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Termites and Roots, but It's No Problem

October 06, 2002|RACHEL USLAN

A new work of architecture has just gone up on Wilshire Boulevard in front of the Page Museum. Strategically built to keep its interior cool, the work is an impressive example of functional design, especially when you consider who the architects are: termites.

Through decades upon decades of mixing saliva with dirt, and sometimes with dung, termites in Africa can create mounds up to 20 feet, larger in relative size than anything human beings have ever built, explains Steve Tobin, the artist who thought to bronze the mound and bring it to this busy traffic corridor.

"Termite hills are the apex of natural shelters," says Tobin, 45, who came across the mounds during a 1994 trip to Ghana, in West Africa. "We don't have the power of this form and this kind of powerful nature in our cities," he says. "I wanted to bring that back, to compare our architecture with the power of insect architecture."

For a full year, the Natural History Museum and its sister, the Page Museum, will offer us that chance, with "Tobin's Naked Earth: Nature as Sculpture." Situated on the grounds of both museums, the exhibition includes the artist's sizable bronzes cast from animal bones, towering tree roots and samples from a forest floor as well as 12 more termite mounds--which, with their authentic core, are meant to complement the information inside the museums.

"Tobin's work is really at the intersection of art and science," says Jim Gilson, administrator for the Page Museum. "These are dramatic pieces, and their technical quality and aesthetic beauty are the first things people will notice. But then they may go from there to 'Look how complex our world is and where is my place in that?' That will lead them into the Page Museum, where there is a whole lot more on that story."

"Naked Earth" is the museums' first shared exhibition and their largest art exhibition to date. Under the new leadership of Jane Pisano, executive director since September 2001, the museums are attempting "new ways to interact with new audiences and new ways to tell our existing audience about the world they live in," Gilson says. The show is sponsored by Barbara Lazaroff, who met Tobin several years ago when he approached her and husband Wolfgang Puck about creating a house of bronze pizzas. Though that project never materialized, Lazaroff kept in touch with Tobin, visiting his studio outside Philadelphia at one point, and jumped at the chance to bring his work to L.A.

"Art, at its very least, should create a response," says Lazaroff, who won't disclose the exact amount of her financial contribution to the exhibition. "With Steve's art, it's not so much shock as it is a wow factor, and then you get further fascinated when you begin to notice the intricate detail." Lazaroff is currently showcasing some of Tobin's smaller pieces, bronzed high heels teeming with exotic vegetables, at Spago Beverly Hills.

Ask Tobin about his artistic inspiration, and he's instantly back in his childhood backyard outside Philadelphia, up in his tree house.

"I spent my time in the woods and played with bugs, and got my nourishment from there," he says. "So I really am making work consistent with who I am, and I can't imagine any scenario that would take me away from that."

Although a math major at Tulane in the late 1970s, Tobin spent as much time as he could in the university's art studio, experimenting with clay and glass and helping build Tulane's first glass furnace. In 1979, his senior year, Tobin had his first solo show, at a New Orleans gallery.

Always true to his analytical background, he creates his pieces through a process reminiscent of the scientific method. He observes and in his own way takes detailed notes. For his termite pieces, he spent six weeks in Ghana making molds directly from more than a dozen abandoned mounds, to show a variety of the insects' building techniques.

His latest series takes him out of the field and into his studio, which also serves as his foundry and laboratory of sorts. The pieces, which he calls "exploded clay," represent a 3 1/2-year attempt to "capture an explosion and the movements from order to chaos."

"I've probably made around 10,000 exploded clay pieces--I call them experiments--to develop the visual language of the piece," he says.

Beginning with either a cube or a cylinder of clay, Tobin textures the outside with sweepings from the floor of his studio, such as bronze or glass dust, then puts fireworks inside the clay and sets them off. After the explosion opens up the piece, he dries it for four months and fires it for a month. The cobalt and copper from the fireworks become embedded in the surface of the clay, so colors emerge that trace the explosion.

Tobin started small, with clay pieces that were just a few inches across. As he and his crew of 10 assistants have mastered the technique, however, the works have grown larger. He has installed some pieces in the fountain of the Natural History Museum that are 7 feet across and weigh about 1 ton.

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