Steve Tobin, who calls himself a “visual philosopher,” has done a lot of weird things since he got a bachelor’s degree in mathematics thirty years ago. He’s blown up barrels of clay, made shelters out of discarded glass art slides or tank windows, walls out of animal bones and bronze casts of termite mounds. His bronze cast of the “Trinity Root,” from 2005, gained him celebrity for the only art memorial permanently installed in the vicinity of Ground Zero. Since then, he has been designing his own tree roots, and now seems to be doing what traditional garden sculptors have done for centuries: make elegant figures that enhance the landscape, with fourteen towering sculptures installed on the grounds of the Morton Arboretum.
The large sculptures are figurative even if they are immediately recognizable as natural forms, such as roots. They display the balance, expression, rhythm and gesture of classic dance, and even of Chinese calligraphy. Indeed, some of his pieces look like they were assembled from Asian logograms that have been drawn by bending and welding enormous steel pipes instead of pulling an ink-filled brush over paper. The effect is electrifying on the pastoral landscape that holds the extensive conifer collection of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Some of the choreography is for solo dancers, others for groups of two or three. One figure arches over the garden path so viewers must walk between its legs, and one, that reaches up to forty feet high, seems more like a dancing brontosaurus than a human.
This is the quintessential Baroque garden: full of harmonies and happy surprises. As the art critic Donald Kuspit has noted, Tobin’s work is completely outside the “insidious, hypocritical irony” that is so endemic to the contemporary art world. With zero art school background, Tobin is more like a crafter who has been inspired by Michelangelo or Rodin rather than a contemporary sculptor—a crafter who is quite capable of delivering those kind of aesthetic, spontaneous and monumental gestures. (Chris Miller)
Through January, 2011, at the Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois Route 53, (630)968-0074, Lisle.