Linda Fleming’s Drawing Retrospective in Fallon
The Oats Park School in Fallon, Nevada was designed in 1914, retired and eventually placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1990, and then in 1995 repurposed as the Churchill Arts Council’s multi-discipline cultural center. The adaptive reuse design includes three handsome gallery spaces that since 2003 have hosted a series of excellent exhibitions by regional artists. The latest, running through 9th, is a 45-year retrospective of drawings by Bay Area artist Linda Fleming. Known primarily as a creator of massive yet elegant metal sculptures, Fleming’s three-dimensional pieces actually arise from rigorous two-dimensional drawings.
Fleming trained early as an artist, but by the early 1970s was so technically proficient that she came to mistrust the discipline and spent most of the decade focusing on sculpture. As her exhibition demonstrates, when she returned to the flatland of drawing at the end of that decade, she hadn’t lost her touch, but instead had added an intellectual vocabulary capable of sustaining a robust body of work for the rest of her career, which continues to see her push our notion of how a drawing can perform.
Fleming’s art, no matter how many dimensions are involved, parses the universe according to a mathematical practice that is both rigorous and intuitive. The largest piece in the show, Template, could as well stand for the artist’s state of mind as well as the design for cut steel deployed in a sculpture. Its radial symmetry is worked out in a way that makes immediate and visceral sense to the viewer, even as you realize that its method is far from simple. A bit like the universe itself, in fact. White Cave from three years later features a biomorphic tracery with some structural kinship to Template, but it’s layered over an entirely realistic depiction of a rock formation housing a central void. The figure hovers in stillness before the cave even as it appears it is about to explode into motion.
The most recent work, Puddlei, which was cut out of thick felt earlier this year, is a lovely nod to the relationships between the two- and three-dimensional works. Its geometry is related to both of the previous drawings, yet like a thick drawing it has sculptural qualities signified by the rumpling of the material on the floor. As Fleming admits in her artist’s statement, materials can never fully express thought. While her work evokes universal rules underlying the cosmos, the use of a mundane fabric such as felt (even with the inescapable allusion to work by Robert Morris) anchors the idea in everyday life, a tension made manifest by the ambiguity of the felt’s dimensional presence.
Linda Fleming’s show, even though the works are for sale (a valid strategy for a community arts center), has the kind of curatorial integrity we expect of a retrospective. It’s a worthy journey just over an hour’s drive through the desert east of Reno to see exhibitions at the Oats Park School, and Fleming work is the most recent addition to a very long string of excellent events in both the visual and performing arts presented there.
Book Review — From Bauhaus to Ecohouse: A History of Ecological Design
After Nazi pressures led to the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, leading members reestablished their lives and work outside of Germany, first in London and ultimately in the United States. During this pivotal moment of displacement, Bauhaus thinking also made a turn toward ecological design. By incorporating biological thinking about form and connectedness into their design philosophies, theories, and practices, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, and Herbert Bayer sought a unity between art and science that would place the biological needs and conditions of the human at the center of design’s purpose and effects. Peder Anker’s latest book immerses readers in the social history of the Bauhaus outside of Germany and thus green architecture’s war-time precursors and origins.
In the first half of the book, Anker encourages readers to reconsider how the humanist projects of this period—often criticized for placing human needs above environmental considerations—have done much to expand and develop the way we debate environmental issues. The book follows the Bauhaus to the United States as its leading members widely dispersed these ideas. They did this through institutions such as the Harvard School of Design, The Chicago Institute of Design, and the Aspen Institute; through images, such as Bayer’s war-time recycling posters and his World Geo-Graphic Atlas: A Composite of Man’s Environment; and through the influential writing of Moholy-Nagy regarding “bio-technique,” an idea which intended to transform mass production by mimicking the forms and processes of nature.
The second half of the book tracks the Bauhaus visionaries’ design legacy through the cold war, analyzing what Anker calls the “second generation of Bauhaus thinking” as it now responded to ecological crisis. In these later chapters, Anker examines the life and work of Richard Buckminster Fuller, the history of planned ecological space colonization, and finally its earthly trial runs in enclosed “space cabins,” most notably Biosphere 2, completed in Arizona in 1991. Anker’s argument in this section is more critical as he suggests that the biocentric concerns of such designs came at the cost of a humanist tradition: “Human social, political, moral, and historical space,” writes Anker, “was invaded by ecological science aimed at reordering ill-treated human environments according to the managerial ideals of the astronaut’s life in the space colony” (6). Essentially, from minding the laws of ecology to envisioning humans living like astronauts, the ideal unification of art and science that environmental designers strove for radically changed in this cold war period to embrace technological idealism at the loss of historical, cultural, and perhaps ethical functions of design.
