Joseph McDonnell, The Bather, 1976
I didn’t need the eyes of an appraiser to know, instantly upon walking in, that these people were millionaires. It wasn’t that their walls were covered in original art, some accompanied by charming personal notes from the artists. That detail would emerge with further examination. It was the avante garde (read: bizarre) little touches that really tipped me off.
No, those aren’t twin dogs lounging on the couch. They’re explosively furry sheep hair pillows. Yes, the chandelier is a cluster of enormous glass cubes that might shatter at any moment. It’s one-of-a-kind. Oh, and now I know who buys those cowhide carpets from Ikea that I saw on my hellish journey there in October. You can’t be this aesthetically playful without very good ta$te, if you know what I mean.
It was the last day of my Seattle journey, and I’d landed at my dad’s work retreat, held at his co-worker’s chic mansion. I know I said my field trip posts were over, but the best part of this story takes place in Oregon. Just sit tight, and we’ll be far, far away from the rich and famous soon.
Besides all of the glorious pieces hanging on the walls (which included an excellent portrait of the family’s daughters… with Elphaba green skin), there was also The Bather. The sculpture sits serenely in the backyard, striking a contrast to the stunning view of Seattle’s bustling skyline.
You might recognize The Bather because a version of it was shown at the Vancouver Olympic games. As much as I’d like to relate it to the ancient Olympian sculpture Boy scraping himself or other classical works, the piece is resolutely modern and figurative. It’s all about circles and curves. McDonnell is shaping emptiness, creating an invisible ball of energy that is formed by (or holds) the bather’s body.
I wasn’t planning on writing about McDonnell’s sculpture at all, mostly because I knew the post would end up sounding like Better Home and Garden (mission accomplished). Then I went on a run with my dad at Lane Community College yesterday, and the plot thickened.
It turns out there’s an awesome network of forest paths behind the temple of questionable art that is LCC. Not far from the trail head but deep in the tangled underbrush we caught sight of a very familiar sculpture…
LCC mystery sculpture
Okay, so it’s not exactly The Bather, but you can see McDonnell’s figure here in an even simpler form. The bottom curve looks like folded legs of sorts, while the upper twist of metal could be a bent torso. Even if you think that’s a bit of a stretch, you have to admit that the sculptures utilize spirals, curves and globes in similar ways:
So, what landed one sculpture on the millionaire’s lawn and the other in a mass of blackberry brambles? Or maybe a better question is, which piece is better off?
“Maybe the sculptor (of the LCC work) put it out there on purpose, as sort of an interactive, natural piece,” pondered my dad. “Who says a pedestal is the best place to put a sculpture? It seems artificial.”
The abandoned sculpture has certainly gotten a lot of attention since being dumped. Though some of the marks on its skin are ugly and hateful, others are intricately crafted tattoos. It seems that, in the long run, most bent hunks of metal that we call “sculptures” will end up somewhere like this. The Lenin statue I saw the other day spent years with its face in the dirt before ending up in Seattle.
It’s an idea that makes me uncomfortable and fearful. I suppose it’s a sculpture’s final statement (or provocation): memento mori.