Put Down the Spray Paint 

The Outdoor Sculpture exhibit animates Manchester

click to enlarge art37_art_manchester_sculpture_100.jpg

Because Manchester streetscapes are so bleak, they provide a dramatic foil for anything colorful, playful and hopeful. So welcome the 2006 Richmond Outdoor Sculpture invitational, a self-guided walking tour presented by Artspace, which offers 17 specially commissioned pieces in Manchester and across the Mayo Bridge in Shockoe Slip and the Bottom.

These pieces have been placed in various parking lots. front yards and on porches of local businesses. In most places they animate their temporary environments. Some of the installations, however, such as Allison Andrews' "21st Century Zen Garden," are difficult to see because the pieces are visually subtle and dissolve into their settings.

This is not the problem with Ben Jones' "From the Belly of the Beast," a shiny white, podlike construction set on black metal legs in the asphalt lot at 300 Decatur St. The "body" of the piece pops with slick modernity in sharp contrast to the somber, surrounding buildings. From one vantage point it looks as if the piece is a mutant spider that's crawled down from a tangle of nearby power lines. It's fun.

"Shelter and The Unseen," by David Bruce, is one of exhibition's few site-specific works. Bruce took an open drain in the parking lot near 0 E. 4th St. and created a fascinating microcosm of boulders and granite rocks that appear to be sprouting blooms. The unlikely assemblage is shaded by a complex, tentlike construction of white synthetic fabric. Even pre-existing conditions — chain-link fencing, yellow pavement markings and metal guardrails — have been incorporated in the piece.

Much simpler in intent, and yet superb, is Carolyn Henne's "Triplets." Set near the patio fountain at Plant Zero Café, these rose-hued, cast-concrete benches sensously suggest human flesh. But maybe not. The piece is crafted masterfully.

Near the lot of the La Differénce furniture emporium at 125 S. 14th St., Megan Witherspoon has installed another of the exhibition's tightest and most resolved pieces, "Inside Out II." This classically proportioned, shrinelike temple, about 4 feet tall, recalls the roadside shrines one passes in Mexico or Spain dedicated to a particular saint. Witherspoon, however, with sharp craftsmanship, has rendered a shrine in metal and plastic that appears to celebrate light and water. It's an elegant object amid the cacophony of nearby surface streets, interstate highways and the canal.

Predictably, outdoor sculpture tempts mischievousness. Sadly, Katie Whelan's "Marco Polo Aztlan Redux North or Taqueria El Farolito is Too Far Away" has apparently been vandalized. A broad-trunked tree is the centerpiece of the work, which sits on the front porch of The Martin Agency at One Shockoe Plaza. The dolls' heads that apparently once hung from the branches have disappeared. On a recent morning, as two observers surveyed "Marco Polo," an employee of the advertising agency shouted over his shoulder as he swept into the building, "We're going to hang swings from it."

His flip remark reflects what publicly displayed art is all about. Whether goofy or sublime (and pieces in the second Richmond Outdoor Sculpture invitational reflect the full range) we don't have to like it, but we can still be engaged. S

"2006 Richmond Outdoor Sculpture" runs through Oct. 29. Visit Artspace in Plant Zero for a map, or download one at www.richmondoutdoorsculpture.com. Call 232-6464 for more information.

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