From Bauhaus to Ecohouse’s intended audience is historians of design, architecture, science, and environmentalism, but Anker’s narrative approach provides a highly readable text that will likely appeal to a much wider audience, including anyone in the field of green building. From my point of view as a student of environmental art and literature, I found the most provocative ideas in Anker’s attention to human-made closed ecosystems, their imperialist connections, and their influence on today’s environmental architecture. Imbedded in this history is a perceived rift, it would seem, between working with ecology and engineering ecosystems. Negotiating this debate no doubt will continue to affect how we decide to dwell in the future. And Anker’s history keenly reminds us: we are more human than we’d like to admit; we are more biologically animal than we’d like to admit—and our new designs will need to attend to this conundrum.
Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: A Marker of Western Realities
Visit the official Wyoming state tourism website and you will be greeted with promises of “untouched” beauty. Nature is a crucial part of the state’s public image, packed within the “Forever West” campaign that greets visitors on billboards, websites and television advertisements. The message could hardly be any clearer: Wyoming’s greatest cultural resource is its land, wide open spaces and natural wonders. And lest you feel the need to hurry, don’t, the west is forever, limitless, like its sight lines. Yet drive any of the state’s roads and in addition to uninterrupted western views, you will find numerous oil derricks, energy plants and windmill farms looming large on the horizon. Of course none of these visions fit into the tidy packaging of “Wyoming: Forever West,” and despite the attempt to sell Wyoming as the land of inexhaustible natural wonders, it is virtually impossible to live in the state without acknowledging the financial debt owed to the energy industry, and members of the industry are quick to remind the public of the role their money plays at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
In this environment the University of Wyoming Art Museum director Susan Moldenhauer has undertaken a program of public sculpture, Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational which stretches across Laramie. On July 23, 2011 I drove to Laramie to see the most recent addition, British artist Chris Drury’s installation Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around. With Drury’s commission the University received a new level of publicity, with coverage in both the New York Times and the London Guardian. The discussion was not an examination of the merits of the sculpture or its place in a larger program of public art, however, but reportage of the controversy surrounding what Jim Robbins described as a “coal-themed sculpture.” (i)
Both the New York Times and The Guardian picked up on the Casper Star-Tribune’s article entitled “University of Wyoming sculpture blasts fossil fuels,” in which Jeremy Pelzer elicits comments from Wyoming Mining Association executive director Marion Loomis, who seemed to take Drury’s work as both a personal attack and an attack on the energy industry, suggesting the installation of a sculpture honoring coal. As the story gained traction Wyoming representative Tom Lubnau used the Gillette News-Record to casually threaten the University saying that the occasion afforded him an opportunity to “educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.(ii)” Despite the controversy, Moldenhauer and Drury held firm to the position that Carbon Sink is not a didactic piece, not a targeted attack on big coal. Still, Carbon Sink has neither been examined as an important part of Drury’s oeuvre nor as a nuanced consideration of the reality of the contemporary American West.
Early in his career, Drury accompanied British artist Hamish Fulton on a 1975 walk in the Canadian Rockies. Drury cites this mountain walk as an integral point in his artistic development, noting the impulse to make site interventions as both shelter and marker. Broadly, he describes his work in terms of microcosm/macrocosm, of working around the globe but ever conscious of patterns (such as the vortex) that appear in the smallest fragments of cells. His practice has taken him from Antarctica to Sussex and, in 2008, the Nevada Museum of Art.
CHRIS DRURY: MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS saw the artist install works both within the museum walls and in site specific locations outside, weaving together a consideration of regeneration and the state’s history of nuclear testing, while allowing for views of the expansive western sky through a rooftop cloud chamber. Looking back from the perspective of Carbon Sink, MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS reveals Drury to be an artist un-swayed by the romance of the West, sensitive to its often difficult realities.
When commissioned to create a piece for Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational, Drury traveled to Laramie to explore concepts. During a conversation with Jeffrey Lockwood, Professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wyoming, Drury became aware of the spate of dead trees in the Rocky Mountain region. The culprit is the pine beetle, an insect native to the region but typically killed by freezing winters. As Western winters have warmed, the beetles have thrived. Lockwood observes that while people notice this change, no one has connected Wyoming’s financial success, gained primarily through the energy industry, to these beetle-killed trees. This relationship, of livelihoods and energy with earth and insects coalesced perfectly with Drury’s interest in life and death cycles (as in the mushroom at Nevada) and the vortex form he had been exploring, as a naturally occurring pattern.
