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Branching Out

By Meisha Rosenberg

Into the Trees

The Fields Sculpture Park at Omi International Arts Center, through November 2008

The Fields Sculpture Park at Omi (pronounced “oh my”) is one of the best-kept art lover’s secrets in the Capital Region. Located in Ghent, about half an hour from Albany, this outdoor wonderland is not particularly easy to find (Mapquest is crucial). You’ll want to wear long pants with white socks and use bug spray. However, these preparations are a small price to pay for visiting Omi’s 300 acres of grassy slopes and woods containing more than 80 works of sculpture by international talents. And the brand-new, sustainably built Charles B. Benenson Visitor’s Center and Gallery boasts a green roof, small café and gallery as well as space for events.

Omi started out as an artist residency program founded by Francis Greenberger, a New York real estate developer, and it expanded in 1998 to include an outdoor gallery. On permanent display are sculptures ranging from a minimalist yellow-metal cantilevered piece by Robert Grosvenor (Untitled, 1968) that dominates a football-sized field to Mach 2 (2007), Mary Mattingly’s wonderful, eccentric post-apocalyptic podcraft. Wandering the grounds induces the pleasurable sense that one is deep inside a philosophical conundrum expressed in geometric forms. Follow the map to the Clover Meadow and you’ll discover stairs to nowhere (Carl Andre’s Cascade, 1984) rising near a severe steel pyramid, Beverly Pepper’s Paraclete (1973) that seemed to embody the pointedness of extreme belief. Meanwhile, nearby, linked cubes of metal (Forrest Myers Valledor, 1969), appear to merge and separate as you walk by.

Sculptures are arranged to maximize contrasts and confluences with the landscape. There are works to step inside, like the show-stopping Illumination 1 (2005), by Michael Somoroff, and those to look through, such as two by Dewitt Godfrey—Socrates Sculpture (2000) and Picker Sculpture (2004). Philip Grausman’s smooth, white enormous heads (Susanna, Victoria, and Leucantha, three works dating from the 1980s through 2000) with their regal bearing, are visible from many locations. Other sculptures are placed to invite a casual sense of discovery, such as Foon Sham’s Vessels on the Field (2002), structures that lean like the Tower of Pisa and appear to be the iconic ruins of Western civilization.

In contrast to generally large sculptures in the fields, Into the Trees, curated by and Lilly Wei and Fields’ director Amy Lipton, sites smaller-scaled works in the intimate space of the woods. Eight artists each chose a tree and formulated responses from playful to stark. While not all works are compelling, the grouping works well together. Into the Trees starts at the visitor’s center with Katie Holten’s spectacular Excavated Tree: Missouri Native (Flowering Dogwood) (2007-8). This 3-D replica of a tree, roots and all, looks as though it might get up and grab you with one of its spidery root hairs; wrapped in black duct tape, the whole thing looks wetly alive, yet fragile. Also indoors is the video work Cheshire (2007) by Sanford Biggers, who references trees in African-American history. The Private Lives of Trees, by collaborating artists Abou Caraballo and Leonor Farman, is a real-time video of the growth of tree roots outside the center.

Outdoors, visitors can contribute a wish at Chrysanne Stathacos’ Wish Calling Tree (sweet, but a little predictable). For Stathacos and others, the woods become an enchanted place. No Place: Institute for the Analysis of Empathy, by Saya Woolfalk, a playful miniature greenhouse covered with colored panels near a half-buried neon skeleton, invites visitors inside to view illustrations. Also invoking fairy-tale enchantment is Cordy Ryman’s gorgeous Gold, a set of saffron-yellow blocks spilling out of a tree trunk.

Another theme is reflection. Alan Michelson’s beguiling, black-framed convex mirrors hanging from tree trunks (The Ratio of Art to Nature) create idealized images of the surroundings; he borrows a curious 18th-century convention (the Claude glass, used to capture panoramas). Another strong work calling attention to our perceptions of the woods is Stephen Dean’s We Do Not Have Any Branch; Dean spray-painted the arching shapes of a dead tree, alluding to both forestry marks and graffiti.

Other artists confront environmental issues: Jason Middlebrook creates a bench out of a fallen poplar tree, while Elizabeth Demaray knits a protective sweater for a bush (Plant Sweater), and Shinique Smith wraps trees in her signature cloth bundles (Covariants). Polly Apfelbaum, whose works I usually like, had an offering (Leis on a Tree for Al Taylor) I found indecipherable, partly due to its intentional transitory nature (popcorn on Hawaiian leis was eaten by the birds).

There is much to see at Omi, and visitors will find it easy to transition from Into the Trees to other wooded spaces nearby containing Roy Staab’s lovely new Green Galleon, a delicate structure perched on a pond and made out of saplings, twine, and reeds, and Margaret Evangeline’s Gunshot Landscape (2004), a mirror full of bullet holes.

According to director Lipton, the new visitor’s center heralds a significant change for the Fields Sculpture Park at Omi, and there is discussion of future plans. This can only be a good thing. On par with the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, and the DeCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass., the Fields Sculpture Park at Omi deserves more renown.

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