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.

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

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.

This resonance between artifice and the natural world is exactly what the sculptor has in mind. He welcomed the installation of his works in two natural-history sites around Los Angeles, both administered by the Page. In addition to the tar-pit site, a series of ceramic and steel works is also on display at the Natural History Museum.

"By showing my works in these settings, instead of people coming and saying, 'What is art?' They come and say, 'What is this?' " This allows the mind to stay open, says Tobin. "Even people who think they only want to come and see art, not natural history, can participate in the magic of discovery, because my hope is that this will disarm them first and then lead them in."

This perspective is apparent in the ceramic explosions that burst from the long fountains outside the Natural History Museum. The pieces look like psychedelic castoffs from the potting studio of some ancient god. One observer, a professional jeweler who says she comes to the museum for design ideas, dubs them "loopy lotuses."

Tobin created them by burying explosives inside geodes of solid clay. It's all about the process of creation, he says. "These were created by the process of explosion exactly the same way that a flower explodes in nature." He then captures the explosion by firing the clay, adding chemicals such as cobalt and copper to enhance the coloration. But, he adds, it still requires an additional degree of transformation to reach the level of art. He has experimented with more than 10,000 pieces of exploded clay.

"It's not going to be profound art unless it undergoes some form of profound transformation." It can take up to a year to add the detail that will turn a work into a piece of art.

This same standard applies to his bronze and metal castings. Through all of these processes, he hopes people will reassess their relationship to the world man has created and to the natural world.

"I'm taking things that have been cast off and reformalizing them," he says. "I'm interested in the metaphor.... I would like to make icons," he adds. People ignore what they can't see or think they already understand, such as metal scraps.

Tobin has pushed the limits of bronze casting to deliver detail never thought possible. In the same way, he wants to push people to reconsider what they think they know about art and nature.

Sometimes this process is much easier for children, who make fewer assumptions about the world than adults.

A gaggle of schoolchildren swarms the termite hills at the tar-pit site, much as the termites that created the originals did. The youngsters appear oblivious to anything but the play value of the sturdy bronze mountain.

But one 8-year-old ventures a guess about what he's climbing on. "It's sculpture and science," says a boy named Evan. "Both, right?"

Tobin, who is standing nearby, doesn't answer.

Nine-year-old Matthew pipes up. "It's a termite hill, or it used to be."

All right answers, says Tobin, who adds as the children dismount and run past him, "I like softening the boundaries between science and art and craft." That way, he says, pointing to the children, "everyone can have their own opinion."

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