So when Drury returned to Laramie in July, the campus was treated to a new sculpture, one that consisted of a vortex of charred, beetle-killed pine logs and Wyoming coal, swirling into a hole dug into the ground. Drury had previously worked with both wood and coal, and was fascinated by their intertwined fates. As a resident of the first industrialized country, Drury is particularly fascinated by coal and had previously used it to construct a chamber in the crypt of St. James Church, Piccadilly, London. In that case, the coal not only acted as a shelter for the human body, but was itself sheltered by the architecture of the capital city. In the case of Carbon Sink, the Wyoming coal is exposed not just to the eyes of passing pedestrians, but to the elements. And rather than offering the idea of shelter, Drury conceptualized the form to pull people down into the sink, which it demonstrably does. Perhaps it is the fact that coal is extracted from beneath the ground, hidden away for most of its life, which allows us to consume it so voraciously. In Wyoming, the visual impact of its extraction is relegated to mining sites; however, the pine trees that stretch across the Rocky Mountain region are not only highly visible, but an integral part of the natural beauty that Wyoming is so eager to promote. Carbon Sink connects the cycle of tree to coal, and joins what happens below ground to the landscape captured in family vacation.
Wyoming state tourism website <http://www.wyomingtourism.org/>
Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational <http://www.uwyo.edu/artmuseum/explore/outdoor-sculpture/index.html>
New York Times <http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/21/coal-themed-sculpture-annoys-lawmakers/>
the Guardian <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jul/22/wyoming-university-coal-chris-drury>
Casper Star-Tribune’s article <http://trib.com/news/state-and-regional/article_82943c8e-c869-5ffd-9874-8730df510368.html
Nevada Museum of Art < https://www.nevadaart.org/exhibitions/detail?eid=121>.
CHRIS DRURY: MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS < http://www.colum.edu/CCCPress/books/mushroomsclouds.php>
Natural Discourse: Artists, Architects, Scientists & Poets in the Garden
The University of California Berkeley’s Botanical Garden was founded in 1890 and has a mission statement not unlike that of our own CA+E: “To develop and maintain a diverse living collection of plants to support teaching and worldwide research in plant biology, further the conservation of plant diversity, and promote public understanding and appreciation of plants and the natural environment.” The garden is a living archive and library that holds more than 13,000 specimen s from around the world, uniquely situated by region within 34 acres.
As part of its ever-increasing outreach efforts, the garden has initiated an art program curated by artists Mary Anne Friel and Shirley Watts, which kicked off earlier this month with a symposium, “Natural Discourse: Culture and Ecology.” As Chris Carmichael, the Associate Director of Collections and Horticulture, put it: “Gardens are a confluence of people, plants, and site.” Add the term art and you have the idea for the new program. In addition to Friel and Watts, the participating artists are Todd Gilens, Nadia Hironaka, Andrew Kudless, Denise Newman, Deborah O’Grady, Ronald Rael, Virginia San Fratello, Matt Suib, Hazel White, Gail Wight and Nami Yamamoto.
Among the projects that caught my attention were the fog catchers being laced by Philadelphia-based artist Name Yamamoto. Created out of waxed red string, the artist laces images onto grids that are then stretched out in the redwood grove of the garden. She explained the current image to me as being based on a legend told her as a child about the wizard Sennin, who lives forever and is sustained only by the fog that penetrates the mountains where he resides each evening. The story res onated with Yamimoto, who saw the California Redwoods as likewise being immortals deriving water from the Pacific fogs rolling over Berkeley.
Like the architectural structures of the Fog Garden designed by Rodrigo Perez de Arcy of Santiage that we exhibited this last fall in the Museum, Yamimoto’s work is both an artwork and a functional fog catcher. While they are a visual device to bring new visitors to the garden, as well as slow down your attention in the grove, the lace of string helps water the trees, thus lowering their irrigation needs from the garden’s limited supplies.
The Spine of the Earth
In October of last year an unprecedented six-month project opened across Southern California. Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945 – 1980 is a collaborative series of exhibitions and performances that for the first time create a coherent narrative for the birth of the Los Angeles art scene. Organized and funded in large part by the Getty Research Institute and Getty Trust, respectively, the enormous festival include the work of 1300 artists in 68 museum exhibitions and 70 gallery shows. It covers everything from Pop Art to modernist architectur e, the rise of installation and multi-media art, Chicano and African-American art movements, and artists’ collectives such as the Woman’s Building.
