At the Clark Art Institute, Sculpture and Scenery Share the Spotlight

The museum’s first-ever outdoor show, “Ground/work,” explores themes of duration, transformation, and interconnectivity that reflect the times. 

Analia Saban’s Teaching a Cow How to Draw uses the framework of a split-rail fence to "draw in space."

One of the more alluring attractions at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute since its expansion eight years ago has been the adaptation of the bucolic landscape into public space.

On any given day, visitors read books on benches lining the reflection pools of Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s concrete pavilion, picnicking on the sprawling lawn, or strolling the trails up the hilly pastures and peaceful woodlands of The Berkshires. In many ways, it’s become a community treasure for the residents of Williamstown, Massachusetts. So it’s no surprise that when the museum’s brain trust decided to host The Clark’s first-ever outdoor exhibition, nature played a starring role. 

“Part of this project was accepting nature and sensitivity to the landscape. The artworks needed vitality and [an understanding for] how people experience it, and the artists really embraced that,” says Abigail Ross Goodman, co-curator with Molly Epstein of the new exhibition “Ground/work.” 

These (Mournful) Shores by Jennie C. Jones takes inspiration from an Aeolian harp.

Ross Goodman and Epstein commissioned six leading contemporary artists to create site-specific works for the 140 acres of rolling meadows and pine tree forest. Despite being three years in the making, complications caused by COVID-19 delayed the opening until October, but it will still receive a full year run as intended—seasonal duration is a central theme of the exhibition. 

The first piece visitors encounter is Jennie C. Jones’s These (Mournful) Shores, a take on an Aeolian harp that acts as an architectural continuation of the Ando-designed Clark Center building. Jones, who is known for her auditory explorations within visual arts but has never created work outside of a gallery context, looked to the museum’s permanent collection for inspiration, specifically two Winslow Homer paintings depicting turbulent seascapes, Eastern Point and West Point, Prout’s Neck (both 1900).

The result is a sonic and visual abstraction in sculptural form that responds to its surroundings—Ando’s wall behaves like a record player’s tonearm with the northeastern winds playing the role of musician, activating the strings to play faint harmonious tones. 

Knee and Elbow by Nairy Baghramian overlooking the wintery landscape.
(CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) Kelly Akashi’s A Device to See the World Twice. Analia Saban’s Teaching a Cow How to Draw. Migratory DMZ Birds on Asymmetric Lens by Haegue Yang.

Similar to Jones’s contribution, Analia Saban’s Teaching a Cow How to Draw hides in plain sight. Winking at the scores of resident cows—a staple of the artist’s native Argentina—roaming the museum’s grounds, Saban fashioned a 620-foot split-rail fence with geometric patterns. “She saw the fence as a drawing in space,” says Ross Goodman, noting the intended audience is the bovines themselves.

A tribute to her mentor, the late conceptual artist John Baldessari, the piece investigates the power of composition and perspective—Rule of Thirds, Golden Ratio, point of view—to transform an otherwise ordinary object into a sculpture, a common theme of her work. 

Perspective also plays heavily in Kelly Akashi’s A Device to See the World Twice. As Stone Hill pasture gives way to the vast Hemlock and Maple woods nearby, a massive magnifying glass appears along the woodland trail.

Pairing her experience as an analog photographer with her practice of pushing materials to their limits, Akashi installed a double-concave lens encased in a bronze-cast armature of branches—a nod to the artist’s fascination with the decomposition of living organisms. The lens distorts the natural landscape in its frame of reference, which serendipitously includes a dramatic scene featuring a fallen, ruptured tree caused by an unruly storm the week before installation. 

Eva Lewitt's Resin Tower A refracts and reflects the changing seasonal light.

Likewise, Iranian-Armenian visual artist Nairy Baghramian’s marble-and-steel Knee and Elbow delves into the impact of proportion with two abstracted sculptures depicting fundamental joints in the body. Crafted from marble and steel, the 2020 Hugo Boss Prize nominee challenges notions of durability, poignantly reminding the viewer of the human form’s fragility—on a large scale, the vulnerability of a body part we depend on for mobility takes on newfound conspicuousness.

“She thought a lot about the poses of classical Roman and Greek sculptures, and what it would be like if they had a moment to relax,” Ross Goodman says. The intention is to elicit moments of mindfulness, discharge inner tension, and take in postcard-worthy views of the campus below.

Haegue Yang’s Migratory DMZ Birds on Asymmetric Lens acts a brutalist bird bath.

The exhibition’s overarching themes of duration, transformation, and interconnectivity feature prominently in Eva Lewitt’s three soaring totems—Resin Tower A (Orange), Resin Tower B (Yellow), Resin Tower C (Blue)—by probing color and contrast, as well as positive and negative space. Crafted from clear resin and high-color film, the visual effect is in perpetual flux as the towers refract the changing seasonal light and landscape. “Nature is Eva’s fourth sculpture,” Ross Goodman says of Lewitt’s inaugural outdoor showcase.   

Haegue Yang’s three-pronged project, Migratory DMZ Birds on Asymmetric Lens, exemplifies the South Korean artist’s talent for conveying personal experiences and histories through complex materials and techniques.

Essentially a brutalist birdbath, the elliptical piece is fabricated from 3-D printed ecological resin and set atop robotically milled stone pedestals. On the crown, a small statue of a bird species native to the Korean Demilitarized Zone presides over a vessel that, when it rains, collects water for local species to soak in. The symbolic gesture evokes a sense of memory, longing, and discomfort in Yang, who calls herself a nomad and lives between Seoul and Berlin. Most of all, it represents the possibility of reunion after things are fragmented—a perfect metaphor for the times.    

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