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Monday, July 19, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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It's Art, It's A Workout, It's Horsehead -- You'll Find The Annual Outdoor Sculpture Exhibit All Over Sand Point

Seattle Times Art Critic

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

"HorseHead International 1999," at the former Sand Point Naval base and Magnuson Park, 7400 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle, through Sept. 20. Hours are weekdays 5 to 9 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free.

The free-spirited annual outdoor sculpture fest known as HorseHead has opened, and here's some advice for visitors: Take a bicycle. If you have one with all-terrain tires, all the better. At the very least, wear sturdy shoes and expect to hike.

More than ever, this sprawling, quixotic show seems to be spreading out over the 370-acre site like an octopus that refuses to stop growing. Maps are provided by the guards at the main entry to the former Sand Point Naval base, but finding the 34 artworks can be more of a treasure hunt that some may bargain for. Be prepared to spend a couple of hours, to get lost and to detour around the construction that seems to be everywhere. With many of the roads through the station dug up and blocked to cars, hiking or biking is the best solution.

But for those prepared for the adventure, there are rewards. As with all the HorseHead sculpture fests in the past (this is the 11th), this one has a few brilliant pieces, some not so brilliant but still fun, and a few that are too obtuse or conceptually slight to be of much interest. As always, most of the pieces are unmarked. So it's sometimes difficult to tell what is an artwork and what is a pile of construction rubble, presumably not the effect the artists had in mind.

(I hiked a quarter-mile hunting down one artwork and found a small shed marked "toxic materials," surrounded by cans of spilled paint. I was contemplating the evils of pollution when I realized this wasn't the artwork at all. The artwork, by Japanese artist Yuki Nakamura, was an antiseptic arrangement of blue bags on the top of a nearby building.)

HorseHead organizers Matthew and Maxine Lennon deserve credit, regardless of the success of individual artworks, for masterminding HorseHead, which this year has gone international. Matthew Lennon, an artist who works most of the year as a facilities worker at the Seattle Art Museum, has organized and curated the show for all of its 11 years.

But when he married Maxine a few years ago, the show took on an international flavor. Maxine is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, where she worked in arts and cultural programming, so HorseHead now has an Irish connection. A few Irish artists were invited last year to participate in the Sand Point exhibition. And this year, for the first time, there will be a HorseHead show in Belfast to include six of the Northwest artists who have installations up at the former Naval base.

The Northwesterners now in Ireland creating installations for the Belfast show, which opens Aug. 13, are Julie Speidel, Tom Gormally, Michael McCafferty, Helen Lessick, Sean Miller and Carol De Pelecyn. Two artists from Taiwan, and one each from Canada and Italy, are also making sculptures for both shows.

It is a sign, too, of the perseverance of the Lennons that this year they received more funding than ever before, though their shoestring budget is still small, especially for the Seattle exhibition. Various Irish arts councils and corporations donated just over $100,000 to fund the Belfast show and the participation of the five Irish artists in the Seattle show. In Seattle the Lennons raised about $10,000 from local arts patrons, including Jon and Mary Shirley, Anne Gerber, Catherine and David Skinner and others.

Matthew Lennon has been in Belfast for a month securing locations for the 30-some site-specific sculptures being installed there now. But Maxine, who organized HorseHead's Seattle opening a week ago, says even though HorseHead has grown from a once semi-private affair in the Duvall woods to an international event, its mission remains the same.

"HorseHead is an artist- and art-generated project. It's about looking at a place differently and creating a dialogue," said Maxine Lennon. "If it encourages people to find out more about art and how it's made, that's good, too."

Some of the best installations this year are clustered near the south end of the former Naval base and Magnuson Park. Helen Gamble's "Building 244" is a grouping of 12 old single beds with weather-beaten headboards arranged around a cavernous beige hangar. The beds all have their feet pointed toward the huge building. The white sheets are drawn tautly and neatly across the mattresses, hospital style; the pillows in their pristine white cases have been plumped. Like all HorseHead installations, this one is expected to be changed by the vicissitudes of the weather.

The image of these beds in a field of tall grass and wildflowers with birds twittering on a hot summer afternoon is magical, something out of a South American novel of magic realism or a child's fairly tale. But the strictly made beds also hint at hospitals and mental wards, and there is an absurdist aspect to the scene that suggests darker images of madness and institutionalization.

Nearby are pieces by Lycia Danielle of Canada and Fiona Ni Mhaoilir of Belfast. Danielle's lyrical piece is a circle of oil drums upturned in a low, moist meadow. Some have heads stretched over them to turn them into percussion instruments. Danielle calls the piece "The Call/Recall of the Wet Meadow," and the name conjures lovely images of drums calling and responding to one another in an open meadow.

Forty feet away, Mhaoilir's haunting piece called "Not All Birds Have the Same Song" resembles a big Joseph Cornell box lying on its back. From an iron box about 7 feet long by 5 feet wide, she has made compartments filled with dark oily liquids, white powders and other substances. In one compartment, bird feathers have been pressed under glass as though for a laboratory examination. There is no whole bird anywhere to be seen. It's hard not to read a disturbing political meaning into this piece, especially since the artist is from strife-torn Belfast.

Tim and Sandy Marsden's whimsical pile of giant kids' "blocks" is a delight. The pair found concrete slabs and sections of concrete pipe and painted the jumble of the huge, immovable pieces red, yellow, blue and white, like toys for toddlers. This is one to hunt down if you have kids in tow, or if you're just feeling young at heart.

Julie Speidel's piece can be harder to find, but it's worth it. Speidel found a Victorian church door complete with giant locks and bolts, painted one side purple and blue, and stood it up in the center of a field of tall grass. She mowed a circle around the door and laid flagstones.

The effect of finding this freestanding, ornate, gorgeous door in the middle of a field is part Alice in Wonderland, part pure fantasy. And it's a little odd. Are we supposed to walk through the door into another world? Perhaps the idea here is more Henry David Thoreau, a religious celebration of the natural world. Either way the piece is surprising and beautiful.

For pure fun, little can beat David Nechak's piece, "Deuce." Nechak found a tennis court and wedged a couple of hundred yellow tennis balls in the wind fence around it, dribbling the rest onto the court. With the orange net flapping in the wind, the piece is a hilarious visual pun on the frustration of the deuce game. There was no winner in this mother of all tennis matches. These players trashed a couple of hundred tennis balls in their manic attempts to beat each other. But in the end, both went home disappointed.

Tom Gormally's "Maybe Smell a Rose" is an ambitious carpentry project with a message. In a long (perhaps 15-foot) wooden funnel, Gormally has arranged a wooden chair, a wooden light bulb dangling from the ceiling and a wooden telephone. Bars over each end of the funnel suggest a prison, or an interrogation room. Outside is another wooden chair and phone, both considerably larger than their counterparts inside the cage. This piece seems to be talking about the prison of drudge work, especially office jobs whose tools are lights, chairs and phones.

Susan Zoccola's installation of big (perhaps 8-foot long) white cones hanging from a tree like giant cocoons is a reminder of what can be so sublime about sculpture in nature. The installation refers to the mystery of the natural world and draws our attention to it. Zoccola's lovely, delicate installation is the kind of project that wouldn't find a home anywhere but HorseHead.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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