, past the big ceramic fish sculpture and across a driveway that leads to some cabins in the woods, is a small grassy clearing surrounded by evergreens. In it are several sculptures that have taken their places over the years as artists have come to visit and work at Lakeside.

The first piece one is likely to encounter here is a gray metal door frame standing upright near the edge of the field. At first glance the sculpture, made by Los Angeles artist Steven Kafer in 1983, looks like the standard sheet-metal studs used in framing office partitions. In fact the members are solid rather than being open on one side, and they lack the usual knockout holes for conduit and plumbing. The structure is carefully joined with pop rivets, like a semitrailer or a fiberglass canoe would be, rather than with the sheet-metal screws typically used in construction. This fastening method, the solidity of the members, and the care exercised in the process of fitting the pieces together separate this structure from those of a construction site. Although the piece seems cold and out of place in the grassy meadow, standing on the "stoop" and passing through the doorway is like leaving the city, or conventional thoughts, behind, and turning the mind loose with sculptural expression.

Nearby, close to the center of the clearing, is a pair of stout concrete cylinders protruding from the ground about waist high, probably the simplest and least inspired forms in the meadow. They seem neglected, with tall grass growing up around them. Contributed by another Los Angeles artist, Joyce Kohl, the cylinders are at best an homage to a buried freeway bridge of the future, or perhaps ballast preventing the small meadow from being lifted up and carried away by a tornado.

The next piece in the meadow, Star War Victor, is by Soviet sculptor Alexandr Rukavishnikov, who was invited by John Wilson as part of an artist exchange in the summer of 1987. While the metal doorway encourages a departure from the daily routine, Star War Victor addresses politics on a global level. Out of a circular concrete slab rises a large ceramic spinal column resting on an asymmetrical pelvis. Around the pelvis, embedded in the concrete, are scattered other ambiguous remains from the body of the "victor," including one part that doubles as a skull and a heart. Around the ceramic parts stand two glowing orange-steel channels, pieces of a slipshod or partly destroyed scaffold. The whole arrangement looks like a glow-in-the-dark three-dimensional nightmare standing shamelessly in the meadow.

The two upright channels have wire mesh steps and small platforms attached about four feet off the ground, where Rukavishnikov and Jim Jahoda (maker of the aforementioned ceramic fish) stood for a performance and dedication of the piece on the Fourth of July 1987. From their perches they ceremoniously pulled out pins releasing ceramic bones and body parts to fall into the wet concrete, where they rest today. Rukavishnikov's sculpture confronts the insanity of the arms race by reminding us that there is no winner in nuclear warfare, only fire, death, and perpetual radiation. The absurdity of the arms race seemed particularly acute that warm summer night, as the Soviet and American artists pulled the pins together to the cheers of a mosquito-slapping crowd that had gathered. Today Star War Victor seems morbid, perhaps even heavy-handed. In the quiet green shade of a late spring day, the idea of nuclear destruction seems remote and intrusive. But maybe that's what Rukavishnikov had in mind.

The last sculpture in the meadow, the one farthest from the hotel, is by Chicago sculptor Dean Langworthy. A thick, hollow mast stands over 20 feet high, supported by guy wires attached to trees. Surrounding the mast near the ground is a large pentagonal platform suspended from its corners by cables that disappear into the top of the mast. On one side of the deck rises a section of log with a cast-iron wheel and geared mechanism attached. When the wheel is cranked the whole structure starts to creak like an old wooden ship. After turning the wheel for a period of time, one becomes aware that the pentagonal platform is slowly rising. The process is like trying to watch the minute hand on a clock--you know it's moving but you can't see it move. The sculpture lifts the user up, shifting his or her perspective in a gradual, almost imperceptible way, subtly provoking thought about change and assumption. What looked at first like a static and bulky wooden construction with a steering wheel is now mysteriously lifting me up where I can get a different view of the other sculptures in the meadow, a glimpse of the lake, and a breeze to carry away the gnats.

Langworthy's sculpture looks like a ship, perhaps submerged underground with only the mast and helm protruding. It reminds me of another kind of ship from my youth, a tall, cartoonlike rocket ship made of steel pipe in the playground of my grammar school. It had a ladder and an elevated platform with a steering wheel. Turning the wheel didn't make anything move, but to climb aboard was to go on a voyage, if only for a 15-minute recess. Langworthy's piece involves the viewer as a user like a large playground apparatus for adults (also like Di Suvero's For Lady Day at Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, though the function of Di Suvero's ride-in pendulum is obvious from afar, while Langworthy's piece asks to be manipulated and only then offers its experience).

There are some other large, installed sculptures around the Lakeside grounds, and lots of ceramic pieces left by their makers under a tree or hanging from a limb. On a recent visit another guest and I took the liberty of completing the bolting together of a painted steel sculpture that had been dropped off from the recent Art Expo at Navy Pier. It's hard to imagine doing any such thing at a gallery or sculpture park, but Lakeside is a place where art is inviting and informal. Most galleries in Chicago have stopped serving wine at openings, and some have even begun to plan their openings for weeknights, to deter partiers and maintain an elite posture. On the other side of Lake Michigan, meanwhile, Judith Racht's new Harbert School House Gallery and Lakeside Gallery both had their season openings on Memorial Day weekend. Racht's new gallery showed work by Chicago painter Andy Pazcos and served fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate, which alone were worth the trip. Lakeside Gallery was opening a show by Lithuanian painter Augustinas Savickas and had a considerable spread including a keg of beer. The opening slowly turned into a party for which the band Jewel Fetish played impromptu sets. I don't advocate drinking and art viewing, and I don't expect to be entertained at gallery openings. However I gladly found a kind of hospitality at Lakeside that has disappeared or was never present in the city. It seems that relaxing and enjoying oneself is not a high priority in the urban gallery environment. Standing on the gravel parking area at Lakeside Gallery, I listened to the band as a long freight train passed on the tracks across the highway. Lead singer Jan James belted out a remarkably soulful rendition of "Chain of Fools," challenging the volume and spectacle of the rumbling boxcars. Snug between the band and the train I looked up and remembered just how full of stars the night sky can be.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/O. Evan Lewis.

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