A unique segment of “PST” was the 11-day festival of performance and public art that had artists recreating, reinterpreting, and re-envisioning seminal events from the past as well as creating new works. Artists such as Eleanor Antin, Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Robert Wilhite, and James Turrell installed and performed work. Among them was Lita Albuquerque, who made what amounted to the second part of an earthwork first done in 1980 on the El Mirage Dry Lake bed in the Mojave north of Los Angeles. Spine of the Earth was an ephemeral land art drawing created by Lita and executed with the help of art students from Long Beach State University. The work was executed as a choreographed performance piece in red, yellow, and black pigment, a design that connected heaven earth through geometrical forms oriented to celestial events. More than 600 feet in diameter, the work could be seen in its entirety only from the air, a physical circumstance that reinforced the connection of sky to ground. The central figure of the work was a red spiral, a traditional form used worldwide in rock art, as well as by artists such as Robert Smithson.
For the new work, Albuquerque assembled more than 300 people in red jumpsuits atop the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, which stands in between the Los Angeles International Airport and Culver City. Spine of the Earth 2011 commenced movement when a skydiver jumped from 3,000 feet above the site and plummeted downward, trailing a plume of red smoke, and landing on a hilltop target. Her landing in the middle of the spiral initiated its unspooling, which proceeded down the steep stone steps connecting the top of the hills to the plain below.
Once again the work could only be perceived in totality from above, which is where photographer Michael Light and I were circling in a helicopter anywhere from 1000-1500 feet above the performance. The red human spiral was last used by Albuquerque in the Antarctic for her Stellar Axis project, the records from which reside in the CA+E Archive Collections. Both projects will be included in the book that we’re publishing about Albuquerque’s work that we’ll be publishing with Skira Rizzoli in 2014.
Seattle Studio Visits: Lead Pencil Studio — Part 3 of 3
The last stop David Abel and I made in Seattle on our studio visits was to meet with Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio. They live in a self-designed concrete house a few blocks down the street from Ellen Sollod, their structure a very contemporary anomaly among the more conventional houses of Capitol Hill. Annie and Daniel, architect-trained artists, have begun to garner a national following for both their architecture and installations.
Where those two practices often come together in a spectacular fashion is in their public artworks, a recent example of which is the 30-foot-high, fifty-foot-long “non-billboard” the couple erected in 2010 at a border crossing into Canada near Vancouver. Commissioned by the General Services Administration as part of their Percent-for-Art Program, and constructed of welded stainless steel rods, the sculpture is massive yet delicate, utterly unexpected, and offers a frame for viewing changes in the atmosphere. It’s one of those works that stops you in your mental tracks (even while driving past it) because of its beauty. The empty frame creates a lacuna in which you have the time to understand its function and meaning, which is to say how we frame the world through our eyes, the windshield, and our preconceptions.
An earlier and renowned example of this negative framing, which is a central tool in the Lead Pencil kit, is from 2006, a large sculpture erected on the tall Oregon bluffs atop the Columbia River east of Portland. It faces the Maryhill Museum that sits across the river in Washington State, and is an exact spatial recapitulation of the mansion museum. Maryhill, built from 1914 through 1940, was conceived of by the man who created the Columbia Gorge Highway. It is a deeply eccentric institution that features on its grounds a life-sized recreation of Stonehenge, among other curiosities. Maryhill Double is not so much a critique of the concrete château as it is of the process of replication. It’s also a reminder of how walls enclose space within while keeping out the space surrounding them. Built simply out of scaffolding and construction netting, the sculpture was almost a building, but not quite. It there and not-there, a finished work that look like an idea in progress, and a profound delight to those who were able to view it during the three months it was up.
All of the artists whom David and I visited broadened our ideas about human creative interactions with various environments–but also demonstrated how those interactions benefit the public culture in which we live. We’ll have more to say that as we develop archives and programs that include their work.
A special word of thanks both to artist Ellen Sollod and Jim McDonald, Senior Program Officer in Arts and Culture at the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in Seattle. Ellen and Jim helped put together our itinerary and provided introductions, and that’s part of an ecology in the arts that is a pleasure to be around, and for which the Northwest is rightly famed.
