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Art Review

Art blossoms on the farm

Hay bales and woods provide backdrop for sculpture

“Window Pane Quilt,’’ a net of colorful ceramic tiles by Valorie Sheehan, is on exhibit at Allandale Farm. Sheehan attached clay heads onto fallen trees (below left). “Window Pane Quilt,’’ a net of colorful ceramic tiles by Valorie Sheehan, is on exhibit at Allandale Farm. Sheehan attached clay heads onto fallen trees (below left). (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / September 6, 2010

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BROOKLINE — In the woods behind the market at Allandale Farm, a pair of wood nymphs has fallen asleep under a floating blanket. Their heads, made of wet, red clay, rise like burls from a couple of fallen trees. The blanket, a net of colorful ceramic tiles, has been strung at a tilt in front of the pair. This is “Window Pane Quilt,’’ a sculptural installation by Valorie Sheehan, one of 16 outdoor sculptures amid the hay bales and forest in “Agriculture Encounters Sculpture,’’ a new exhibit at Boston’s only major commercial farm.

It’s hard to find the right sightline to glimpse the couple under the covers — the quilt acts more like a screen than a comforter — but I still had the half-uneasy, half-delighted feeling that I’d stumbled over something private when I came across it.

The pleasure of discovery is one of the bonuses of a well-organized outdoor sculpture show; you never know what you’ll find next, camouflaged among the leaves or dug into the soil. The Allandale exhibit is a thoughtful, earthy show put together by Allison Newsome, featuring a cadre of artists who have impressive academic and artistic credentials and a handful of their students. It’s deeply rooted in agrarian and environmental themes.

The artists are here at the invitation of the farm’s general manager, John Lee, a tan and wiry fellow with a mustache and a baseball hat. “It’s an idea I’ve had floating around in the back of my head for a few years,’’ he said. “It’s a fairly unique location, and an opportunity to do something creative.’’

All 16 works are situated around the pond behind the market and in the woods beyond. In the seven weeks of the exhibit, they’ll be subject to the elements, so Sheehan’s earthen lovers may degrade, although Newsome, also a ceramicist, says that wet clay can stand up better to rain and wind than fired clay does.

Michael Barsanti’s “Theaters of Human Demise,’’ from his “Bird Bath Series,’’ is intended to dissolve. He has placed a rutted, knobby block of clay in a birdbath, expecting it to self-destruct over time. But he has seeded it with smaller elements that will better withstand the weather. Tiny houses sit atop it, some already toppled, and rye seeds have been planted within it, and they may sprout. The piece sees human dreams of permanence as folly, but still holds hope for rye seeds.

In the pond nearby floats Ellen Dris coll’s “Still Life,’’ a pale, intricate landscape construction made from plastic water bottles — a ghostly island. A pair of binoculars would help to see all its details, which include a tower of Babel and an oil rig. Placing a construction of water bottles, which often end up in a landfill, in this idyllic setting is sobering irony.

The mess we humans have gotten ourselves into comes up again and again. Karen McCoy’s “World Tangle, Bamboo Roots’’ is a sphere made of feisty bamboo roots she tore up from her garden; one was more than 12 feet long. Bamboos are an invasive species in North America; her sphere is a Gordian knot that cannot be untangled. Charlet H. Davenport’s “Occupied Territory’’ features three columns of stacked, glazed terra cotta pots. One sports drawings of herbs and wildflowers reintroduced to Allandale Woods in the late 1990s. The second shows invasive species; the third has vegetable produce grown on the farm. The intricate graphics swirl around the colorful columns, which have also been written over, graffiti-like, with the Latin names of the plants.

Over the summer, Newsome has planted floating islands of native crops in the pond — beans, corn, and squash. Only the squash remains untouched by muskrats. She dug “Cache,’’ a three-foot hole in the ground on a rise over the pond, which reprises Native American root cellars and the wells of European settlers. A ceramic sculpture/storage chest shaped like a torso sits inside. The piece resounds with history.

Mary Dondero’s magical “Farmers’ Agony’’ is easy to miss while walking through the woods: It features mirrored square plates and photographs strung from a tree branch and suspended at several levels parallel to the earth. Look down and you see reflections of photos that poetically meld images of a stitched wound, moths, and soil. With layers of mirrors and metaphor, this haunting piece feels more like dream than reality. Nearby, Marilu Swett has woven “Allandale Farm Drawing’’ into two crooks of a tree with an orange fiber, like two giant spider webs or two butterfly wings that hold abstracted images of flowers, trees, and insects.

The work by the professional artists feels more rooted in place and ideas than that of the students. Curtis Singmaster, who is in the sculpture program at Rhode Island School of Design, made the most successful student piece. Singmaster landed a plum site in the woods: an old, ornate concrete wall that used to edge a tennis court, back in the day when Allandale Farm housed an estate.

“Mortise and Tenon’’ is just what it sounds like: A large, weathered wood peg fits into a giant notch in the concrete. It juts out like the prow of a blocky rowboat, and a second peg of neon pink plaster snugs against the wall vertically, seeming to pass through a hole in the wooden piece. The work fits perfectly in its setting, and its dramatic scale, materials, and contrasting tones make it pop. Still, it’s an odd duck in this show, more architectural than agricultural.

Allandale Farm is a rich site for art. I almost mistook the beehives and some stacked farm equipment for art installations. “Agriculture Encounters Sculpture’’ could have used some editing, but it’s a sturdy, occasionally surprising show, one that inspires hope that it will become an annual event.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at cmcq@speakeasy.net

AGRICULTURE ENCOUNTERS SCULPTURE
At: Allandale Farm, 259 Allandale Road, Brookline, through Oct. 21. 617-524-1531, http://aes-2010.net/home.html