An outdoor art exhibition here has reignited interest in an old-fashioned style of horticulture.
It started back in the 18th century, when landscape architect Lancelot "Capability" Brown represented the height of British backyard fashion. The landed gentry's in-demand gardener, he was the go-to guy for the pastoral style, the fellow who delivered a greensward tailored to afternoon romps and peppered with peekaboo, purpose-built ruins known as follies.
Brownian doctrine arrived stateside via Frederick Law Olmsted, who with Calvert Vaux created pastoral Central Park. As word of Olmsted's style spread among the American upper classes, his ideas trickled into the sumptuous back yards of railroad magnates such as the Garrett family. Their purchase, in 1878, of the Italianate mansion here called Evergreen House marked the beginning of the estate's transformation into a playground of precisely orchestrated happenstance.
The Garretts are long gone, but their gardens remain, for the most part, undisturbed. Now Johns Hopkins University, owner of the mansion, is hosting the third biennial "Sculpture at Evergreen," an exhibition that roundly endorses Brown's style and provides an updated version of the delightful romps the upper classes once enjoyed. Curator Jennifer McGregor, visual arts curator at the Wave Hill Public Garden and Cultural Center in the Bronx, picked 10 artworks that have been placed around the gardens and hillsides immediately surrounding the mansion. Visitors follow a map or just wander, happening upon surprising, cheeky and utterly contemporary updates of Brown's follies.
McGregor's sharp selections include artists from a wide swath of the East Coast, half of them from Maryland. Each artist researched Evergreen's history, and most all did a fine job of responding to the site. Original proposals and sketches, on view in an indoor gallery in the Evergreen complex, play on the estate's history but bring it squarely into the 21st century.
Not surprisingly, what separates this generation of follies from its forebears is acute self-consciousness. Whereas the English country house gardener strove to make even the most calculated vista appear natural, these 10 artists underscore, times 10, the artificiality of their interventions.
Nowhere is that self-consciousness more apparent than in Philadelphia artist Brian McCutcheon's gaudy bronze-colored proscenium, 15 feet high and 21 feet across, which frames a small fountain to the mansion's immediate rear. The piece's oversize details and undisguised steel support signal that the artwork, like the show itself, will gently unmask the precise computations that go into creating an artful back yard.
McCutcheon's piece alerts visitors that they are walking into a visual playground. The gesture reminds me of the whimsical, outsize furniture and decor that designer Philippe Starck has installed on the grounds of Miami's Delano Hotel. In many ways, "Sculpture at Evergreen" helps us recognize that Starck and other jet-set stylists might qualify as latter-day Capability Browns.
Continuing along the grounds at Evergreen, visitors will find Adam Dougherty's replica of the one-room teahouse the Garretts had built (it disappeared in the early decades of the 20th century). The Baltimore artist faithfully copied the original in three-quarter scale. Instead of the bark and shingles of the original, Dougherty's version is constructed entirely out of cardboard coated with a shiny, sticky-looking resin. The piece has a dollhouse quality combined with the perishability of a gingerbread house. It's as if the artist knows it's going to disintegrate -- so why not sooner than later?
For sheer cleverness and audacity, my favorite work is "Float," by Lisa Hein and Bob Seng. Visible in the distance under a stand of trees, "Float" is a flatbed trailer wearing a shiny skirt of tinsel; its bed makes a stage for nine floor and desk lamps huddling like a troupe of oddball singers in a Pixar film. The piece is almost unbelievable, what with its outrageous sensibility, and yet it delivers a jolt of humor like no other work here.
Though I suspect Brown wouldn't have approved of a piece like "Float," he would surely agree that his legacy has been well served.
New Work at School 33
Elsewhere in Baltimore, alternative arts space School 33 opened three exhibitions last weekend. Each features up-and-coming artists whose work is uneven but worth seeing.
Gallery I features a pair of solo shows: Elizabeth Brown's large-scale canvases depict sterile housing and retail developments, and Gabriela Bulisova shows color photographs of Russia. Brown's pictures are painted from an eagle's-eye view, and one suspects most birds would prefer not to alight on the Band-Aid-colored dirt mounds ringing these sterile structures. Still, there's something compelling about the banality. Bulisova documents rural Belarus and the environs of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Her pictures are able but not especially gripping, with a straightforward style best suited for a newspaper.
Upstairs, Julie Libersat has installed a luminous yellow fabric reproduction of the inside of a simple room. The piece seems a cross between Do-Ho Suh's fabric structures and Rachel Whiteread's casts of domestic architecture. Though conceptually interesting -- the piece is finished from the inside, like a shirt hung inside-out -- it doesn't travel far beyond the better-known artists' territory.
And the four-artist group effort that produced a second installation, "Alice's Curious Cabinet," while attempting a feminist reworking of the Alice myth, fails to make the case.
Sculpture at Evergreen, at Evergreen House, 4545 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 1-4 p.m., 410-516-0341, to Sept. 27. Curator and artists talk on Sept. 17 at 6 p.m.
School 33 Art Center, 1427 Light St., Baltimore, Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Thursdays to 7 p.m., Saturday noon-4 p.m., 410-396-4641, to Oct. 7.