Some of our best outdoor sculptures, such as the Mark di Suvero pieces currently decorating San Francisco's Crissy Field, are of a triumphalist nature. They take a wide stance upon the landscape and work out the artist's eternal tussle with emptiness by stacking up their elements toward the sun. Most of the others, from David Smith's static constructs to Noguchi's graceful gestures, use the earth as a kind of sub-pedestal, upon which they place a block of metal or stone which has the honor of supporting the actual work of art. Craftsmen like Richard Serra or Christo dispense with pedestals entirely, of course, to perch (or drape) their work directly upon Mother Earth.
It's understandable that we humans would admire what artists can accomplish in this vein. We do the same thing: we make piles; we build structures; we leave things lying around. At first glance, the boulders and crags and faces created by nature before we came along – some of the best outdoor work around – can also appear to be merely perched upon the surface. It's easy to forget that the natural world is a work in progress – those impressive rock masses are there because the earth around them has been carved away.
We don't do much of that, although the Earth Works pieces of the seventies and eighties explore those dynamics. Generally our artists take the earth-is-a-pedestal approach, and if a piece actually takes its surroundings into account that's considered a plus. In your average sculpture park, however, the surroundings are predominantly level, paved with grass and peppered with other work, so if a piece is going to prevail (most don't) it had better take an aggressive stance.
Roger Berry's “Darwin” takes a different approach. It rises from a gentle fold in the earth like something out of Natural Bridges State Park. It's not perched there or plunked there or self-consciously decorating the landscape like a bather on a beach towel; it is the landscape. I show it to you here as it looked on a Sonoma County Museum tour this fall, without benefit of a carpet of natural Astroturf; if ivy is the architect's friend, perhaps grass is the sculptor's.
Like most of the outdoor work at the Oliver Ranch in Geyserville, California, “Darwin” is the result of extensive planning, meticulous siting, and consummate engineering, but that all fades away (as it should) when you come up over a rise to be confronted by the work. It doesn't perch upon the land or try to bully its surroundings; it and the land and the sun and the crickets in the trees are one.
The piece's siting and construction are more portentous than you might expect: at certain times of the year the shadows fall this way or that, and if you stand right here and look that way you might see a certain line come into congruence with another one. To me, however, that's like saying that a Diebenkorn piece is made up of only colors with precisely calculated wavelengths, or that Bruce Connor used the same 214 shades of grey in one of his films as he did in a particular assemblage. Interesting? If you like. Crucial? Since we're talking about a work that approaches perfection, maybe so. But I'd rather not be distracted by those calculations when I'm looking at the piece itself.
We have a master among us. Kudos to Steve Oliver for providing the site for one of his most compelling works.