By Felicia Feaster
For the Journal-Constitution
Context is everything. And when you place cerebral, hulking, minimalist sculpture in a setting like the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and surround it with roses, leeks and lily pads, suddenly it transforms from intimidating to accessible.
There is something incomparably delightful about finding Beverly Pepper’s monumental steel form peeking out from a blanket of posies, or a television antennae-evocative stainless steel kinetic piece by George Rickey shifting in the breeze.
The garden has had a successful run of heavyweight art shows beginning in 2004 with Dale Chihuly in which big names like Henry Moore and Niki de Saint Phalle were surrounded by the garden’s verdant majesty. “Independent Visions: Sculpture in the Garden” is another impressive foray into placing important work in a garden setting. Nineteen works of contemporary sculpture from some undeniable hot shots are curated from the stable of New York’s blue chip Marlborough Gallery by Dale Lanzone, the gallery’s president of international public art.
What “Independent Visions” lacks in the recognizable star power or extended glimpse of work by a Moore or Chihuly, it makes up for in bringing sculptors whose names might not trip off the lay person’s tongue into a public and exceptionally inviting setting.
Australian modernist Clement Meadmore’s stark, black aluminum piece “Wall for Bonjangles” (1987) in a Manhattan gallery might produce sweaty beads of perspiration on the forehead and the self-flagellating question, “What does it mean?” But plunked amidst the fennel and the leeks it becomes intoxicatingly, unthreateningly witty and beguiling. The dancing kineticism and humor of Meadmore’s style is amplified and finds its natural echo in the equally avant garde vertical herb garden that provides its backdrop.
Sculpture comes alive by proximity to living things. Many of the works in “Independent Visions” seem to not just coexist, but commune with nature. Beverly Pepper’s rusted, bending form “Horizontal Twist” (2008), planted in a raised bed in the Fuqua Orchid Center, looks as though it is mimicking the heavy, bowing gesture of an orchid blossom balanced on a slender stalk, or leading the attendant greenery and flowers in some outdoor calisthenics.
Nicely diverse in both material and form, “Independent Visions” has a little something for everyone from the representational to the abstract. Red Grooms’ delightfully cockeyed, nutty sculptures offer the sculptural version of a laugh track to the garden. His 1977 “Hot Dog Vendor” featuring go-go booted customer and sizzling colors is a stand-out, a cartoonish ode to that most citified of food vendors long before food truck-chic held sway. The outfits and the attitude conjure the era and a feeling of ebullience in simple pleasures that makes perfect sense in the garden context.
But there are more contemporary, challenging artists represented too, like New York’s Chakaia Booker, whose strange, vaguely humanoid black sculpture “Meeting Ends” (2005) forged from rubber tires conjures up African sculpture and feels simultaneously ancient and post-industrial. Doing the heavy lifting of any conceptual artist, Booker challenges our expectation of what materials can become art and offers work that invests something ubiquitous and ordinary with genuine drama.
Many of the works command a new presence and meaning within the garden setting. There is something even more poetic about the bark-like cast bronze bodies, the headless women in Michele Oka Doner’s “Primal Self Portrait” (2008) and “Figure with Long Arms” (2008) when they rest within the reflecting pond at the entrance to the Fuqua Conservatory. The placement floating above that black water expands their spooky, psychological heft.
“Independent Visions: Sculpture in the Garden”
Through October. 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (until 10 p.m. Thursdays). $18.95; $12.95, ages 3-12; free, under 3. Atlanta Botanical Garden, 1345 Piedmont Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-876-5859, www.atlantabotanicalgarden.org.
Bottom line: Some sculpture heavyweights are enlivened and reanimated by a garden setting.