Another Green World, Visible at deCordova
By Sebastian Smee
Hailing as I do from a country, Australia, where all the native trees are evergreen — or really a sort of ever-greenish-gray — I can never shake off my astonishment at what happens around here every year.
What happens, as far as I can make out, is that, over the course of just a few short weeks, a mysterious sort of energy is funneled through zillions of dead-looking twigs that have somehow survived intact through months of snow, ice, and freezing winds. Bizarrely, this energy fans out — actually physically fans out — into the most ravishing bonanza of soft, flat, intensely appealing shapes, all of them shrieking green.
To contemplate the sheer surface area of green matter that appears out of nowhere in this compressed time is to get a jolt of what the old Romantics called “the sublime.” You know what you’re contemplating is very, very large; you can see some of it for yourself, but your imagination can’t quite grasp the scope of it. Cue tearing and cleaving sounds in the brain.
Friends, go outside. What I’m talking about is happening right now.
Better yet, go to the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, in Lincoln. Walk around the park; there are few more scenic spots so close to Boston. And while you’re there, check out the current show, “Overgrowth.”
I’m not going to lie: The exhibition, which is drawn entirely from the deCordova’s collection, has a slightly strained and hoofed-together feel. It’s unlikely to trigger major epiphanies or art conversions. Its organizing theme — “overgrowth” — is intended to suggest prolific growth and expansion, but it’s interpreted so inclusively as to be rendered almost meaningless.
Somehow, that’s OK. “Overgrowth” is not trying to be too conceptually coherent. Instead, it’s the museum version of an open studio, a sort of “come and see what we’ve got” soup.
“Overgrowth” offers, in abundance, a series of pleasant surprises. There’s the surprise of seeing works you had no idea were in the collection, and better still the surprise of seeing works by artists you’ve never heard of (but clearly should have).
In the latter category, for me, was a magnificent abstract painting, made around 1961, by Yeffe Kimball. Called “Blue Space Concept,” it combines aspects of J.M.W. Turner’s feeling for contrasts and indeterminate space with the wild textural experiments of late Jules Olitski.
Kimball was married to an atomic scientist, and received commissions from NASA to conduct research for her paintings at Cape Canaveral. Her work, and a nearby painting by Williamstown artist Barbara Takenaga, are part of a section of the show, “Cosmic/Atomic,” concerned with explosive growth in the cosmos.
Other sections of the show — which spreads, fittingly enough, across three floors — are titled “Creative Cultivation,” “Organic Abundance,” “Overdevelopment,” “ Human Expansion,” and “Mutation.”
That last one was perhaps my favorite. It includes a case of three mutant-looking ceramics in gorgeous aquamarine by Makoto Yabe, an artist born in Fukushima who moved to Boston in 1978; a taut little fantasy drawing in gouache and colored pencil by Laylah Ali; a technically ravishing watercolor by Todd McKie showing a backyard garden overtaken by two giant pink worms; and a poster by Nancy Burson made at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Called “Visualize This,” Burson’s poster shows two magnified T-cells side by side. One is healthy, the other mutated and AIDS-infected. The point of the juxtaposition was to emphasize the scientific reality of the disease at a time when emotion, prejudice, and politics were tragically impeding medical need.
In the context of this show, it reminds us that growth, mutation, and rampant proliferation can happen both in the imagination and in reality. When we try to distinguish between the two we are often confounded. And this can lead the mind to different kinds of sublime.
Lois Tarlow’s “Nightshift at the Compost Heap #2,” Gabor Peterdi’s “Mari’s Big Garden No. 1,” and Alex MacLean’s “Junkyard Along Stream, Southern Maine” all suggest aspects of the sublime arising from unchecked growth, extravagant waste, and the proliferating, often invisible processes of nature.
Among terrific contemporary sculptures (Gary Webb’s “Glo Baby Glo” is a stand-out), look out for superb things by Hans Arp, Henry Moore, and Harold Tovish. And don’t fail to seek out terrific paintings by Michael Mazur, Donald Shambroom, and Jon Imber.