Steve Tobin exhibition at Naples Museum of Art honors organic earth

One of Steve Tobin's larger-than-life roots favors an aortic impression, with its ganglion of white tubular lines.

KENNETH EK

One of Steve Tobin's larger-than-life roots favors an aortic impression, with its ganglion of white tubular lines.

This is one of Steve Tobin's "earth bronzes," which draw inspiration from organic items.

This is one of Steve Tobin's "earth bronzes," which draw inspiration from organic items.

Tobin's "Roots" series anthropomorphizes the grounded materials.

KENNETH EK

Tobin's "Roots" series anthropomorphizes the grounded materials.

An earth/clay work from Steven Tobin gives the impression of a created stone geode.

An earth/clay work from Steven Tobin gives the impression of a created stone geode.

Sculptor Steve Tobin stands with one of its earth and clay sculptures.

Sculptor Steve Tobin stands with one of its earth and clay sculptures.

Fortunately, some artists are successful without rising in the usual academic or studio way and enrich art in unconventional ways.

The Patty and Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art has exhibited two such artists' works: currently the sculptures of Steve Tobin, who came to art through mathematics and physics, and last season, Stephen Knapp, who developed his starburst glass wall reflections through science.

Tobin's work is at the museum through Dec. 30, and models about eight different sculptural modes he has created over 30 years.

Tobin is best known for "Trinity Root," a 2005 bronze sculpture he cast from the roots and stump of an 80-year-old sycamore whose destroyed trunk protected St. Paul's Chapel from destruction near Ground Zero on 9/11. Its Medusa-like form strongly suggests the power of that disaster. Tobin regards it as revealing "the power of the unseen."

But earlier in his career, Tobin, who was graduated from Tulane University in 1979 and lives north of Philadelphia, worked in blown glass. Some of those objects, called "Cocoons," are seen in the Naples museum. They are unusually tall and colorfully smooth sculptures supported by tall vertical rods that hold them upright, entrapping them in a disquieting way.

Tobin moved on to his "Doors," a series of totem-like mounds of encrusted translucent glass from which colors emanate under lighting from above. Tobin told museum docents he calls them "Doors" because they stop viewers' physical movement but allow the mind to enter. In similar, but smaller, "Doors," the artist includes a woodland scene to intrigue the viewer.

These works are followed by nearly life-size female torsos of encrusted glass and diamond dust. Their luminescence is particularly attractive.

Next, the viewer finds Tobin working in bronze. Seemingly surreal women's high-heeled shoes, long powerful fetishes, are displayed on a wooden rack. Each shoe is stuffed with once natural objects: fruit, vegetables, nuts and a pastrami sandwich that was at Tobin's hand. Although there is no direct similarity, they recall California realist artist Wayne Thiebaud's painted rows of decorated cakes.

This viewer was strongly moved by Tobin's series of high-relief bronze wall sculptures consisting of once natural objects — fish, crustaceans, vegetables, fruit.

Tobin has made art of old food that was being thrown away. The fish came from stores in New York's Chinatown. Tobin also immortalizes a cornfield section going out of production across from his house.

No wax is used in his bronze-casting. These highly dramatic sculptures were first arranged in shallow earthen pits and covered in a mastic paste later melted by the liquid silicon bronze and the rest laboriously cut away.

These sculptures are extremely powerful, exquisitely cast and painted in realistic patinas. They are the most detailed casts I have seen and the most powerful objects in the exhibition. But they may not be to everyone's taste any more than were the 19th-century craze for low-fire ceramic plates of fish, snakes and salamanders. Named for 16th-century inventor Bernard Palissy, these objects are much in demand today.

From this point the show seems to decline. Hollow, filigree bronze sculptures, given a turquoise finish and set with found bronze alphabet letters, recall garden ornaments more than serious sculptures, despite the superior casting technique.

Next are the sculptures I have difficulty with: Tobin's large and small clay pots or pot pieces he calls "frags" (for fragments) and "bangs." Having discovered the technique accidentally, he explodes these ceramic pots to make large and small craterlike forms with rough random edges. He likens them to "the big bang theory" of how the universe was created. For interest, he adds broken glass to the bowls; they pool with molten glass infused with color derived from natural chemicals in the clay. A film loop depicts his explosions. Tobin's website has a video showing him creating smaller explosions in Korea.

The artist's unconventional approach allows him to make sculpture without academic limitations, and he enjoys its spontaneous, unstructured qualities. More academically minded viewers would probably prefer the artist have total control of his process. It is easy to see how the limitations of glass made Tobin want to break away from it.

His last works, a series of painted abstract hollow steel sculptures called "Steelroots," are influenced by natural forms. They are around the museum's patio. Separated from the exhibition inside, however, they lose context with it. Without knowing about the rest of his show, one might miss the connection.

Another display problem is not having enough light in the gallery to sufficiently light at least one of the "Doors," a brilliant red, his press aide said.

Viewers should look up Steve Tobin on the Internet. His "Steelroots" sculptures, some 40 feet tall, are being exhibited in Northern arboretums. Visitors may sit or lie under them. But in Naples his exhibition lacks visual coherence. Even knowing the derivation from nature of the newer root sculptures, I did not find them interesting.

They seem anonymously decorative, bland and boring. I hope Tobin's energy and ideas will move him forward to his more maverick side.

If you go

What: "Steve Tobin's Natural History," mixed media sculpture.

Where: Patty and Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples.

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday Sunday noon-4 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 30

Admission: $8 adult, $4 student

Phone: 239- 597-1900

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