Seattle Studio Visits: Ellen Sollod and Steve Peters — Part 2 of 3
Ellen Sollod has had an artistic career that spans ceramics, photography, writing, and art and design for public places. Along the way she worked at the Visual Arts Program at the NEA, directed the Colorado Arts Commission, and ran the Seattle Arts Commission. I’ve been her colleague during many of those incarnations, and it was a pleasure to call her up about a project she had done locally, Lake Washington Palimpsest. When David Abel and I visited her home and studio in the Capital Hill district of Seattle, we were able to view some of the pinhole photographs from the project, which were based on two years of research, and involved any number of her previously honed bureaucratic skills.
Lake Washington is the second largest body of freshwater in the state, a glacier-carved ribbon lake that in the second decade of the 20th century was severely altered in order to create a ship canal from Puget Sound inland. The lake was lowered nine feet, its shoreline reduced by eight miles, 1,000 acres of wetland destroyed, and the new canal dried up the entirety of the existing outflow, the Black River. Ellen navigated the records of the Seattle Public Library, the Washington Geology Library, and the archives of the United States Geologic Survey–and that was just to find a map showing the changes. The archive of this unique project will be coming to the Museum later this year.
After lunch with Ellen, we drove over to the Chapel Performance Space, where composer/musician Steve Peters runs the experimental Wayward Music Series in the handsome Good Shepherd Center. I’ve known Steve almost since his founding of the Nonsequitur Foundation in Santa Fe in the late 1980s, and have long admired his work, which uses environmental recordings, ambient and found sound, musical instruments, electronics, and the human voice to create understated, subtle, and entirely gorgeous site-specific works.
We listened to several of his Chamber Music pieces that he started in 2005, and which are made by recording empty architectural spaces, often late at night. The empty and supposedly silent spaces–which range from museum galleries to library reading room s to freight elevators–are actually filled with architectural sound, which he minimally filters to find resonant frequencies. These create a background drone which can be overlaid with traces of found sound artifacts (a plane flying overhead, a passing vehicle, etc.). Steve then presents the work in the space where it was originally recorded, feeding back the sound of the architecture to itself.
Both Ellen and Steve in these particular works are activating spaces in time, Ellen through historical research and making apparent environmental and social chance, Steve through the elastic durations of recording and playback. After listening to recordings and checking out the old chapel where Steve runs his music series, we retired to Elemental, a restaurant where you’re not told what you’re being served, nor what the accompanying wines are. the food and dining become an experience where you construct meaning by direct interaction with the materials at hand. Which seemed an appropriate meal for the day!
Seattle Studio Visits: Lorna Jordan and John Grade — Part 1 of 3
I spent the days before Christmas with CA+E Research Fellow and writer David Abel making studio visits in Seattle. It’s hard to imagine a more congenial and collegial group of people than the six people with whom we met. Upon our arrival on a Thursday afternoon, we first visited environmental artist Lorna Jordan, who has worked on projects for public spaces from Arizona to Wisconsin, Fort Worth to Calgary. As is obvious by the drawings, blueprints and models in her spacious studio, her designs are informed by the marks humans make on the land, sustainability issues, and systems theory. Increasingly, she acts as much as an urban planner and architect as an artist, employing a variety of professionals in various fields to work on projects as needed.
Jordan has conceived her current work for “Central Park” in Madison, Wisconsin as “a laboratory that synthesizes nature and art, utility and recreation…. [that] manifests the expressive potential of art in an emerging eco-society.” Working as the artist within a large design team, she appeared to us to be raising the bar for how an urban park can reclaim a former brownfield through green technologies, as well as providing a unique aesthetic experience in the city. There’s an excellent interview with Lorna in the March 2011 issue of Sculpture Magazine, if you want to learn more about her work.
The next morning David and I travelled downtown to the former residential hotel where sculptor John Grade has colonized several of the ground floor rooms, converting them into a woodworking studio on a large scale. The first thing John pointed out were sections of 165-foot-long wooden beams salvaged from a 19th-century sailing ship, pieces of which will be assembled into a 65-foot-high sculpture suspended from the ceiling of Seattle’s new Museum of History and Industry. The museum is built on a pier over Union Lake, and the work, which you will be able to gently swing by the push of a hand, will pierce the floor to connect with the water below the pier. This will allow the bottom of the sculpture to slowly degrade over time. Grade, while making exquisite objects large and small, never travels far from his preoccupation with entropy. An almost surreal metaphor for this connection to time and decay were his exhibitions in 2009 and 2010 of tall white forms suspended over and then lowered into pools of black ink, which essentially melted them. Grade has also buried wooden sculptures in Washington State and Nevada to see how they disintegrate differently over time.
