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The roots of his art

Is it science or is it art? In sculptor Steve Tobin's world, it's a little bit of both.

By Arts and culture correspondentThe Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 2002


Steve Tobin's sculptures are monuments to the meeting of science and art.

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While he has worked in glass and ceramic, mimicking natural processes such as rivers and waterfalls, many of his well-known pieces literally come from nature.

The iron red, spider-like "Roots," is a metal casting of a tree's support system. The series of towering termite mounds were wrought on-site from the insects' homes in West Africa. "Bone Wall" contains real marrow that has been treated to withstand the weather.

All are ruthlessly faithful bronze castings that have been given the formal framework of high art. The final sculptures are so detailed and accurate that scientists have studied some of them.

The artist himself came to art through the world of nature. He majored at Tulane University in science and math, disciplines that still influence his work. "The ultimate creation is the universe," says Mr. Tobin. "Art does the same thing. Art and science are essentially the same thing, just different languages."

In their current West Coast installation, "Tobin's Naked Earth: Nature as Sculpture," perhaps the most appropriate setting his works have yet received, the works also stand literally on the line between art and nature.

The sprinkling of 12 termite mounds, several bone walls, and balls grace the vast lawn that joins the world's only active urban paleontological site, the La Brea Tar Pits, and the Los Angeles County Museum. Visitors can stroll around the bubbling ooze that routinely spits up ancient dinosaur bones, climb on Tobin's towering termite mounds, then head west just a few paces to experience the museum's manmade creations.

"The pieces are at the intersection of natural history and human culture," says Jim Gilson, administrator for the Page Museum, which includes the tar pit site. "Our museum is about how people interact with nature and how nature shapes human culture. These pieces speak brilliantly to the relationship between humans and the natural world."

Noting that the hills are also huge magnets for active children (Tobin welcomes lots of touching) as well as traffic-stoppers along the busy midtown corridor, Mr. Gilson adds, "they are also fun and interesting, both beautiful and challenging."

Tobin's work also functions on every important level as art, says dealer Ivan Karp, owner and director of the OK Harris Gallery in New York. A show of Tobin's work in 1998 was a hit, he says. "It was a startling exhibition," says Mr. Karp. "The audience was totally confounded. We were all very impressed with visual presence and power they convey."

If there is any hesitation about placing Tobin in the universe of fine artists, Karp says that reluctance comes from a lack of vision.

"To fail to lift the work from its immediate [natural] context to see it in a larger context of art, is simply a failure of imagination," he adds.