Nature of place and our place in it


Material Terrain

Herron School of Art and Design

Through Feb. 25

To say that the balance between the natural and constructed environments is an uneasy one is an understatement; the two realms are intrinsically in conflict. Just take a walk through your own neighborhood: In the fall, leaf blowers belch ozone-withering fumes; in the winter, we have snow blowers doing the same. But wait! We haven’t had snow this winter. Could it be global warming?

While following such a trajectory can leave me feeling frustrated if not downright dejected, those of us who make art may explore these tensions in ways we may not consider if we’re too consumed with indignation.

The organizers of Material Terrain: A Sculptural Exploration of Landscape and Place, the traveling exhibition, now visiting Herron School of Art and Design, offers indoor and outdoor works of art by 11 artists who explore our sense of place and our sense of ourselves in it. The statements they make are often bold, but they’re also beautifully realized and often provocative in ways that cause us to question our assumptions.

For instance, is nature an erotic metaphor? Yes, it undoubtedly is, and has been thought of this way for as long as artists have called themselves artists. On a larger scale, there’s the probing of the land — the penetration of farm implements to yield the fruits of our consumption. On a more subtle scale, we witness the fertilization of a flower, or the curvaceous rump of a mushroom in the wild.

The artists called together for Material Terrain look at these and other phenomena and explore them, creating a sensual blob of polyethylene, say, that suggests natural forms but is entirely synthetic, or fabricating a fungus, also from synthetic materials, that looks like the genuine article in its awesome spread of cream and brown undulations with ear-like protrusions (“Scumaks” and “Dry Rot,” respectively, by Roxy Paine).

Dennis Oppenheim’s “Digestion,” a pair of deer whose antlers can be set aflame, offers a more volatile view of the relationship between humankind and nature. The embellished and preserved deer carcasses are made newly beautiful in this incarnation, both regal and symbols of destruction. Because of our manipulations, they are either too rampant (their natural predators decimated) or displaced (their natural habitats decimated).

So many other examples, including the awesome “Hej-Duk,” a rough-cut tower of wooden steps by Ursula von Rydingsvard — which I tried to imagine as a set of bleachers in my daughter’s school’s gymnasium — suggest that such tensions can bring the best out of our artists, even if they’re responding to the worst of humanity, or at the very least, our devastating short-sightedness.

Material Terrain, organized by International Arts & Artists, an organization dedicated to increasing cross-cultural understanding and education in the arts, is on view at Herron through Feb. 25. Call 317-278-9423 or visit