Art House on the Prairie

Rough-and-ready art at the Franconia Sculpture Park

I'VE NEVER FELT totally satisfied at the Walker's sculpture garden, but I couldn't put my finger on why until I visited its brash young opposite: the Franconia Sculpture Park, set off Hwy. 8 in Chisago County, between Shafer and Taylor's Falls. While the Walker's grounds are anxiously groomed, trimmed, and manicured like a suburban wet dream, Franconia lets it all hang out. Sure, some paths have been casually shaved from sculpture to sculpture, but any suggestion of order is overrun by haphazard patches of high prairie grass and dandelions.

Which makes Franconia an embodiment of one of the most persistent tensions in visual arts: how to integrate the organic and the calculated; how to harness the beautiful chaos of natural forms in a consciously created work. Appropriately enough, many of Franconia's best pieces bring this concern to the forefront. Michael Rathbun's N45º 22.822, W92º 41.087 coaxes a wave out of the smooth horizon of prairie grass, its wooden frame lurching drunkenly upwards and outwards like the beginning of a sadistic roller coaster. The craggy O of Peter Lundberg's Cyma struggles to stand upright, keeling to one side as if its concrete form weren't rigid enough to support its weight.

But it's Mary Walker's Both that might be Franconia's flagship work, both for its artistic accomplishment and thematic focus. In the first of two parts, the word "OR" is stenciled more than 100 times into a spiraling pattern on cement blocks. In the second, a pile of tree branches is arranged into a ring, its form pinched at points with steel bands that hold tags labeled "EITHER." In Both, Walker expertly combines the aesthetic and the conceptual, using repeated forms and patterns to both please the eye and stimulate the skull. At the heart of Walker's pun is her exploration of the possible divisions between the technological and the pastoral, between a ring of concrete and a ring of wood. As Both seems to suggest, these divisions are quite indefinite: Just as the wood in "EITHER" is cuffed by steel rings, the grass of "OR" has started to poke through the cement.

Franconia's rough-and-ready approach, however, is not without its disadvantages. There are mismatches between sculpture and setting; Kurt Delbanco's Asymmetrical Paradise, a geometrically precise steel work, looks overdressed amidst the unruly landscape. And sometimes the slack attitude towards groundskeeping extends to the artworks themselves. Several of the pieces seemed unfinished or in disrepair, with no information on which ones were complete--leading to the distracting game of trying to guess which pieces are incomplete.

This aesthetic might make gallery crawlers and armchair curators gasp, but it's a forgivable aspect of Franconia's approach. After all, this style seems to have spurred its artists to produce works that truly engage their expansive surroundings. The end result--a chaotically maintained art space that manages coherence and occasional brilliance--is no less of a collective accomplishment than its fine individual components.

The Franconia Sculpture Park is open from 10 a.m. until dusk; call 1-612-465-3701.

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