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Rock star rising

Tim Hawkinson saw boulders and thought 'Bear.' But getting cold stone into the cuddly configuration takes as much science as art.

June 26, 2005|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Inspired creators fashioning worlds at will, artists are often likened to God, the ultimate bake-from-scratch visionary. A new addition to the Stuart Collection of outdoor sculpture on the campus of UC San Diego suggests a supernal being with a silly streak, one who's been fooling around in a rock pile, daring gravity with tenuous stacks of stones and assigning fanciful identities to inert matter.

"Bear" is a deliberate heap of eight huge granite boulders joined in the shape of a seated teddy bear. The torso alone weighs in at more than 100 tons (217,000-plus pounds). Plopped on the ground like a giant's -- or divinity's -- abandoned toy, the 20-foot-tall bear sits in a new courtyard within the Jacobs School of Engineering, framed by slick angular buildings dedicated to the study of computer science, bioengineering and information technology.

It's the brainchild of artist Tim Hawkinson, 44, whose work frequently bridges scientific tinkering and god-like investments of consciousness. Hawkinson has made gargantuan mechanical contraptions that respond to a visitor's presence with bizarre motions and sounds, and he's sculpted tiny objects, such as a bird skeleton pieced together from his own fingernail clippings and a feather fashioned from his own hair. He's a comic philosopher devising a world -- and reflecting on the one we've got -- through creations witty, wacky and wondrous.

A midcareer survey of the L.A. artist's work opens today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The bear was installed in May. Mary Beebe, director of the Stuart Collection, has referred to it as "Ursa Very Major." She invited friends and patrons to sip champagne and watch the dance of cranes setting the massive stones in place. Hawkinson, as slight as the bear is chunky, observed the action from the sidelines, wearing a hardhat and a mellow smile.

The commission originated in the same manner as the collection's other 15 pieces, which date back as far as 1983. Hawkinson was invited to roam the campus and dream up a proposal, which was reviewed by an advisory committee and funded privately. "Bear" joins Alexis Smith's sinuous tiled snake path, Robert Irwin's meandering blue scrim fence, Bruce Nauman's flashing neon vices and virtues, and other site-specific works by artists including Terry Allen, Michael Asher, Jenny Holzer, William Wegman and Kiki Smith.

Hawkinson spoke from his home about the genesis of "Bear" and its relationship to his other work:

'Bear,' the beginnings

When I first started thinking about it, I went out into my backyard and picked up some rocks and piled them up and put them into this configuration. It was natural to read features into it, to see a head. The eyes were kind of there. A similar thing happens with these stones, which were pretty arbitrarily collected because of their size. Because of their configuration you tend to interpret them. You see what you want.

It's hard for me to come up with ideas specifically for a site. I tend to have an idea kicking around in my head and the opportunity presents itself and I put the two together. When I try to come up with something for a site, it often feels forced, and I don't have a lot of excitement for it. I had this vague idea of some kind of creature made out of boulders, to use boulders in some kind of lumpy construction.

I was interested in what it would do, scale-wise. It's something we don't see very often, things of this mass stacked on top of each other. When you see it, you do a double take because it shouldn't be this big, really.

Seeing the Stuart Collection again with fresh eyes, it seemed like the right place for it. They had some monolithic or at least some lithic work. Around 2000 to 2001, we started to talk about it. For something of this geologic scale, that's pretty quick to get something together.

I wanted something with space around it, but they couldn't really guarantee anything like that in the long run, but this was one area that wasn't going to be developed any further. It was beside the point that it was an engineering complex. I didn't conceive of it as an engineering feat, though that's what it turned out to be. I had this idea of putting boulders together, then it became a numbers thing, in terms of weight and mass distribution.

The sitting bear is kind of pyramid-shaped, which is very stable. Everything is stacked toward the center. The difficulty of cantilevering a 60-ton boulder out into the air precludes giraffes or anything with long limbs. The idea came from driving through the desert and seeing these boulders, which were weathered and rounded and had the feel of soft objects. The way they're weathered, it's hard to tell how big they are. There aren't focal points that you can take a measurement off of. It works that way for me, anyway. Maybe I need new glasses.

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