Back in 1981 the Philadelphia Museum Of Art mounted an exhibition of photographs by Robert Adams. Adams took the photos in the 1970s. They were images of western American states, the desolate areas, primarily deserts and mountains. I remember the show fairly well. No matter how remote the locale, nearly every photograph bore evidence of man’s hand: A telephone pole, tire ruts in the sand, roads winding like barber pole stripes around magnificent mountains. One of Adams’s points was that pure wilderness is long gone, so we better get used to it and be glad for the great though adulterated spaces that exist. I imagine that even if you found yourself in the middle of Antarctica’s biggest ice shelf, and I don’t wish that fate on too many of us, you wouldn’t have to wait impossibly long before an airplane passed overhead. Man is everywhere. Yikes.
Now, a half-baked embryonic distillation of those thoughts was in my head recently when my wife Sandy suggested that we walk around the grounds of Abington Art Center, a few miles south of our home in the Philadelphia suburbs. “Sure,” I said, “good idea.” But what I didn’t say is that I’d prefer to stroll some expansive Adams-like terrain. In my dreams. Around here in the burbs, man for the last 75 years has been relentlessly busy cutting down trees and pouring cement. Around here, you have to count your lucky stars that any good-looking patches of territory of any sort still exist.
Abington Art Center is one of those patches. The center contains the manor house and some of the grounds of a former estate. The house is used for art classes and gallery exhibits and the like. The grounds mostly are a huge lawn that slopes away from the rear of the house and 10 or 15 acres of woods. It’s a lovely place. And it is more than manor, grass and trees. Scattered here and there on the great lawn and on side lawns and in the woods are all manner of sculptures, about 50 all told. Sandy and I had a good time at the center. For two hours we looked at trees and artworks and burned off a few calories while walking a couple of miles.
I like the outdoors. But I’m hardly a naturalist. My knowledge of flora and fauna has more holes than you can count. And so at Abington Art Center I found myself admiring a specific leafy tree species, of which many examples exist in the center’s tiny forest, having no clue what I was looking at. They weren’t maples or oaks. Those I can identify. Whatever the trees were, they were the tallest at the center. They measured well over 100 feet from bottom to top and didn’t wander leftward or rightward on their way towards the heavens. Their mothers must have told them from an early age to stand up straight. What also fascinated me was the play of light within the woods, how one tree’s upper reaches might be caught by the day’s intense sun, while others only a few feet away were out of the sun’s direct path. Contrasts of this sort always have appealed to me.
The sculpture I thought the most of in the woods was Alison Stigora’s Mazzaroth. It’s an assemblage of burnt tree branches fitted together tightly to portray . . . what? A serpent? The movement of time? As the years go on, Mazzaroth will crumble and become one with the forest floor, as will the trees surrounding it.
You’re not going to confuse many of the sculptures at Abington Art Center with creations by David Smith, Louise Nevelson or other deservedly famed artists. Few if any are on that level. Some though, like Mazzaroth, had me looking them over from different angles because I liked them a lot. Take two on the great lawn, for instance. They are placed near each other and are as different as they can be.
What is a lopsided small wooden cabin doing on the grass at Abington? Well, it’s a whimsical piece of art and is right at home there. Weather-beaten, cute and loveable, it contains within, of all things, a bed, chair and table lifted straight out of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of his bedroom in Arles, France. This work is Knox Cummin’s Habitation Suite: Cabin Van Gogh. Vincent I believe would have been charmed by Cummin’s idea to build such an unlikely homage, and also by the view of foliage from the cabin’s open back side.
Uphill from the cabin stands what looks a bit like a lifeguard tower painted in bright orange, some of its support slats atilt. David Schafer, the creator, named his piece Untitled Expression: How to Look at Sculpture. I suspect that the notions behind the giddy orange tower are partly conceptual. Sculptures, like just about anything, are multifaceted. No need to try and pin down a precise meaning. Observe, surmise and enjoy. One of my takes, subject to change, is that the sculpture is alive yet indecisive, that it is shaking out its stiff bones and readying to inch forward but hasn’t gotten into gear quite yet. And what’s going on with that public address system speaker? I remembered later that it had a practical purpose once, as a recorded message played from it for months after the sculpture was first installed about six years ago. Sandy and I were at Abington Art Center at that time and heard the message. If we were put into a deep hypnotic state, maybe we’d recall what the message was. Gone silent, to me the speaker now just looks cool.
(All photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)
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