Nature Pushes Back Against Man

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008; Page WE39

You've heard of green architecture. How about green sculpture?

No, not the kind made from recycled trash. (If that's your thing, check out "Reincarnations," a show of found and/or repurposed objects organized by Zenith Gallery in the lobby of a downtown Washington office building.)

Rather, let me to direct your attention to Evergreen House. Never heard of it? I'm not surprised.

Located in Baltimore, where the historic house is owned and operated as a museum by Johns Hopkins University, the Gilded Age mansion -- former home to the railroading Garrett family -- isn't all that well known down here. That's been changing over the past few years. At least among art lovers, who since 2000 have been able to look forward to Evergreen's biennial summer exhibition of contemporary outdoor sculpture on its 26-acre grounds.

"Sculpture at Evergreen 2008" is no blockbuster. It's not even a very big show. There are only nine works on view -- down from 10 originally, after one was vandalized in June. (See sidebar.) They're scattered among the property's gardens, which range from manicured lawns to slightly woollier woods, and which are worth a visit for their beauty alone. In a few cases, art has been installed on the buildings themselves. Grab a map near the main house before you begin your stroll.

Although you won't need one to locate the first work.

That would be Sharon Englestein's aptly named "Green Golly." Shoved between two of the Italianate mansion's tall white pillars flanking a porch that greets visitors, the artist's inflatable chartreuse balloon the size of an SUV stands out like a sore thumb -- make that a green thumb -- as you pull up the long drive. The contrast is stark. Not just between the old and new, but between the staid portico's stiff upper lip and the blob's amoeboid form, which threatens to swallow up the building like something from a bad sci-fi flick. It's man vs. nature, and nature looks like she's gaining the upper hand.

That dynamic repeats itself with Adam Frelin's "Lighthouse, Beheaded." Hidden in a patch of woods behind Evergreen's brick-walled Friendship Garden, it's a 14-foot-tall facsimile of a lighthouse -- that's right, a lighthouse, complete with rotating beacon -- whose top appears to have been kicked to the ground. And yet the nearest body of water is Evergreen's Stony Run, a brook so tame it doesn't babble but practically speaks proper English.

What's a lighthouse doing here? Good question. Yet the work's strangeness is only part of it. Once you get over that, what kicks in is a sense of stumbling upon the remnants of a lost civilization -- a civilization that will one day be reclaimed by the weeds and trees surrounding it. After a while, you start to notice them more than the art.

Same with Rebecca Herman and Mark Shoffner's "Animal Shrine." Located on the lawn near the entrance to Evergreen, the small open structure of wood and willow branches pays superficial homage, in its vaguely Japanese design, to the Garretts' collection of Asian artifacts. Yet it seems to be just as much about the tangle of unmowed grass inside it as about anything man-made inside the big house. Even the work's title suggests that. This isn't something for us.

Other artists ply that tension between the cultivated and the wild. Take Brian Balderston, whose "Memorial to an Ambitious Idea (Remnants of the Solar Cell)" consists simply of a chaise longue inside a wooden shed. Originally intended by the artist to be a solar-powered tanning booth -- oh, the irony! -- it's essentially a low-tech observation chamber: a weatherproof box from which to watch the natural world pass us by. Similarly, Hyungsub Shin's "Rhizome" rubs our faces in the cost of technological progress, which all too often comes at the expense of natural beauty. On the now-empty trellis covering Evergreen's carriage house wall, he has created an evocation of the wisteria vines that used to grow there -- in a braided network of brightly colored electrical wire.

"This is less an exhibition about nature," writes guest curator Andrea Pollan, in case you missed it, "than about man's incursion into nature."

What a fitting theme for a garden, then, where man's struggle to subdue nature is often more felt than seen. Unlike most gardens, however, "Sculpture at Evergreen" is about much more than stopping to smell the roses.

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