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3D
by N.F. Karlins
 
That the Taj Mahal is the most visited attraction in India may not be a surprise, but the second-most visited may be -- Nek Chandís Rock Garden in Chandrigar in the foothills of the Himalayas. Chand began building what is now a 25-acre, 2,000-figure site in 1958.

Chand started his Rock Garden by himself, without a plan and without any special expertise in architecture or sculpture. He is still at work on his garden that has evolved into a tribute to village life, despite its location on the outskirts of Le Corbusierís planned city of Chandrigar.

When India gained Independence in 1947, the country was split in two, with the Hindus shunted into India and the Muslims moved to the newly formed state of Pakistan. At the time, Chand was living in a village near Lahore, now in Pakistan. Being a Hindu, he and his family were forced to relocate, as were millions of others.

Finding employment as a road inspector overseeing highway construction on the India side of the border, Chand observed the poured concrete being used for Chandrigar, with its modern buildings in the International Style. He collected bits of material from the village structures torn down for the new city, and began storing up his collection of cast-offs.

Chandís first phase encompassed six acres of public land. He embedded broken crockery into concrete walls, made platforms for terracotta vessels, and shaped walls of boulders and rocks. Next he spread out and created figures and animals in arrays, each one slightly different from the next. He recycled slag from furnaces, natural rocks, and broken glass bangle bracelets into sculptures hundreds of villagers and their possessions -- women with water jars, men toting heavy burdens, beggars, the lame, lepers. Fantasy figures appeared. Plants and curving waterways offered an organic alternative to the primarily grid-based Chandrigar.

Chand, now 81 years old, directs volunteers in his Rock Gardenís third phase, which is still in progress. He has created a giant waterfall, swings and an amphitheater and continues to expand the site. Once threatened with eviction, the Rock Garden has received the blessings of local officials, and the Nek Chand Foundation helps support the efforts of volunteers.

You can get a taste of what the Rock Garden is like by visiting the American Folk Art Museum exhibition, "Concrete Kingdom: Sculptures by Nek Chand," Apr. 4-Sept. 24, 2006. Most of the roughly 30 figures in the show are on a smaller scale than the figures in the Rock Garden. Originally created by Chand for the National Childrenís Museumís Fantasy Garden, AFAM received the works when the museum relocated. A photomural in black-and-white (unfortunately) and smaller color photos round out the show.

Freshly restored for the occasion, the delightful figures can only hint at the site in India. A splendid film, Nek Chandís Rock Garden, directed by Jean-NoŽl Montagnť (and lasting approximately 30 minutes) gives a good idea of Chandís vast work-in-progress. I wish the curators had provided a more suitable place for viewing the video, not to mention some chairs to sit in -- but the film is worth the inconvenience.

One hopes that a major Nek Chand show is forthcoming, from the AFAM or another museum, that can explore the full range of his larger figures and the development of his ideas as he worked on the site plus lots of photo-murals in color and more videos.

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Also at the American Folk Art Museum is "White on White (and a Little Gray)," Mar. 28-Sept. 17, 2006, devoted to three arts of the Federal period practiced largely by women -- whitework quilts, monochromatic needlework pictures and what was known as "Grecian painting," or marble-dust pictures. Here, three-dimensionality is at play in the eight spectacular quilts that form the core of the exhibition.

The whitework quilts, white stitching on white cloth, are shown off in handsome moldings and without the usual Plexiglas coverings, so itís easy to admire the low relief of their embroidered top layer.

In the years after the Revolution and into the early 19th century, Neoclassism was the reigning style. At the time, antique statuary was considered chaste and pure in its pale stone. The Greeks had crime painted their statues in a multichromatic palette that was often quite vivid. But the myth persisted, and one of its most important results was a fad for all things white -- pale, diaphanous dresses with Empire waists, unpainted statues in stone, marble and plaster, and whitework.

The earliest quilt in the show dates from 1796. Itís called The Tree of Life Whitework Quilt, but in reality it has not one but three sinuous stems curling upwards from planters and bursting with grape-like, sunflower and fantasy blossoms in trapunto work. In trapunto, a batting is forced through the stitched outlines of the forms to create a design in puffy relief above the surface of the quilt.

Even wilder is the Cornucopia and Dots quilt from around 1800-30 with fat dots in trapunto work strewn across the entire surface of the quilt. Delicate cornucopia, vines and flowers are energized by the addition of these relentless little invaders.

Other quilts employ candlewicking, which is stitching over thick cotton roving (like candlewicks) that are cut and fluffed out. It results in a kind of 19th-century chenille thatís nubby to the touch. Susan Tibbetís Candlewicking Quilt (1847) proudly carries its makerís name, even if little is known about her. Four huge flowers form the center of this churning surface filled with gnarly heart shapes and alarmingly vigorous leaves.

