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Sunday, August 3, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Whimsy In The Woods -- Horsehead Sculpture Project Mixes Art And Nature

Seattle Times Art Critic

----------------------------------------------------------------- Art review

"Horsehead Sculpture Project: The Ninth Annual Exhibition," in Duvall, through September. Admission is free. To get a map to the site, which is about a 45-minute drive from downtown Seattle, call 206-282-2935. -----------------------------------------------------------------

The most enchanting artwork at this year's Horsehead Sculpture Project is one that many people are going to miss because it's just too darned hard to find. It is Ken Leback's mirrored table and chair, though that description hardly does justice to his simple, lovely piece.

The table is long and narrow and one end juts up at a 90-degree angle like the back of a straight chair. At the other end of the table is a straight-backed chair. Both are completely covered in a type of plexi-glass that behaves like a glass mirror. The table and chair resemble extremely sleek furniture that could have been designed by Le Corbusier.

But nestled into a small clearing in the woods, with ferns and bracken underneath and tree limbs weaving a green canopy above, the dining set takes on a fairy-tale quality. Queen Titania from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" might sit here while her fairies serve her delicacies.

The table and chair set is also a wonderful metaphor for contemplating one's place in the natural world. While you sit on the chair in the woods, you not only see the woods reflected back at you but your own image reflected off the upright end of the table.

Leback's is by no means the only strong piece in this year's Horsehead show, which in it's ninth year has become one of the area's most noteworthy alternative art events. Organized each year by Seattleite Matthew Lennon, an artist, self-appointed curator and hard-working impresario of alternative art, this year's show in Duvall includes new work by some 20 artists.

The basic premise is so simple it's radical. Lennon invites a group of artists to design and build sculptures in the woods. The 10-acre wooded site is privately owned, so there are no committees or trustees to satisfy. Artists are usually allowed to choose their own site within the boundaries of the property, and they are encouraged to use natural materials, such as clay, hay or wood, that will eventually decompose back into the forest.

Many also choose more durable materials, including metals, wire, glass and textile. Part of the charm of going to the show each year is to see how the previous year's pieces have fared. The remains of pieces made of metal and other tough stuff become skeletons in the woods, their frames each season covered a bit further by vine tendrils and ever-taller ferns.

Few of the artists who participate are well-known in the area, though most live in Western Washington. Few are represented by commercial galleries. None expect to sell what they make at Horsehead. (In nine years nothing made at Horsehead has ever sold.)

The point instead is to create a sculpture that piques the artist's interest, and that will attract the attention of a least the couple hundred viewers who usually attend the opening party, held last Sunday, and the trickle of visitors who continue to visit through the season. This year's show will stay up at least through September.

Horsehead this year has a distinctly international breadth, since it includes Ken Parker, a sculptor from Northern Ireland, and Kazumi Tanaka, a Japanese sculptor. Both were invited to be in the show because of professional and personal relationships with Lennon or some of the artists who have become Horsehead regulars.

Parker's striking sculpture is one of the most muscular in the show. While many artists use the bosky setting as an excuse for lyrical, often delightful work that seems at home in the woods, Parker's giant oil tank resting on a bed of redwood posts could just as easily be in a gravel pit or a flat field.

Parker's piece, with its rusting industrial tank, has a massive brute strength about it. But there's also poetry in the broken clay shards that form a bed under the posts. The sculpture hints at the evolution of human society from a race of clay-makers, to carpenters, to workers in the industrial revolution, though the scarred and discarded tank is a sign that even the industrial age is now ancient history.

Tanaka's two pieces are pleasant surprises, too. One is a minimalist arrangement of steel posts, with each post representing notes to the opening melody of the American national anthem. The height of each post corresponds to the pitch and duration of each note. Tanaka's other sculpture is a 20-foot stretch of fence made of charred wood scraps. The fence suggests a three-dimensional Franz Kline painting with bold, irregular black slashes jutting at unexpected angles. It is quite beautiful.

Michael McCafferty is one of Horsehead's regular exhibitors, and by now he's known by just about everyone who regularly attends as "the hay artist." McCafferty, who happens to be the Seattle Art Museum's exhibition designer, has for several years now made structures out of bales of hay. McCafferty's artistic roots are in the earth art movement of the '60s and '70s, when artists concerned about the environment created Stonehenge-like structures and mounds resembling burial sites to spark dialogue about ecology and spiritulism.

This year McCafferty's delightful piece is part children's fort, part maze. The bales of tumbling-down hay look like they've already been attacked by ravaging bands of 10-year-olds, and the pink twigs sticking out from the bales add a further note of whimsy.

For sheer elegance, Paul Sorey's wood chute is a lovely double entendre. The arcing, 30-foot-long open chute sweeps down an incline like an open water pipe, except that it's made of wood and is filled with twigs and sticks.

Fitzgerald DeFreitas' insect glade is unusual both for its storybook point of view and its fabrication. DeFreitas is a professional maker of festival costumes, and for this year's show he created a 10-foot-long, six-legged, golden bug with a gold beaded face. It sits on a tree limb like an insect version of the Cheshire Cat.

Surrounding him are a dozen or so gorgeous nylon butterflies with two-foot wing spans. Underneath the big bug is the straw carcass of the insect DeFreitas made last year, the carapace of this year's golden beauty.

Other strong work includes Aristotle Georgiades' wood lath cocoon hanging heavily from a slim tree branch, and Mark Reeves' wheelbarrow mounded with a buffet of mosses and a tiny ceremonial site. A crystal embedded in the moss catches light at certain times of the day, and the piece suggests a Lilliputian universe where half-inch inhabitants worship among the moss and the rocks.

As usual, a couple of this year's sculptures seem overly obtuse. And one, a sophomoric jab at Bill Gates, is simply out of place in this show. But many of these sculptures are worth the trip to Duvall, especially when you factor in the fun of hunting them down in the woods.

Leback's piece, by the way, is about 20 feet down the slope in back of a small shed at the top of the dirt road. If you get to the top of the road and see a flight of steep stairs leading up to a little cabin, look right. Look for a faint trail that leads down. Leback's mirrored table and chair should be there.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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