Evident during both visits were commitments to the integrity of concept, high levels of craft, and a desire to serve the public as well as the formal demands of their media. This would continue throughout the other visits we made, more about which in the next two posts.
Larry Mitchell and the Disappearing World
Perth, a city of 1.5 million people and capital of Western Australia, is the most remote major city in the world. South of the city is the town of Fremantle, an ocean port that hosts a number of noted artists, the painter Larry Mitchell among them. A petite man who favors sun-bleached jeans, t-shirts, and no shoes, Mitchell’s studio is in a converted garage that opens onto his backyard. Most often he paints in open air under a tarp, courtesy of Perth’s moderate climate.
Mitchell worked in London in various contemporary art practices, including abstraction, but fifteen years ago started to paint pictures of the islands off the shores of Australia and up through the biogeographic region of the Central Indio-Pacific. Its seas and straits connect the Indian and Pacific oceans, encompass the South China sea down to northern Australia, New Guinear over to Vanuatu, and contain the greatest diversity of corals and mangroves in the world. Mitchell has sailed as far abroad as Patagonia and the sub-Antarctic islands, but these warmer climes are where he keeps his feet planted on the deck of a boat most of the time.
I visited with Mitchell at his house and studio in early October in preparation for writing about his desert paintings based on trips into the Pilbara region that he, Barry Lopez, and others had taken together last year–and I’ll write more about those soon–but I first wanted to describe his ocean work, as it is the basis for an archive collection that we’re bringing to the CA+E perhaps as early as next year.
Mitchell doesn’t just sail around the islands, but has formed longlasting friendships with their inhabitants, and a deep attachment to their independent lives and family-based fishing businesses. He saw how the twin pressures of economic globilization and global warming were eroding both the local societies and shorelines of the islands, and began to paint them, mostly in panoramas made from a vantage point slightly offshore. Mitchell’s depictions of ocean water are an astonishment. “There’s an underlying geometry to water. It’s infinitely complex, and a digital camera can’t capture it,” he told me last year. From fifteen feet away it looks like you could dive into the paintings. He joked, ““I’m a photographer; I just work really slow.” But once you’re within five feet of the canvas, you realize just how abstract is the brushwork. As he puts the lessons he earned in London, ”I learned a lot about paint by pushing it around to no end.”
Mitchell’s work, like that of the 19th-century landscape painters traveling in South America, Africa, and Asia, comprise a baseline visual record of a fragile environment in steep transition. The islands are literally disappearing before our eyes. The paintings are beautiful and tragic at the same time, and Larry Mitchell’s archives as poignant a set of documents made by an artist as can be.
Dr.Byron Vreeland Shows Off His Lamp
On a rainy morning in early October several of us drove up a narrow Los Angeles street so steep it was practically a waterfall. We were venturing deep into one of the storied canyons of the Hollywood Hills to meet Byron Vreeland, a notable collector of Tiffany-era glass work who is lending us several lamps for an exhibition in early 2012. At the end of the street was his house, one of the most sculpted works of architecture I’ve ever seen. As a young man Vreeland worked in the shops of a major movie studio for twelve years, then went on to become a dentist. How all that comes together in his house is the result of a decades-long fascination with the flowing lines of Art Noveau.
Forty years ago Vreeland began converting what was originally a rather plain 800-square-foot house into an architectural fantasy that he admits “even Gaudi would find overdone.” Combining his carpentry skills with plastering techniques learned as a dentist, he transformed a wooden post in the house into a slender and intricate white tree trunk. Stretching out from its base and running on the floor into the kitchen was a tile mosaic of the same tree blooming in full color. It was a witty reversal of shape and shadow, nature and culture, the outside brought in, and typical of a house where every wall and ceiling has been reshaped into spirals, curling branches, shells, and other curvilinear forms.
A few window frames, door jambs, and bookshelves have straight lines, but Vreeland has moulded almost everything other structural element of the house into curves, which he finds not simply more pleasing to the eye, but more conducive to a healthy life. The more than two dozen richly colored stained glass shades of the antique lamps cast a warm ambience, even on a stormy morning. A bulldozer parked below the house attested to the frequency of mudslides there, but the house has weathered earthquakes and being buried to the rooftop in mud without so much as a crack, a testament to his construction skills.
Working with collectors to prepare for an exhibition is often tedious–selecting, photographing, and measuring the objects to be included, writing down their history and provenance, then designing shipping containers and methods. It’s painstaking work for the curatorial staff–but the house was so full of surprises that the morning’s work was done before we knew it. Our only regret was that we couldn’t bring the house into the museum, as well as the lamps.