Dumbarton Oaks Plants Art Amid the Roses

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009

Something new is on view at Dumbarton Oaks, the Georgetown mansion known for its formal gardens and collection of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art. Not everyone is going to like it. And that, paradoxically, is why it's a success.

There, installed side by side with ecclesiastical antiquities and Mesoamerican artifacts, and scattered throughout the grounds, you'll find, for the first time, 11 contemporary artworks. The reaction to the installation (though "intervention" might be a better word) by New York sculptor Charles Simonds has so far been mixed, according to John Beardsley, Dumbarton Oaks' director of garden and landscape studies, and the exhibition's organizer.

"Get the drug addict sculpture out of the garden!" is the gist of one comment Beardsley recalls a visitor leaving in the guest book. It's a likely allusion to the grimacing, disembodied human head that appears to be sprouting from the roots of a bush in the rose garden. "People don't seem to like it with their roses," Beardsley says with a laugh. "Or at least some people."

Others, apparently, do. Typical of the more favorable comments: "It's about time."

Dumbarton Oaks joins a growing number of house museums that have experimented with contemporary art as a way of shaking off the cobwebs: Tudor Place and Decatur House in Washington and Evergreen House in Baltimore. In 2006, the Walters Art Museum installed the work of contemporary sculptor Louise Bourgeois among several centuries' worth of art historical objects from the permanent collection. When it works, it works both ways, casting both new and old in a different light.

"Charles Simonds: Landscape/Body/Dwelling" does just that.

Much of Simonds's art resembles miniature architectural models: a tabletop pyramid here, tiny towers of Lego-size bricks (made from clay) there. But a central theme of the artist's work is transformation. Those towers sag like flesh. Another structure -- the size of a child's toy, but an uncanny rendition of an ancient ruin -- seems to burst forth from the earth like a blossom. That last one is called "Rock Flower," and the confusion implied by its name is everywhere in Simonds's art. Are you looking at something animal, vegetable or mineral?

That question comes into play nicely in the case of one piece in particular. It's called "Y," but it's shaped vaguely like a crucifix and it hangs in the Byzantine galleries. Made of plaster and tiny bricks, it looks, on the one hand, built. But it also can evoke cactus at one moment, or human limbs the next. Strange boils, along with spiny needles, seem to erupt from its "skin." There's a subtext of resurrection, or merely the interconnectivity of everything, that goes well with the Christian liturgical setting.

Similarly, another one of Simonds's heads (this one in the museum's pre-Columbian collection) seems half plant, half human. But is it growing or rotting? Or both at the same time? Those themes of the oneness of life, and the cycle of birth and decay, are echoed in the collection. You'll hear them reverberate in a Jaina figurine of a man emerging from the bud of a plant, and in an Aztec skull necklace.

Those echoes are in the garden, too. Strict preservationists may not like to admit it, but Dumbarton Oaks' tended roses are also a mix of nature and artifice. That's the essence of almost any garden: It's both born and made. In the light of Simonds's hybrid sculptures -- part earth, part plant, part animal -- our attempts to tame and train what is, by nature, wild and ever-changing are laid bare.

Charles Simonds: Landscape/Body/Dwelling Through Oct. 18 at Dumbarton Oaks, 1703 32nd St. NW Contact: 202-339-6401 Hours: Open Tuesday-Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. Admission: Museum admission is free; garden admission is $8, $5 seniors and students.

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