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Grave matters
Cemetery art at Forest Hills, and unseen faces at Harvard
"The 4 Elements"
At Forest Hills Cemetery, 95 Forest Hills Avenue, through August 31.

"Harvard Works Because We Do"
At the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 24 Quincy Street in Harvard Square, through August 17.

Roger Tory Peterson led bird walks there for years. White-marble monuments to local legends Isabella Stewart Gardner and Mary Baker Eddy (whoís reputed to have had a phone installed in her tomb so as to be in direct posthumous contact with the church she founded) tower above their respective man-made lakes. So itís little wonder that Bostonians tend to think of Cambridgeís Mount Auburn Cemetery as second only to Calvary as final resting place deluxe.

In fact, even apart from its revered Colonial burying grounds, Boston has never been a one-cemetery town. In 1848, Henry Dearborn, mayor of Roxbury and later first president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, began a landscaping project whose aim was as much to bury the dead as it was to delight the living. On its 275 acres at the southern-most end of the Jamaica Way, the Forest Hills Cemetery boasts its own faux bodies of water, walking paths, and sculpted vistas modeled after English country estates; yet itís also the last home to cadres of other Boston luminaries, including William Lloyd Garrison, e.e. cummings and Eugene OíNeill.

But wait, thereís more. Five years ago, the Forest Hills Trust began building on the cemeteryís estimable history as a sculpture garden. Already monuments by Martin Milmore and Daniel Chester French decorate the Forest Hills grounds. In addition to developing a collection of contemporary permanent outdoor pieces, the Trust hosts temporary site-specific installations during the summer. This yearís show, the second such exhibit, is up through August 31, and among the 17 works that compose "The 4 Elements" are some tender, inventive, breath-taking creations that play off the cemeteryís exotic flora and cultivated land design.

The concept behind "The 4 Elements" was to ask artists to draw ó loosely, it turns out ó on the four elements that the Greeks believed to make up the universe: earth, water, fire, and air. Most chose to create installations from organic materials; others employed manufactured materials and shaped them to resemble real-world artifacts. Still others went their own way, though nobody went so far as to suggest a fifth element.

The first two works you meet, Susan Child & Chris Alonsoís A Transect and Christopher Ho & Daniel Bouthotís Luncheon on the Grass (a tribute to Édouard Manetís great, subversive Le déjeuner sur líherbe), prove a weak sendoff. Ho and Bouthot shaved a small grass area into a grid of higher and lower squares. Child and Alonso simply laid down a line of lime in the woods of a height and thickness we associate with baseball diamonds. Neither looks like much of anything.

A few feet away, however, Danielle Krcmarís Favorite Things: An Indirect Portrait engages. Attached to strings hanging from the low-lying branches of a spreading tree are scaled-down versions of dozens of commonplace objects ó pillows, sandals, chairs, a vacuum cleaner, a trowel, a cell phone, an iron, a drill ó all made of cement. They move in the wind as if they were living, but in their color and their hardness, they resemble the unmoving tombstones nearby. Itís a shy, masterful creation, mysterious and evocative, the stuff of everyday life made to look as if it had risen up from the surrounding graves.

When youíre following a charted itinerary with map in hand, as I was the day I visited, the element of surprise gets eliminated. I found myself wondering whether Larissa Brownís half-dozen crude brooms ó arranged at the base of trees so that they initially appear as fallen branches ó might not have registered with greater charm and delicacy had I not been alerted to them beforehand.

No such thoughts troubled my pilgrimage when I came upon the exhibitís fifth contribution, Amy Stacey Curtisís Inversion I, which involves a scattering of circular mirrors the size of a vinyl LP on the floor of a pine grove. Had Curtis made a greater effort to integrate her mirrors with the bed of pine needles or with the trunks of the surrounding trees (what if the mirrors had grown gradually more visible on the forest floor instead of all being uniformly exposed? what if fragments of mirrors had been embedded into the treesí bark?), she might have avoided the look of spillage from a delivery truck.

The next three installations were sensitively and fully realized, small miracles each, like sightings of rare migratory birds. Stacy Latt Savageís Fissure looks like what you might see at an archæological dig. Her flat-topped, irregularly shaped concrete formations resemble the exposed vertebrae of a dinosaur or a leviathan, jostled from one another but proximate, like a skeleton discovered on a river bed. Nearby, at a height just above Fissure, a stone wall acts as a complement and a corrective, as if it were the model for Savageís piece, an emblem not only of beauty but of purpose.

Jeanne Drevasís Earth, the Spiral is an immense snake made out of pine needles and bird netting whose headless torso curls up at the base of a tree and whose tail unfurls down the slope of a small hill. Drevas succeeds at all kinds of balancing acts: the work threatens and consoles (itís as much pillow as serpent); itís both still and in motion, like a huge creature asleep; and itís simultaneously one with the land and utterly manufactured ó sheís made pine needles act like magnetized filaments or coiffed hair. Monstrous and refined, Earth, the Spiral is site-specific art at its finest, inviting us to appreciate with new eyes the spectacle of all design, the deliberately wrought and the naturally occurring.

Too bad Frank Vaselloís Lethe, a seemingly cascading river of sticks that for all their stillness appear to be coursing down a nearby rock-covered hill, is situated so close to Spiral. Both installations draw on similar properties of movement, material, and shape, so that the drama that ought to be Lethe is attenuated. Nevertheless, the work, whose name refers to the river in Greek mythology that ran through Hades and induced forgetfulness in those who drank from it, is a commanding presence, at once tumultuous and contemplative.

Other highlights include Kathleen Driscollís Column One: Falling Water, which looks like a frozen waterfall, and Kaki Martinís Breathe, which is made up of five manicured plots of growing rosemary in the shape of five contiguous coffins. "The 4 Elements" ends with Mark Winetrout presenting an array of objects ó elm seeds, bird feathers, tiny daguerreotypes, a gold ring, a hornetís nest ó in a formal display case, the type you see at the entrance to libraries. Like Danielle Krcmar, Winetrout achieves his poignancy by indirection: as hard and real as they are, the objects of Xuanxue become metaphors of lost lives.

Favorite Things, Fisher, Earth, the Spiral, Lethe, Column One, and Xuanxue will be among a selection of pieces from the "The 4 Elements" that will remain on view through October 31. Forest Hills is open every day from 7:30 a.m. to dusk.

ITíS HARD TO IMAGINE anything farther removed from "The 4 Elements" than Greg Halpernís photographs at Harvardís Carpenter Center. Called "Harvard Works Because We Do," these documentary black-and-white photos grew out of Halpernís involvement with Harvardís custodial staff, who two years ago were embroiled in contract negotiations with the university.

Halpern has set out to capture both the dignity and the oppression of Harvardís underclass; heís partly succeeded. His best work shows these people at work: the barely contained scowl of a young black woman in her wait-staff garments; the hand and arm of a custodian wiping a urinal; a powerful triptych of the two tables of union and university contract negotiators separated by a reproduction of the universityís tax form for that year (it took in just under a billion dollars). Less convincing are the portraits of the sous-chefs and the various custodial staff ó the sympathies seem stretched, the compositions comparatively flat-footed. Guys on cigarette breaks are not loaded guns. Still, Halpern deserves credit for daring to photograph those weíre all trained not to see.

Issue Date: August 15 - 21, 2003
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