Art and Its Environment: Sculpture in St. Joseph
While a wide array of visual art is two-dimensional and often viewed in an isolated indoor setting, sculpture, especially when outdoors, cannot be observed without noting its interaction with the surrounding environment. The Margaret B. Upton arboretum, between State St. and the St. Joseph River in Saint Joseph, Mich., hosts a variety of trees, but its location at the shore of the St. Joseph River provides a constantly-changing backdrop that contrasts with the permanent nature of sculpture.
Next to each piece in the Krasl Art Center’s rotating exhibit in the Margaret B. Upton Arboretum, a small placard provides biographical information and a phone number to call for additional background, often from the artist themself. This is one of the ways that the Krasl Art Center and the City of St. Joseph have made this outdoor sculpture collection accessible to visitors of any background, arts-related or not.
Albert Lavergne’s Celebration is a conglomeration of heavy-looking blackened metal segments with both sharp and curved shapes. While the wavy shapes echoed the river in the background, the material and harsh edges blended well with the industrial shipping history of the location. Listening to Lavergne’s description of his process and inspiration aided greatly to my understanding of his artwork.
“The pieces don’t have any particular meaning except that they are an exploration of spaces…I have no way of knowing where the exploration will take me…every piece is an adventure,” a recording of Lavergne’s voice informs me through my phone’s speaker. Essentially, Lavergne does not create an artwork led by prior inspiration, but instead allows the work itself to guide him; it is experiential.
Two other pieces that particularly resonated with their environment were Luke Russell’s Gorilla Nest and Carl Billingsley’s Cowl. The first is an abstract representation of what appears clearly to be a tree. Isolated in a museum, its linear edges would stand out crisply. Here, they mimic the pines close behind them. However, by changing my own perspective, the curving branches are defined in silhouette against the sky. The metallic artwork fits in perfectly at the arboretum, but in texture and color is still wholly isolated from the trees. Cowl is a large, heavy triangular sculpture closer to the water’s edge. Its traditionally balanced composition gives an overall unyielding appearance. Despite its resemblance to a boat’s sails it remains weighty and angular. Later, a sailboat passed by, following the river out to Lake Michigan. As it passed behind the sculpture, it was clear that, intentional or not, Billingsley had replicated the sails’ shape, though not their kinetic appearance. This work seemed instead to be a permanent shadow of the fleeting event of a passing sailboat.
Outside of this marine context, the same sculptures could be interpreted to resemble a variety of other phenomena or feelings. However, as long as they remain at this uniquely arboreal and aquatic gallery, that particular environment will affect our comprehension of their existence. Overall, the outdoor gallery is an informative and diverse representation of three-dimensional art, and at the very least is a worthwhile addition to visiting nearby Silver Beach.