Helen A. Harrison
“Shaping Space,” a selection of Hans Van de Bovenkamp’s bronze and steel sculptures, is on view through October 20 at the Lyceum Gallery at Suffolk County Community College’s Eastern campus in Riverhead, newly relocated to the Montaukett Learning Resource Center. Although the pieces are made of metal, Hans calls them menhirs — the Breton word for standing stones — linking them conceptually to ancient megaliths like Stonehenge. The original purpose of those monuments is lost to history, but whatever their ritual or commemorative function, they are made of natural rock rooted in the earth. Much of their power and mystery derives from that relationship.
Anyone who has seen Hans’s steel sculptures peppered along Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton or visited his Sagaponack Sculpture Farm, where many of his large-scale pieces are installed on the grounds, will appreciate their kinship with their prehistoric forbears. Like the ancient menhirs, they frame and define the spaces around them. Yet there is a fundamental difference. As Hans interprets them, the menhirs are not earthbound. They seem to defy gravity and contradict the character of their material. Heavy metal is made to appear light, ponderous shapes cavort playfully, and what looks solid is mostly hollow.
One typical example occupies the lawn in front of the Montaukett building. “Siv’s Tiara,” a nine-foot piece in brushed stainless steel, is dedicated to Hans’s late wife, the poet and artist Siv Cedering who died in 2007. A gracefully curving stalk supports a slightly lopsided crown of eccentric letter-like shapes. From the ground it’s hard to tell, but I suspect they are melted versions of L-O-V-E. On the day I visited, brilliant sunshine animated the surface with flashing reflections, enhancing the effect of a jeweled corona. Although it’s consistent with Hans’s other steel monoliths, its memorial association sets it apart as a deeply personal statement. Inside the Lyceum Gallery, “Letter to my Mother,” is a more intimate tribute with a similar aim. It also uses calligraphic references to suggest communication with a loved one, preserving the heartfelt message in durable bronze.
The room’s centerpiece is “Oracle,” an eight-foot bronze roughly elliptical in shape, like the earth’s navel (omphalos) of ancient Greece. It’s composed of boxy elements, loosely analogous to the grid on the Delphic omphalos, that appear to jostle for position, as if trying to cohere into a proper ellipse. The tension that holds them in place symbolizes the oracle’s dynamic energy. But the slightly off-kilter balance suggests that the whole thing might just as easily fly apart as stick together. Whereas prehistoric menhirs appear inert, Hans’s modern interpretations seem to have been arrested in the act of morphing into something else.
The gallery also contains several small-scale pieces, some of which Hans has made in much larger versions. The tabletop size “Sagg Portal #10 Landscape,” for example, includes a bronze miniature of an 11-foot tall steel structure at Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey. It also proposes an environment that complements the portal or gateway, a landscaped setting in which the terrain and plantings are sculptural elements in their own right. It recalls Isamu Noguchi’s playground designs, with their combination of whimsical forms and interactive spaces, but in a more contemplative mood. By shaping not only the spatial presence of the sculpture itself but also that of the surrounding area, the artist seeks to create a unified experience.
Unfortunately the artist had no control over the space in the gallery. Its tall windows admit plenty of natural light, but that’s the most appealing feature of a room that is not well adapted as an exhibition space. In addition to intrusive furniture, it contains an ugly snack bar, inviting visitors to treat it as a lounge in which art is the décor rather than the raison d’être. A lyceum is a place of learning, and there’s a lesson here: art deserves more respect.