Sunday, 12 October 2014

Grounds for Sculpture, NJ

In a previous post, I mentioned a visit we made with friends to Grounds for Sculpture, a wonderful 42 acre sculpture park in Hamilton, New Jersey. Now I've had time to reflect on our trip to the US and download my many photos, I've chosen my favourite sculptures from the around 270 pieces we saw in the park - not an easy task.

On the day we visited there were more than 150 of Seward Johnson's lifelike outdoor sculpture installations spread naturalistically around the park in a truly extraordinary retrospective of his work covering over 50 years.

Johnson describes himself as seeking to capture human gesture, and works in a highly accessible style, usually in painted bronze. He says of his work I use my art to convince you of something that isn't real. You laugh at yourself because you were taken in, and in that, change your perception.

This was exactly my reaction throughout the park. On noticing what I thought were groups or single figures in the distance, I then looked again to realise that they were life-size representations of people caught in common poses or interactions, or perhaps representations of iconic American figures or well-known Impressionist paintings. It was in essence sculptural trompe l'oeil - although to that comment, I would add that quite often I found the work unsettling in its realism or in the approach it took.

For this post, I've chosen three of my most remembered pieces of Johnson's work - though later in the week, I may post again to show some of the other very different, mostly abstract sculpture we saw.

Of all the pieces in his Celebrating the Familiar series which accounts for the main body of work shown, I very much enjoyed these two. The first here is of a grandfather with his grandson, fishing, and entitled A Day Off. It was extraordinarily realistic and gentle in feeling, but its position secreted amongst the trees made it particularly convincing and disconcerting.

The second is of a young man asleep on a park bench. I don't know its name, but it is typical of much of Johnson's work - simple, natural and utterly believable ... till you take a considered look.

There were many others I could have included but the most impressive of all for me was a 26 foot (almost 8 metres) tall sculpture of Marilyn Monroe, called Forever Marilyn and part of the Icons Revisited series.  Modelled on her performance in the 1955 Billy Wilder film The Seven Year Itch, it is a representation of that famous image of Monroe - when she coyly holds down the flyaway skirt of her white dress.

Completed in 2011, this sculpture has previously spent time in Chicago and in Palm Springs, California, where it often provoked controversy as being too revealing. Under the heading Art or Trash, a posting on the CBS website describes the piece as 'risqué' and inappropriate.

I found it most memorable if somewhat disconcerting, and found myself returning to it to look at it again at the end of our visit. Perhaps this was as much because of its sheer size as for the exactness and liveliness of the representation.

I think probably that some of its appeal lay in the extraordinary logistical problems incurred in moving it from one place to another. Made of painted stainless steel and aluminium, it weighs about 14 tons (15,000 kg) and comes apart in three pieces which have to be lifted with a crane on and off low-loader trucks for transportation.

There was so much that was true of human form and interaction in all these figures. This style of modern sculpture is not what I usually seek out, as I instinctively prefer the abstract, but I found it surprisingly beguiling and there was an element which stopped it tipping into the banal and stereotypical.

For all its realism, it had a shiver down the spine feeling to it which I can't quite explain. Perhaps it was the frozen moments of personal time and space we were invited to observe closely and to share, in a way not permitted to us with strangers in ordinary life. It felt like intruding but at the same time provoked great emotional reaction - sympathy, empathy or even distaste. I was drawn into wanting to interact directly with the pieces, and to touch the smooth, tactile surfaces, yet I felt a need to keep my distance and show respect ... extraordinary and unforgettable.


  1. Gosh, I had never heard of this park before, nor had I 'met' the work of Seward Johnson. Thanks so much for this post. And how very disconcerting some of the displays must have been. And yet so very mesmerizing at the same time. I am always fascinated by the many ways there are to be 'creative.' Thank you so much for this introduction.

    1. Seward Johnson's work was new to me too but quite haunting. It is now nearly six weeks since we visited the park yet my reactions when searching through my photos for this post were as vivid as they were at the time of our visit ... as you say, disconcerting and mesmerising ... extraordinary.

  2. I have never seen Seward Johnson's work, but it seems similar to Duane Hanson's which I have seen both in London and in San Francisco many years ago. It is really uncanny.

    1. Thank you, Olga. I will search out Duane Hanson with interest.
      It is extraordinary how such a realistic representation of the human form and of human interaction can be so disturbing and uncanny. I have been asking myself why that is ever since we visited the exhibition Perhaps it is because we find being involved in a visual trick disturbing. It is like the feeling when we've been the victim of a practical joke.... perhaps that is the point - we have - but it's one that makes us look again at ourselves and we don't always like what we see ...

  3. What a fascinating sculpture park !
    I think Marilyn is fabulous ... the sheer size alone ... and the detail !
    Must add this to my bucket list !

    1. It was a wonderful place ... and so impressively full of people (without being crowded). It was just lovely to see so many others enjoying the visual feast. The Seward Johnson exhibition has been so popular that it has been extended through into the middle of next year. I certainly recommend a visit.


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