Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Steve Tobin at Morton Arboretum

Steve Tobin, who calls himself a “visual philosopher” has done a lot of weird things since he got a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics 30 years ago. He’s blown up barrels of clay, made shelters out of disgarded glass art slides or tank windows, walls out of animal bones, and bronze casts of termite mounds. His bronze cast of the “Trinity Root” in 2005 gained him celebrity for the only art memorial permanently installed in the vicinity of Ground Zero. But since then, rather than casting real tree roots, he has been designing his own, , and now seems to be doing what traditional garden sculptors have done for centuries: make elegant figures that enhance the landscape. And yes, his sculptures are figurative even if they have no sense of mass, flesh, or human character. What they do have is the balance, expression, rhythm, and gesture of classic dance. Or Chinese calligraphy. Indeed, some of his pieces look like they were assembled from Asian logograms that have been drawn by bending and welding enormous steel pipes instead of pulling an ink-filled brush over paper. And their effect is electrifying on the somewhat sterile landscape that holds the extensive conifer collection of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Some of the choreography is for solo dancers, others for groups of two or three. One figure arches over the garden path so viewers must walk between its legs, and one, that reaches up to 40 feet high, seems more like a dancing brontosaurus than a human. Which makes this is the quintessential Baroque garden: full of harmonies and happy surprises. As the art critic, Donald Kuspit, has noted, it is completely outside the “insidious, hypocrical irony” that is so endemic to the contemporary artworld. And indeed, with zero art school background, Tobin is more like a crafter who has been inspired by Michelangelo or Rodin rather than a contemporary sculptor. Each of the 14 pieces is a “spontaneous gesture and personal idea, giving it new life, refreshing our sense of its reality and integrity.” And until the Chinese/Japanese/Korean galleries of the Art Institute re-open next September, this outdoor exhibit is the best place to find those qualities in Chicago this Summer.

(deleted passages are high-lited in red, edited version is found here )

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