These days it seems contemporary art is on a mission to inhabit all the most non-traditional spaces imaginable -- prisons, corn fields, craters, subway stations, car trunks, casinos, your phone, whatever. And, of course, public parks and botanical gardens. But even within the trend of temporary, transformative installation and performance in wacky spots, the Sturt Haaga Gallery at the Descanso Gardens still comes as a surprise. That's because this isn't a program of dispersing unexpected modern art throughout the considerable and beloved grounds (although that would be magical in its own way). Rather, the Sturt Haaga Gallery is in fact a proper gallery for exhibiting traditionally-formatted group exhibitions with an accessible programming approach, that manages sneaking in some avant-garde around the edges. Already on its third such show (opening to the public on September 11), this anomalous architectural and cultural sweetheart of an experiment transforms more than just an historic structure, it expands the way audiences encounter and understand contemporary art.
It takes a bit of walking to get from the entrance to the Gardens up to the gallery buildings, so by the time you arrive, you've been plenty immersed in the great Land of the Lost greenery. Then at a certain point the path curves up and around to the left, and the first glimpses of the building literally emerge from the ground. Partly nestling right into the surrounding hillside landscape, and both scaled and terraced in living botanical wall treatments, the first reveal of the Haaga has a bit of Shire-Moderne going on. That's when you notice the large-scale outdoor monumental sculpture in the slate-stone patio of the building -- bridging the literal and conceptual gap between the verdant outdoors and the crisp, track-lit indoors that awaits you. It's a great place to show major pieces of sculpture, and helps articulate the body/mind, nature/art continuum the Haaga is after. On the day of my first visit, these physical and metaphysical spaces were occupied by the enormous Alison Saar sculpture "Fall" -- a cast bronze goddess with wind-tangled root systems for her hair and stern offerings for the world. Her larger than life presence at the site was both an homage to the grandeur of nature, and a sign of the power of art to magnify and enhance ideas about the natural world.
So how did this moss-covered quasi-spaceship manage to land in the middle of Descanso Gardens? Think back up to the founding of the Gardens by E. Manchester Boddy, who decided to make Rancho del Descanso his home in the 1930's. Boddy, publisher and owner of the former Los Angeles Daily News, acquired the land in 1937, and in 1953, he sold the whole sprawling, wild estate -- including his residence -- to Los Angeles County. Almost immediately, a passionate volunteer guild sprang up to help tend to the grounds and public access -- a guild that remains exceptionally active and dedicated to this day. The historic residential Boddy House was built by James E. Dolena, who was a starchitect of his era, and it continues to display the more traditional, domestically majestic, partially modernized library, art and furniture collection of the founder. It is frankly just the sort of historical home-turned-hall you'd expect to see at a botanical garden. It's gorgeous. If you're getting married, do it there. But it's got nothing to do with contemporary in the way the Haaga has. It merely watches the proceedings and quietly tut-tuts from time to time from across the gravel drive -- because the Haaga is housed in the estate house's old garage. As it happens, the idea of a modern art gallery being adapted from a fashionably renovated car-park is the perfect trope -- and it's only right they got Frederick Fisher & Partners -- the LA go-to guy for gallery renovation and a bit of a starchitect himself, as well as a painter -- to do it.
Funding for the Haaga Gallery project was kickstarted by a $2.1 million gift from local La Cañada-Flintridge residents Heather Sturt Haaga and Paul G. Haaga Jr., very much in the spirit of personal love for the place that inspired Boddy and the volunteers that kept faith with his legacy. Heather Haaga is Chair of the Descanso Gardens Guild Board of Trustees, and is a talented plein air painter -- full disclosure, like me she was also an art major at Vassar College. And they are generous philanthropists in culture, education, and public health in general -- so this project was a perfect storm of giving for them. And in a nod to the undeniable romance of the Gardens, they endowed the Haaga as a 30-year anniversary present to each other.
Despite their passion for the project, when it came to exhibitions, the Guild wanted to start slow -- sort of ease into the experiment by debuting with art that everyone would get -- thematic, beautiful, smart, and straightforward. The first show was Andrea Baldeck: Closely Observed, and it was a hit. Baldeck's intricate patterns in leaves, trees, and flowers highlighted their direct inspiration from the world outside the windows. Even folks who had no idea what was going on with the Haaga thought her hi-res, lushly printed, black-and-white close-up photographs of plant life were romantic and curious and expressed cautious optimism. The following exhibition, the group show Seen and Scene: Landscape Imagined -- which was up from May through July of this year -- pushed the envelope just the smallest bit.
Curatorial Coordinator John David O'Brien and Executive Director David R. Brown welcomed "the vivid ideas, restless imaginations and provocative works of art made by several contemporary artists who are looking beyond scenery and into the deeper meaning of the term landscape." Painter Jacci Den Hartog, photographer Brian Forrest, sculptor Mineko Grimmer, mixed media sculptor and photographer Sant Khalsa, Kaoru Mansour, sculptor Alison Saar, and painter Andre Yi got busy living up to that. Some works went in a more conceptual direction; some went a little deeper into abstraction and allegory and even politics. The audience response was mixed but engaged. By far the most popular were the rather magical sculptural installations by Grimmer -- a pair of mixed media kinetic sound sculptures, constructed of redwood, bamboo and coral pebbles. Pyramid-shaped blocks of ice containing hundreds of tiny pebbles were suspended above grids strung with wire. The rocks dropped gently at random intervals as the ice melted, creating atonal yet soothing music as they struck first the wires then the wood and water on their way to the ground.
And now with momentum building, the Haaga's third show is "Elemental: Arbor Essence," on view September 11 - November 25, and starring some big names in wood, as the curators again make deliberate use of ideas suggested directly by the gallery's unique surroundings. Looking at just a few examples of the artists included in "Elemental" gets the idea across -- Chuck Arnoldi paints interlaced abstract patterns made of branches; Minoru Ohira re-uses bits of wood discarded during construction; and one of Deborah Butterfield's sculptures transforming found pieces of trees into bronze statues of wild horses will occupy the patio. For now the gallery is sticking to producing two shows a year, which is the minimum number of times a year you should be visiting this earthly treasure that's a place outside of time about 30 minutes outside of Los Angeles.
Sturt Haaga Gallery at the Descanso Gardens: 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011
Free with Garden Admission ($8). Free parking.
10am - 4:30pm, Tuesday-Sunday
Top Photo: Sturt Haaga Gallery | Photo: Courtesy of Fred Fisher Architects.
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