For decades, visitors to Descanso Gardens have strolled along winding paths, enjoying garden views as they learn about Southern California flora and marvel at the botanic collections showcased throughout the year.
One thing they’ve not likely given much thought to, however, is the ground beneath their feet — the soil in which Descanso’s beauty takes root, the rock that defines the slopes and curves of the 160-acre landscape and the earth that sustains it all. A new exhibit coming to the garden’s Sturt Haaga Gallery aims to give visitors a chance to appreciate Descanso from the ground up.
From Sept. 8 through Nov. 24, the exhibit “Elemental | Of the Earth” offers visitors a look at paintings, sculptures and installations that contemplate, or play with, the idea of earth as a raw material and art medium.
The contemporary pieces were created by 15 artists who live or work in the greater Los Angeles area and were specially selected to complement the garden experience, according to John David O’Brien, curatorial coordinator for the exhibit.
“The idea is to augment the visitors’ experience and get them thinking about what goes on in the garden and what they’re walking on,” O’Brien says.
The show celebrates the beauty of earth, but from a range of perspectives. Several are constructed from stone, clay and metal, while others use dirt and dust mixed with traditional art media. Still others depict rocks and root systems in a phantasmagorial light.
Most of the pieces will be displayed inside the gallery, but visitors will likely first notice two large, outdoor installations from Venice sculptor Woods Davy.
Davy’s works feature stones and rocks arranged in weightless-looking configurations that belie the fact they weigh nearly a ton apiece. When the artist heard about the show’s theme, he knew it was a perfect fit. He visited the space and created two pieces scaled to that area.
Most viewers are intrigued by Davy’s sculptures, but he hopes the garden setting will highlight their natural —and unnatural —appeal.
“For me, it’s [about] pulling these stones out and floating them like that and having people walking through the gardens, looking at various plants, vegetation and trees and natural elements, and then they’re seeing something like my works, made of natural elements but behaving unnaturally,” Davy says.
Inside gallery spaces will be anchored by pieces that similarly provoke curiosity and get people thinking about the ground beneath their feet, according to O’Brien.
“In each of the rooms we try to put a conversation together that would cause the visitor to think about what’s going on,” he says. “We don’t want the gallery to be predictable. We’d like people to come and be surprised.”
This show is the second in the Elemental series, following the inaugural 2012 exhibit, “Elemental | ArborEssence,” which explored the possibilities of wood in contemporary art. Another exhibit, “Elemental | Of the Light,” is in the works for 2015.
The upcoming exhibit will also feature activities that allow younger audiences to engage with the theme and the artwork. Microscope slides will give an up-close look at mineral samples of rocks and substances found in the local landscape. Kids can go on a mini treasure hunt to find those substances in the exhibit, according to Ali Falcon, Descanso’s educational programs coordinator.
“For children, we’re always trying to foster a care of place and a sense of community,” Falcon said. “The more they know what the ground under their feet and the ground at Descanso is made of, the more they’ll want to preserve it, protect it and learn about it.”
“Elemental | Of the Earth” opens Sept. 8 with an artists’ reception from 4 to 6 p.m. and runs through Nov. 24. Admission is free with entrance to the garden. For more information on artists and gallery hours, visit www.descansogardens.org or call (818) 949-4290.