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Entering a New Dimension

There's rich heritage of landscape art, but until recently it's all been two-dimensional murals or works on canvas. Now young artists have virtually invented a new genre: landscape sculptures.

August 25, 1996|David Pagel | David Pagel is a regular art reviewer for Calendar

If someone asked you to recall a few of the landscape images you had seen in museums or books, there would be an abundance of examples to choose from, including ancient Chinese watercolors, romantic oils on canvas from all parts of Europe and grand American panoramas. It's also likely that numerous photographs would come to mind as you scanned your memory bank of images depicting the splendors and terrors of Nature.

Very few sculptures, however, would pop into your mind's eye. Their absence has nothing to do with your unfamiliarity with art history, for, in fact, not many sculptures of landscapes exist. In sculpture, landscape has primarily functioned as a backdrop--the passive ground against which vigorous figures are meant to stand.

With its roots in statuary, sculpture traditionally marked significant locations within a landscape, often at crossroads or graves. Although modern abstract sculptures do not necessarily commemorate specific places, they function similarly, offering generic instances of heightened perception and detached contemplation--often in handsomely landscaped sculpture gardens.

To make a carved, cast or molded sculpture of the landscape itself must have seemed pointless and illogical--like going against a fundamental sculptural principle or competing in a game with no chance of winning. In any case, figurative and abstract sculptures have almost never represented the landscape's natural expanse.

Until now. Over the past few years, and with increasing frequency, seven talented, young Los Angeles-based sculptors have made powerful works in this unlikely category. Working independently of one another, they have, in fact, begun to invent a genre out of almost nothing but thin air.

Among the most beautiful of these new, three-dimensional representations of the landscape are Jacci Den Hartog's wall-mounted sculptures of mist-shrouded mountains, waterfalls and lakes. Shown at Christopher Grimes Gallery in April, Den Hartog's semitranslucent landscapes are based on her memories of Chinese paintings, particularly the fabulously realistic works of the Sung Dynasty (from the 10th to the 12th centuries) and the stranger, more Surreal ones of the Yuan Dynasty (from the 12th to the 14th centuries).

But to contemporary viewers, Den Hartog's gorgeous clusters of polyurethane, plaster and pigment also resemble tacky restaurant decorations, especially those found in Chinatown, where faux waterfalls gurgle over plastic rocks into synthetic ponds filled with real water and the fish on the menu. Being fake takes nothing away from the artist's sensuous sculptures.

In fact, by shamelessly embracing fakery, Den Hartog intensifies the effects her miniature mountains have on viewers. Unconcerned about depicting nature accurately or realistically, she says her goal is "to conjure natural experiences."

For Den Hartog and most of her fellow landscape sculptors, nature is not some vast expanse out there, but an internal, individual response to the world.

"My works depend on viewers who are able to use their imaginations," the artist explains. "I constantly think of Disneyland. If you go there and don't immediately try to analyze it, you can have interesting experiences, even though you're an adult. I know it's fake and exploitative, but that doesn't mean the emotions it produces aren't real."

Michael Pierzynski's three-dimensional vignettes infuse this sense of playful make-believe with a wonderful touch of melodrama. Charming yet barbed, each of his compact scenarios consists of a precise combination of a few ceramic and plaster elements the artist has cast from aquarium decorations, holiday centerpieces and cute knickknacks.

Pierzynski describes his pieces as being "just a cut above kitsch, though in no way critical of it." Common components of his sly, Symbolist landscapes are tiny houses, snowy meadows, crystalline lakes, towering trees and dismembered deer. Although the brutalized Bambis should be shocking, they inhabit such placid, stage-managed environments that the benign sentiments they solicit ultimately win out.

Their palette of chalky, light-absorbing colors combines with their small scale to give viewers a detached, bird's-eye view of a pristine world. Open-ended narratives ripple just beneath the surface, getting under your skin with disarming delicacy.

In contrast to Pierzynski's table-top props, Jennifer Pastor's often larger-than-life sculptures nearly crowd you out of the room. To navigate one untitled work shown at Richard Telles Fine Art in May 1994, you had to duck under gigantic Christmas tree ornaments and keep your back against the wall.

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