Local Art

"flowers" outdoor work
June 11, 2010

By Menachem Wecker 

One of the things I enjoy most about living in Foggy Bottom is the scenery: gorgeous, historic row houses in pastel yellows, pinks, oranges and blues surrounded by plenty of foliage.

Until Oct. 23, Foggy Bottom will be more than just picturesque, though, as it houses 15 outdoor works by Washington, D.C.-based artists. Move over National Gallery of Art; there is a new sculpture garden in town.

I encounter one of my favorite pieces in the Arts in Foggy Bottom display on my commute to and from work on the northwest corner of New Hampshire Avenue and Eye Street. Don Herman’s “Flowers” consists of nine steel “flowers” on a pedestal whose shape evokes Gary Larson’s single-cell amoeba cartoons.

Shirley Koller, who curated the current show as well as the inaugural 2009 sculpture show which won a Mayor’s Award for Excellence, cleverly placed the fake flowers in a real bed of plants. The contrast is both stark and provocative.

“This is one of my favorite pieces, because it makes me smile,” says “Flowers” artist Mr. Herman in his recording on the self-guided cell phone tour.

Since retiring a decade ago as a computer system engineer, Mr. Herman has studied art at Montgomery College and created more than 30 steel, bronze and aluminum sculptures. Though he says his engineering training helps him construct his pieces, Mr. Herman attributes his interest in sculpture to his hobby of woodworking. For almost his entire life, Mr. Herman has made children’s beds, chests of drawers, dining room tables and chairs, decks, screened-in porches and garage doors.

“My sculptures are really a summation of my life and my need to work with my hands to build things – something working with computers did not afford,” he says. “I am really thankful that retirement has given me the opportunity to spend the time doing what I enjoy so much.”

Mr. Herman says “Flowers” is a microcosm of his larger aesthetic approach – combining “the strength and clarity of structure with the joy and freedom of the imagination.” Whereas actual plants are curved and have colorful flowers at the top, he decided to make “Flowers” abstract by using square tubing for the stem (to make the piece secure) and cutting each corner of the tubes and splaying out the ends to resemble real plants.

“Bursting out of the center of this square stem is a flower, painted bright red, to call attention to itself, as is the case in nature, to aid in pollination,” he explains. Midway up the tube, Mr. Harman added a “little design” to add interest to “a boring area,” he says, which is why he cut out portions of each side of each tube and twisted the top and bottom 90 degrees, so each side resembles a double helix.

“I felt that this reaffirmed the fact that this was a steel construction and was an abstraction,” he says.

Other works in the show include Philippe Mougne’s sculpture “Helios,” which features a yellow disc that looks like a rising sun (thus the name Helios, the Greek sun god); Pattie Porter Firestone’s painted aluminum “Flowering Energy,” which she calls “a force field of energy in the shape of a flower”; and Mike Shaffer’s “Lighthouse/Whitehouse,” a tall pyramid which lights up at night (until midnight) and has a bulb at the top that turns purple. If he could give the work a second name, says Mr. Shaffer, who was inspired by cemetery stones, it would be “Memorial to Day and Night.”

The husband-and-wife team Seth Goldstein and Paula Stone created their sculpture “Vinesque” from Oriental Bittersweet, which they describe as an invasive, non-native boa constrictor-like plant that wraps around trees and strangles them. Mr. Goldstein and Ms. Stone – self-declared “official weed warriors” – go Oriental Bittersweet hunting and load their catch into their Prius and drive it home, where they store it under a tarp.

“Vinesque” reminds Mr. Goldstein of a spider, while Ms. Stone insists it is more like an octopus. The two artists, who say their marriage works best when they allow the sculpture to “be what it wants to be” rather than imposing their preconceived notions on it, say they try to identify the plant’s “true identity” before drilling and bolting the pieces together.

Garrett Strang describes his sculpture “Incision” in similar terms of allowing the medium to speak for itself. Mr. Strang likes to use stone, he says in the audio tour, because it can withstand almost anything, and it is important for outdoor sculptures to be able to weather stormy conditions. Additionally, there is a lot of energy and contrast in a stone, he says, so he tries to maintain elements of the stone in untouched form.

Craig Kraft’s “Lightswept” is very different from “Incision.” Unlike Mr. Strang’s natural elements, Mr. Kraft’s work is quite artificial: aluminum and neon, combining a variety of techniques and tools: glass work, high voltage wiring, glass filling, low vacuum technology, cutting, welding, shaping and grinding. But Mr. Kraft uses neon for the same reason Mr. Strang uses stone: its long-lasting industrial strength in outdoor conditions.

In describing his work, Mr. Kraft addresses the “contradictory” nature of light, which is simultaneously tangible (you can see and measure it) and intangible (you can’t touch it). Contradiction, or at least diversity, is also a component of Chas Colburn’s “Tet-COP#16,” part of a 47-piece geometric series which combines cylinders and tetrahedrons, and Nancy Frankel’s “Conversation 1,” which incorporates two six-foot-tall abstract figurative forms, which she says reflect the diversity in American society and the need to get along.

Jeff Chyatte envisions his work “Genesis,” which is shaped like a slide, as a minimalistic analysis of society’s “interconnectiveness” that addresses the importance of building an “unfaltering basis” for future generations to build and grow upon. To that end, the sculpture rests on a firm foundation and is painted black (symbolizing how roots and foundations are often unseen and underground). Mr. Chayette hammered the surface of the sculpture to symbolize the challenges and hardships that are often endemic to fostering change in developing societies.

The violence of change also surfaces in Alan Binstock’s “Quantum LP,” which is made of shattered reused tempered glass crystals and stainless steel. The work is inspired, Mr. Binstock says, by outer space, particularly nebulae. Space also moved Richard Binder and served as subject matter for his stainless steel sculpture, “Cosmos.”

If other artists in the show got hung up on names, Sam Noto had no such problem with, “What Is Her Name, Again?” The work, made of scrap material, is part of Mr. Noto’s “Anxiety” series for which he obtained his supplies by scavenging through piles of discarded materials and bringing them to his studio, where he sorted them. The act of sorting led him to meditate on remembrances of his life, he says, and he finally came to peace with his inability to remember people’s names. The process did not help him get any better at improving his memory, but his self awareness grew immensely.

“Lily Pond” by Mariah Josephy could confuse even folks who have impeccable recall of names. The work, Ms. Josephy’s first outdoor sculpture, is based on seeing asphalt melting on the street on a hot summer day.

But Mike Brining’s “So Blue” cannot be accused of false advertising. The large sculpture contains a six-foot, 400-pound base – painted blue, of course – specially cut from a single piece of oak. On top of the base, Mr. Brining placed a cast fiberglass white piece, which is made of the same material that is used in decorative columns and pillars in building exteriors. On top of the white portion is nearly 200 feet worth of wire banding, held together by a steel clamp. The three sections of the sculpture are held together by a braided, twisted wire rope.

“I like to think of ‘So Blue’ as a friend,” Mr. Brining says. “After all, it and I spent many hours together.”

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Arts & Culture