There are no sculptures in Eden, unless you count the burning sword spinning in an angel’s hand to keep visitors out. But more recent gardens have made a place for them, and so there are precedents for the gathering of work by Connecticut artists now scattered on the grounds of the governor’s residence in Hartford.
What to make of this? Since Gov. Dannel P. Malloy approved the twenty sculptures chosen by the curator, Joan Hurwit, we can read his own pleasures here, and they are largely unexceptional. It may be that his sense of democracy inevitably yields a harmless standard, with a number of the pieces striving towards that notion of transcendent lawn ornament that would place them a degree or two above the ubiquitous gnomes of suburban landscapes. With the exception of Carol Krieger Davidson’s Days of Danger, there is nothing with any overt political content and even that aluminum mob reads as an assemblage of mechanical circus warriors, more comic than ominous.
At the same time, there are also moments of marvel and invention: a wonderfully light hearted vista with Peter Kirkiles’ rulers measuring an alley of tree trunks; the work of David Hayes, who died shortly after his two pieces were installed, one of them a fuming pillar of smoke turned to metal; Mark Mennin’s granite Amorpheus, a punning title for a sleepless night’s pillow; and Deuces Wild, by Jonathan Waters, its walls folding and unfolding like a massive underground machine making a break for it.
Clearly a work in progress, the year long installation still must contend with obvious open spaces that are empty of work, while other pieces are crowded into areas where one would expect more independence. But these curatorial questions are much less important than the issues of funding and accessibility raised by the governor’s patronage.
It must be said that the principle of state government offering a venue for larger scale work by artists living in Connecticut is admirable. It is even obligatory. But how that is done and the rhetoric that is attached to the doing, are in this case painfully flawed. The public relations material for this project is almost hysterical in its assurance that no tax money was used to underwrite it. Instead, it is the “generosity” of the artists in making their work available that is praised.
But why is it that only artists are expected to be generous in such a fashion? Would we imagine plumbers being so inclined? Or stockbrokers? So avid are the governor’s spokespeople to declare that public funds had no part in this, that they further the infuriating stereotype of art as an unreasonable extravagance in these days of straitened budgets. In the hope of of avoiding condemnation for creating a minor Versailles, they mimic the mindset which thinks of art in only such elitist terms.
While occasional tours will grant some few the opportunity to view the works sequestered here, the need for security guarantee they will be generally inaccessible. If the governor wanted to encourage the celebration of area artists, why not install their sculptures on the Capitol grounds? There are more dangers there, but that is in the nature of public art as it pushes out into the world. As it is now, what has been created here is a privileged garden, where the fence is the only definitive sculpture. This may be an Eden with art, but the gates are still slammed shut.
Tours of the sculpture garden will be granted upon request. To make a reservation, call 860-524-7355.
Stephen Vincent Kobasa is a writer and activist who opines on art and society.