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ART REVIEW

California queen rules this garden

The late Niki de Saint Phalle dedicates a whimsical work in Escondido to the spirit of a female legend.

October 28, 2003|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

ESCONDIDO — Rising among the muted tones of sage, valley oak and eucalyptus, "Queen Califia's Magical Circle" shimmers like a mirage. An eruption of life and brilliant color, it seems to materialize suddenly on the trail that runs along the undeveloped edge of Escondido's Kit Carson Park.

Sculpture garden would be the easiest but not necessarily the most accurate way to describe this environment. With its fantastical creatures and seductive textures, its passages and portals, it's less a place for the passive viewing of discrete objects than it is a dynamic event.

Visitors pass near the site on the way to the San Diego Wild Animal Park or heading to the area's other major magnet, the California Center for the Arts. But the 120-foot-diameter "Magical Circle," with its nine mosaic-clad sculptures and undulating snake wall, isn't drive-by public art. This city's name means "hidden" in Spanish, and this art is muy escondido, tucked beyond the park's grassy picnic areas and ball fields, past the pond and skate park. Such remoteness was just what the artist, Niki de Saint Phalle, who died last year at 71, wanted for her last public project. It opened to the public last weekend.

"She wanted a site where it wasn't right in your face," says Susan Pollack, manager of Escondido's public art program. "You had to look for it, or find it by accident. It's in a relatively untouched setting."

"Queen Califia's Magical Circle" is enclosed by a wall faced in smooth pebbles and topped by massive serpents -- thick, luscious things, richly patterned with concentric circles, checks, amoebic forms and more in a stunning array of textures and colors. A single, wide opening leads to a labyrinth of chest-high walls paved in black, white and mirrored tiles in an exuberant blend of geometry and chaos. The maze is a transitional area that announces, assertively and playfully, that the rules governing space outside this circle don't apply within.

Passing into the center of the circle, the angular and architectural give way to the oversized, rounded forms of myth and fantasy. Every surface, throughout, is sheathed in a mosaic of vibrant materials, including lapis, tiger's eye, malachite, abalone, agate and petrified wood.

Eight totems (up to 21 feet tall), one topped with a bird, another with a bull's head, surround the central figure of Queen Califia, who takes her name from the ruler of the mythical island of California. A full-bodied superwoman with skin of mirrored purplish-black and long plaits of silver hair, she stands atop a massive creature with extravagant, perforated wings and a demure, bird-like head. Together, they reach a height of 24 feet. The domed underbelly of the queen's mount and its five sturdy legs articulate a quiet, peaceful space, a sanctuary of sorts that serves as the heart of the garden.

The sheer incongruity of such a dazzling construction in such a quiet setting is part of the work's magic. It surprises, and makes for an experience undetermined by the conventions of art viewing. Expectations were something that Saint Phalle transcended during her career. She wanted, she once wrote, "to live the artistic adventure to the hilt," and she did.

She was born in France and raised in and around New York City. As an adult, she settled for varying periods in France, Switzerland and Italy, making her last move in 1994 to La Jolla for health reasons. Petite, beautiful and by all accounts charming, she started out as a fashion model, appearing on the cover of Life in 1949. By the next year, she had begun painting and hit the international art stage a decade later with a literal bang. Her assemblages hid sacs of paint that, when shot by a gun, burst and spilled their color over accretions of objects on the surface.

In the following decades, Saint Phalle went on to make a film, write a play, write and illustrate a book about AIDS, and design a postage stamp. But she's best known for her sculpture, especially the female figures known as "Nanas" that she started to make in 1964. The strong and voluptuous women were initially inspired by a friend's pregnancy but came to incorporate the grandeur of goddesses, heroines and mythical beings.

She liked to work large, often with the collaboration of her husband, the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely. Toward the end of her life, she completed several sculptural environments: a grotto in Hanover, Germany, "Noah's Ark" in Jerusalem and the sprawling "Tarot Garden" in Italy's southern Tuscany, which she started in the late '70s.

The spark for these fantastical environments was ignited much earlier, when Saint Phalle visited Barcelona in her 20s. There, in Guell Park, the creation of the Spanish visionary architect Antonio Gaudi, she discovered "my master and my destiny."

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