What better place than Forest Hills Cemetery to mount an outdoor sculpture show? Life and death meet here like old friends, amid the terraced pathways and wooded groves. A
walk through the plots here is such a different experience than the regimentation and minimalist headstones of modern graveyards. Visitors wander down winding roads, where every turn promises a surprise of nature, architecture, ornamentation, or history. "ReVisited," the wonderful third annual contemporary sculpture installation at Forest Hills, pulses through the lush landscape, reflecting 19th-century sensibilities in a 21st-century mirror. Among other ideas, the show explores the Victorian acceptance of and familiarity with death that would make many people today recoil.
Since 1998, contemporary art has been appearing in the historical part of the cemetery on both a temporary and permanent basis, thanks to the efforts of Cecily Miller, who heads the Forest Hills Educational Trust. There's a sculpture path through the cemetery, highlighting works by artists such as John Wilson, Kahlil Gibran, and Mitch Ryerson. The art makes
the cemetery even more a launching pad for flights of the imagination than it already was. Often, sculptures that go up for the summer show stay beyond the season. All of the artists in "ReVisited" have participated in the sculpture show before, hence its title. After only two previous shows, that speaks to the limited pool of talent for such exhibitions. Jurors Cheryl Brutvan of the Museum of Fine Arts, Lynda Hartigan of the Peabody Essex Museum, Susan Stoops of the Worcester Art Museum, and Carol Warner, corporate curator of Fidelity Investments include artists working with the same themes and materials they used before. Yet nothing feels repetitious. Rather, it's as if we're using the same scaffolding to reach a higher, more interesting point.
That's literally true for Leslie Wilcox's "Wraith Wrap," installed just up the hill from her 2002 "Nightshirts." The earlier work poignantly set spectral nightshirts of wire mesh around tree trunks surrounding a family plot. The new one enfolds an entire tree in a transparent white robe, with five sleeves snaking up limbs. It's the most ghostly piece in the show, but it touches on more than fear and our sense of the dead's presence: It recalls the prolific spiritualism and seances of the Victorian era.
Like Wilcox, Frank Vasello builds on his ideas to our benefit. "Lethe," his 2003 installation of a churning vortex of gathered sticks, spills through a wooded area like the underworld river for which it was named. A similarly grand eddy of wood, charred at the center, makes up "Gate," which fills the portico of the cemetery's gothic revival "receiving" tomb, where in the winter bodies were stored until the ground thawed. Where "Lethe" flowed by us, "Gate" nearly pulls us in and down toward its black center.
Jeanne Drevas also works with elements of nature. Her impressive "Folly for the Pine Forest" looks like a hobbit hut, a cave with a swirling chimney all made from pine needles and bird netting. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: Over time it will erode into the landscape, unlike the stone mausoleums in surrounding plots.
Inspired by the humble grave of poet e.e. cummings, Caroline Bagenal has placed three of his poems along the terraced slope that leads to its site. Written in black on slats of wood in a font similar to that on nearby gravestones, the poems' words and ideas flutter up and down the hill, evoking cummings's unique attention to the visual quality of text.
Jill Slosburg-Ackerman and Jon Williams confront death directly, working with a horse chestnut tree near the cemetery's entrance. The tree is slowly dying, and ordinarily a crutch props up the heavy, drooping limb. Williams crafted a mantel, which echoes the backing of a nearby statue by Daniel Chester French. Slosburg-Ackerman fashioned a stack of wooden orbs atop the mantel, upon which the limb rests: It's like a loving friend sitting at the tree's deathbed.
The piece Danielle Krcmar previously made with Lisa Osborn, "Resting Benches," still sits in the cemetery: Small concrete beds, the sheets ruffled and the pillows mashed, hauntingly suggest a child who just arose but never returned. It's sweet yet chilling and would fit nowhere better than amid headstones in a cemetery.
Krcmar's new work, made with Derek Brain, is "Things Worth Remembering." It mimics the obelisk statuary common at Forest Hills. Krcmar has embedded personal items local people have contributed amid a mosaic of broken ceramics excavated from Carson Beach in Dorchester. It's a monument to the ordinary things we identify with ourselves or with a loved one, blending the majesty of commemoration with the power of the smallest thing to spark a memory.
Clementine Douglas Cummer and Susan Lavina Nacco installed life-size lenticular photographs, in which the image changes as you walk past them, in niches beneath an elegant bridge. The dark figure in the photos opens and closes her hands as you pass her. She echoes the many angels adorning gravestones in the cemetery, depicting "Fortitude and Despair." It's a strong piece -- the artists say it's a little campy, but I disagree. The figure is stern and mournful, and the lenticular photos make her eerily alive.
A boilermaker by trade, Charles Jones sculpts vents. "Vent/018" pays homage to the many industrialists buried at Forest Hills; it also can be seen as a metaphor for purification.
But not everything works so well. Carol Spack's "Nature's Book IV," a bronze open book on a bench, feels trite. Kathleen Driscoll's "Blue River Rock Two," which conflates the idea of a river with the drapery used in much of Forest Hills's statuary, is pasty, awkward, and ineffective. Kaki Martin, a landscape architect, posts numbers in neon orange marking the topography of the land. She points out the intentionally romantic gradations, but the effect is jarring; all the other pieces in the show harmonize with the landscape, rather than pull the viewer out of it.
Even with a few misfires, "ReVisited" takes all that Forest Hills has to offer and makes it as vital today as it was a century ago.