He put a spell on you

An 'unofficial' installation raises questions about what's right and wrong with public art
By GREG COOK  |  July 8, 2010

NATURALISM Part witch shack, part voodoo shrine, Brandon Nastanski’s installation at Franklin Park is one of the best artworks in town right now.

PHOTOS:The Unofficial Franklin Park Research Outpost. By Greg Cook and Katherine Taylor.
Brandon Nastanski had e-mailed me a map to his Unofficial Franklin Park Research Outpost, but it's a good thing he met me at the park's Glen Road entrance to lead me in, because I would have never found it on my own. Even when I went back by myself later, I got lost going in, and lost again coming out.

Nastanski is a tan, slender fellow with a light beard and something of a Gary Snyder beatnik vibe. But he's also a trained artist (MFA Parsons 2008) who teaches online art-history classes. On this day, he's dressed in a camo baseball cap and olive trousers with a leather pouch clipped to his waist. Hidden under his white T-shirt is a wicked tattoo of a caiman crocodile fighting a snake — it's based on a drawing by 17th-century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian.

"The early naturalists, the reason I connect to them so much is, science wasn't science yet. They were considered natural philosophers," Nastanski explains. He identifies with the patient curiosity they devoted to unraveling natural mysteries and their own ignorance. "These people were examining really obvious things that nobody was interested in yet."

The path becomes grassy, crossing over exposed puddingstone and through a grove of sumac. In the distance, traffic hums along Forest Hills Street, hidden behind leaves. Just past a dead tree, we head left down a steep rocky incline.

"The way this outcropping comes down, you come down this path and you almost can't see it until you're upon it," he says. The outpost is a nest of branches built into a notch in the three-story-tall sheer rock face. It's part clubhouse, part hermit hut, part witch shack, part voodoo shrine — and one of the best artworks in town right now. Put it next to installations at HarborArts in East Boston and ConstellationCenter in Cambridge and you can see all that's right and wrong with public art these days.

ConstellationCenter is an ambitious four-theater performing-arts center planned for the corner of Kendall and Athenæum Streets. In advance of its scheduled opening in 2015, organizers have mounted a six-month-long juried public-art show on the site to "offer an amenity to the Cambridge community prior to breaking ground on its own structure."

Unfortunately, the result is a giant gravel parking lot surrounded by a chain-link fence with some soulless sculptures imprisoned inside. Visitors can see the art only through the fence.

The six works include dull stuff like Lisa Greenfield's pyramid of gargantuan playing cards, Rachel Newsam & Vaclav Sipla's chicken-wire columns filled with gravel (with a winding wall of more chicken wire running between them), and Obie Simonis's generic abstract shiny metal sculpture, which looks as if two meteorites had crashed into it.

More promising are Andy Moerlein's Finding Fault, a sort of stockade of willowy branches that bend gracefully in the wind, and Anne Alexander's Sprouting Growth, wood sculptures that resemble giant plant sprouts. But it's hard to imagine what would be flattered by this urban wasteland. It's like a prison camp for art.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Outpost, CULTURE, public art,  More more >
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