The two-dimensional works in "White on White (and a Little Gray)" are sometimes unusual, too. Among the needlework pictures is a watercolor of Liberty as Neoclassical Figure (1810-1825), in which Lady Liberty sports an Empire dress and extravagant plumed headdress. Yet her casually crossed legs make her look like someone you might meet in a piano-bar.

†Stacy C. Hollander, the American Folk Art Museumís senior curator, is the one to thank for this creative and visually alluring show.

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Over at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, I kept running into hordes of kids -- well-behaved and art-interested ones. The focus of their attention was the current show, "Lions, Dragons, and Other Beasts: Aquamanilia of the Middle Ages, Vessels for Church and Table," July 12-Oct. 15, 2006.

These cast hollow water-pourers from the medieval period, the first hollow cast metal containers made in the West since antiquity, are usually in the form of beasts or knights or historical figures, like one with Samson and the Lion. The beasts can be a mundane as a cock or as imaginary as a dragon, griffin or unicorn. The most common form is the lion, usually without Samson.

Used in churches for the washing of a celebrantís hands during the mass as a symbol of purification and at secular tables where food was most often eaten with the fingers, aquamanilia were common in Europe from around 1100 CE to 1500 CE.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an excellent collection. This exhibition of 30 aquamanilia, related small cast objects, and a video on the lost wax process that created them are the result of a collaboration between the Metís curators and Bardís graduate students.

"Lions, Dragons, and Other Beasts" is the second of such pairings in the decorative arts and an excellent way for everyone, including the kids, to enjoy and learn more about these handsome objects. Research into the origins and manufacture of aquamanilia is featured along with entries on each water-pourer in the first-rate catalogue.

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Bard is also presenting a survey of small works by textile artist Sheila Hicks in "Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor," July 12-Oct. 15, 2006. One of the first works I saw was White Letter, made of handspun wool in Mexico in 1962-63. The central section was woven with thick strands that created a rough low relief, as three-dimensional and monochromatic as whitework quilts but in a darker hue with a coarser, more aggressive texture.

Hicks has designed fabric for AirFrance planes and site-specific commissions for corporate offices, but the exhibition concentrates on her smaller pieces, about two hundred, most no more than about eight inches tall by four inches, though a few are larger, like White Letter.

The show follows the artist, who studied with by Joseph Albers at Yale University, as she goes around the world trying out all kinds of weaving techniques and new materials, ranging from alpaca in South America to stainless steel in Japan. Hicks enhances her weaving by larding her works with unexpected additions, such as razor clam shells and Japanese rice paper.

Her Effondrement, made in 2000 in France, combines synthetic fiber, silk, and a piece of dark slate. Woven green bands are stitched with multi-colored threads that form a fuzzy, irregular, horizontal area at the top of the work, while a minuscule slab of dark slate has been attached near the bottom. Now thatís 3D.

My favorite Hicks work is Royaume, made in Paris in 1994. It consists solely of tiny tied bundles of Chinese cellophane noodles.

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One of the best summer gallery group shows is "Sculptures," July 10-Sept. 1, 2006, a varied show of nine works dating from 1000 CE to the present, on view at Peter Blum Chelsea (the gallery is closed during July 31-Aug. 20, 2006).

I was fascinated by a terracotta "head," really a funeral vessel from the Bura-Asinda-Sikka burial ground, from what is now the country of Niger. This "bura" (ca. 1000 CE) is a head and torso in phallic form measuring a little over two feet tall. There are tiny facial features, including ears, but the sculptor has lavished more work on detailing the hair braiding and scarification patterns that would have identified the deceased and established the personís social status.

In Louise Bourgeoisís pink fabric Topiary (1998), there is no head at all, only what looks like a flowering cabbage in its place. The pink figure with one crutch attached and mounted in a glass case is more about spiritual death in life than physical dissolution.

Among the other pieces, video and installation artist Kimsooja uses a Bottari bundle, made of textiles from her native Korea and sitting on the floor, to stand for movement. The bundle is made up of printed silk bedcovers, which are given to newlyweds as presents. They can be folded away or used to carry domestic items. The soft, tied, pillow-like shape of bright cloths could stand for forced displacement, but the radiant colors made me think that any implied movement would have been embraced by the bundleís owner.

A tiny bronze figurine of a woman by Giacometti, an early iron Dancer by David Smith, a monumental abstract half-figure by Hans Josephsohn, geometric architecture-inspired floor pieces by John Beech and David Rabinowitch, and an organic sacrificial shrine figure in the shape of a humped quadruped by the Bamana of Mali are the other reasons to see this absorbing show.


N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.