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ART REVIEW

Standing up to their surroundings

Famed sculptor's estate hosts a juried exhibit

Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood includes 'Shirtheads' by Nina Levy. Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood includes "Shirtheads" by Nina Levy. (Nicholas Whitman)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / September 19, 2010

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STOCKBRIDGE — Here’s a daunting, but irresistible challenge: Stage an exhibition of contemporary figurative sculptures on the estate of one of the great American sculptors of the human form, Daniel Chester French. Just about every American recognizes French’s best known work: the pensive, giant Abraham Lincoln seated at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. French also crafted several monuments around Boston, including a statue of Civil War General Joseph Hooker on the State House lawn.

Chesterwood, French’s summer home here and now a National Trust Historic Site, has for more than 30 years hosted an annual juried exhibition of contemporary sculpture. This year’s show, overseen by Richard Klein, exhibitions director at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, features 15 works sited strategically around the 122-acre grounds, which include manicured lawns, a scattering of apple trees, and a small forest.

Figure sculpting is a different game now than it was in French’s day. He was active throughout his adult life, and died at 81 in 1931. Even while he was still working, many modernists had tossed the classic rendering of the human form, with its sheer expressiveness of gesture and face, into the trash heap. Later, even civic monuments, so long the realm of the figure sculptor, gave way to abstraction. Today, there’s something fusty and old school about many contemporary bronze casts of the human form, no matter how expertly wrought.

Contemporary art should instead push beyond our expectations, and many of the works here surprise. For instance, I never anticipated a figurative sculpture about the horrors of motherhood. In Nina Levy’s delightfully ghastly “Shirtheads,’’ two white busts of the artist’s own head appear mummified — or, if you will, mommified — by children’s shirts, all petrified in marble-like gypsum. In the nightmarish “Stroller,’’ Levy’s head appears again, this time inside a stroller with eyes wide and worried, equating the mother with the helpless infant.

Mary Ellen Scherl makes a traditional bronze figure with her “Bathing Beauty,’’ but with a twist. It’s all sassy, corpulent torso, in a short-skirted swimsuit, situated on a wooden pedestal in the woods. Even better, Scherl’s comic and startling “Blue Muse’’ has no pedestal, but sits among the forest greenery like an alert frog — which I almost mistook it for, although it, too, is a plump female nude, minus head and limbs. This one, crafted from polyurethane foam and automotive paint, glows blue-green and is dimpled like an orange.

Nearby stands the forbidding “Trespassers,’’ a man-shaped figure all wrapped up in yellow “no trespassing’’ tape. Coming upon this stern fellow made by Gabriel Edward Adams in the middle of a tromp through the forest, I was immediately put off. But a kneejerk aversion to an artwork always begs for a deeper look. The piece is actually a clever, dark picture of alienation and isolation, far more confrontational in this natural setting than it would be in a gallery.

Several abstract pieces challenge the definition of figuration. Rick Brown’s “Gabriel’’ is made from a standing, dead tree. The artist removed a section from the top, made several boards from it, and reinserted them in a windmill formation. They splay high up on either side of the tree trunk, like wings, suggesting an arboreal angel.

Peter DeCamp Haines’s bronze column “Acrobats’’ first struck me as an echo of Brancusi, with its totemic posture and geometric components. Then I glimpsed feet and arms, and recognized two acrobats in a back-to-back handstand. What had appeared austerely modern was suddenly infused with comedy. And John Belardo’s “Geo Eye’’ is a giant, rusty steel impression of a human eye, fractured into several triangular pieces, so that the viewer can see through the eye via the seams between the triangles. Art is often a lens through which we glimpse some truth; here, it’s literally a lens through which to view the landscape.

Daniel Chester French’s own passion courses through the breathtaking marble lines of the lolling female nude “Andromeda,’’ on view in his studio at Chesterwood. It’s harder to appreciate similar curves in Christopher Smith’s “4PM,’’ one of the more realist sculptures in the exhibit. Smith expertly models four women in concrete posing laconically like studiously bored fashion models against a wall. He deserves a nod for his technique, but his nudes carry no charge.

Likewise, Phyllis Kulmatiski’s two mother-and-child ceramic pieces are stolid, if predictably iconographic, although curator Klein’s sly positioning of one of her sculptures near Levy’s harrowing “Stroller’’ sets up a provocative dialogue.

It’s fascinating that French’s own works still can be experienced as rapturous, but a contemporary artist carving an “Andromeda’’ would be faced with a century’s worth of meaning, including irony and layers of feminist theory about the male gaze, that would get in the way of rapture. French’s work has proved timeless, whereas the artists in “Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood 2010’’ must be seen and assessed in 2010. Chances are slim that their work, cogent as some of it is today, will be objects of awe come 2110.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at cmcq@speakeasy.net.

CONTEMPORARY SCULPTURE AT CHESTERWOOD 2010 At: Chesterwood, 4 Williamsville Road, Stockbridge, through Oct. 11. 413-298-3579, www.chesterwood.org