By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The Madison Square Park Conservancy has debuted a series of nature-inspired sculptures as the latest public art installation to go up at the park. The work opened to the public on Tuesday to torrential downpours throughout the morning and afternoon but the rain lightened to a drizzle in time for the installation’s opening reception that evening.
Sculptor Arlene Shechet created 11 different pieces that make up “Full Steam Ahead,” designed as an outdoor room intended to be interactive. Shechet is primarily known for her work in ceramic but the pieces in this exhibition are made from cast iron, wood, steel and porcelain.
Shechet refers to the exhibition as a “manufactured version of nature” and the installation is functional as well as a work of art, with a number of the pieces functioning as seating. Shechet said that the installation was initially inspired by memories of the living room in her grandparents’ apartment.
The pieces, located along the pathways and perimeter of the park’s reflecting pool, are human-scale sculptures that create a physical presence for visitors, and Shechet used forms suggestive of the nature around the park, such as twigs, tree trunks and other plants. Other sculptures around the pool are reminiscent of various fauna, some of which could be found at the park, such as a feather from a bird, although another, part of a lion’s head and paw, is less common in the middle of Manhattan.
Shechet also commented on the disproportionate number of monuments devoted to men through her work by placing a hand-carved female figure on the Farragut monument’s steps. Shechet’s carved wood sculpture is next to the base of typological reliefs of women named Loyalty and Courage.
Shechet said that she wanted to use the landscape in the park itself and the surrounding city to surprise visitors as they walk through.
“New Yorkers rely on the sidewalks, the pavement and the street as the core of their urban lives,” she said. “Full Steam Ahead becomes a lively and human amphitheater, softening the hardscape through sculptural intervention evocative of 18th-century garden landscapes.”
The title of the exhibition was inspired by the Farragut monument, which sits adjacent to the reflecting pool. The bronze statue was a collaboration of architect Stanford White and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Admiral David Farragut was best-known for his naval victory during the Civil War at the Battle of Mobile Bay against the Confederacy. He was said to have commanded, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
The installation will also be accompanied by public programming throughout its run in the park, which will be through April 28, 2019. Programming includes talks with artists, as well as walking meditations, poetry readings, performances and concerts. Lunchtime tours begin on Friday afternoon and editor and art critic Faye Hirsch will lead the first art talk on Thursday, October 4. Oscar-winning actress Dianne Wiest will perform pieces from Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” with the installation during the week of October 22.
Shechet lives and works in New York and the Hudson Valley. A 20-year survey of her work was recently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Her work on view at the Frick Collection in 2016 incorporated historic ceramic work from the museum’s collection along with Shechet’s own sculptures for the exhibition. Pieces of hers are also in a number of public and private collections, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in Washington DC.