Outside Looking In 

Complementary new Frist shows explore connections between art and nature in stunning, thought-provoking ways

Complementary new Frist shows explore connections between art and nature in stunning, thought-provoking ways

Animating Stone: Inuit Art From the Davenport Collection

Through Nov. 3

Andy Goldsworthy: Mountain and Coast, Autumn Into Winter

Through Oct. 29

Both shows at Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 919 Broadway

10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; open until 8 p.m. Thurs.; 1-5 p.m. Sun.

For information, call 244-3340

The August heat still lingers outside, but it’s cool inside at the Frist—thanks to air-conditioning, a few polar bears and some ice sculptures. The bears and ice, not to mention a walrus and a giant snowball, are featured in two exhibits that slipped into the art center without much fanfare a few weeks ago.

You’ll find the Arctic animals frolicking in a show called “Animating Stone,” which features 22 astonishing sculptures by contemporary Inuit artists of northern Quebec. The works are culled from the collection of Nashvillians Clara and Nelson Davenport, who have been acquiring Inuit art from several small communities clustered around Hudson Bay for years. Eighteen artisans are represented in the exhibition. Half of these are from Cape Dorset, an Inuit town on the south coast of Baffin Island, generally considered the foremost art center in the Arctic.

If looking at stone carvings by Arctic artists sounds about as lively as watching ice melt, you’ll be surprised at the superb craftsmanship, diverse artistry and universal appeal of the work. A walrus, for example, is much more than a walrus in the hands of Nuna Parr, a 53-year-old Cape Dorset artist—it’s a miracle of engineering and personality. The creature stands about 2 feet tall and balances his solid stone bulk on just one flipper. He kicks the other flipper out behind him while waving his two upper flippers in the air. Graceful and goofy all at once, Parr’s walrus is animated indeed.

The other works in the show are just as lively and engaging. Each also bears the unique stamp of its creator. The shaman and other human figures carved by Judas Ullulaq (1937-99) are as freely interpreted as the work of any modern outsider artist, while the polar bear by Pauloosie Takpaugui and the musk ox by Lucassie Ikkidluak couldn’t look more realistic. “Sea Goddess,” a two-headed mermaid of green stone by Willie Tunnillie (1977-95), seems both ancient and contemporary. The enigmatic double faces, one located mid-torso and the other at the end of the goddess’s neck, linger in the viewer’s mind—as does the sad fact that the artist carved this exquisite piece just a year before he took his own life.

Many of the works in the exhibition were made in the 1990s, but there are also pieces from the 1950s. Inuit art itself is thousands of years old but has only gained recognition since the late 1940s, thanks to a man named James Houston, who encouraged the artists, organized an exhibition of their works in Montreal and lobbied organizations on their behalf. Jean Blodgett, a leading scholar of Inuit art and former assistant director of collections and programs at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, is the exhibition’s guest curator. Blodgett’s fine color photographs of Cape Dorset and some of the artists at work accompany the Inuit sculptures.

What unites these artists of Northern Canada is something more than the ancient Inuit traditions of carving animals and humans out of solid stone. Each artist also conveys a spiritual connection with his subject and a reverence for nature. The same respect for the natural world is captured in the spectacular color photos of works by British artist Andy Goldsworthy, on view in the adjacent gallery, along with some of the artist’s actual works. Goldsworthy travels the world creating startling sculptural arrangements of wood, twigs, leaves, bamboo, dirt, ice, snow and stones in remote outdoor sites. After he photographs the constructions, he leaves them to decay or otherwise be broken down by wind, rain and time. The 34 photographs and four pieces in the Frist show were created in Japan during a residency in 1987 and have never been seen in the U.S.

The large-format color photographs of Goldsworthy’s outdoor installations in the Japanese mountains and on rocky coastlines fill three rooms at the Frist. Through the photos, we witness such ephemeral creations as a delicate chain of maple leaves floating in a clear mountain stream and a large, solitary snowball perched among the rocks by the seashore. Goldsworthy uses only natural materials to create these fragile beauties—leaves are strung together with their own stems and held in place underwater by a woven rug of briars; smooth rocks are balanced on each other in towers and pyramids.

Brief, haiku-like notes accompany each photograph and reveal the weather conditions and other challenges the artist faced while creating his outdoor masterpieces. About the snowball on the beach, for example, he writes “Made in mountains. Drove 7 1/2 hours to coast. Warm and sunny. Left on tidal edge.” Of a woven bamboo sculpture balanced in the smooth pebbles on the water’s edge, Goldsworthy notes, “Windy. Collapsed after taking photo.”

A video of the artist at work plays continuously, and the few striking examples of Goldsworthy’s art give viewers a chance to experience his installations firsthand. These include a cornucopia-like formation of dried sweet chestnut leaves and natural resin, and a “carpet” of pine branches and twigs spread out on the floor. The latter features an intricate pattern with a circular design in the middle, and reportedly took four people 14 hours to install to the artist’s specifications.

“I have an art that teaches me very important things about Nature, my nature, the land and my relationship to it,” Goldsworthy says in his artist’s statement. Through the animated stone figures of 18 Inuit artists and the contemplative installations of a single British one, the viewer can also learn a great deal about the relationship of art and nature while reflecting on his own place in the natural world.

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