No Substitute at Glenstone
Last year we were lucky enough to make a pilgrimage to Glenstone, a place that can only be described as an idyllic integration of art, architecture and landscape. Glenstone is situated an easy drive from Washington D.C. in Potomac, Maryland, an affluent area with rolling hills and a population under 50,000. Passing the large houses on sprawling acreages en route, Potomac seemed primed as a destination for fox hunts rather than a powerful collection of contemporary art. Founded by Emily Wei Rales and Mitch Rales, Glenstone houses their private collection of several hundred works, from the post-WWII era. The Rales’ strive to present these works of extraordinary quality – masterworks by contemporary masters – in their best possible light with breathtaking results, particularly in their placement of outdoor sculpture in the serene landscape.
The Rales’ worked closely with Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects as well as Peter Walker and Partner Landscape Architects to create a unified experience in which the site, structures and artworks are seamlessly integrated. Much in the tradition of idealized 18th Century English landscapes and their carefully placed follies, the grounds offers visitors staggered “reveals” or focal points as you traverse a truly picturesque estate. Upon arrival, one is greeted by an arcade of sugar maples, an elegant entrance that is both humble and grand; beyond these trees are rolling hills of wildflowers and grasses, emphasizing the beauty of the terrain. Situated in these fields is Richard Serra’s Contour 290, 2004, a rounded, rust-coloured, mammoth structure – both terrifying in its scale and beautiful in its placement – which encircles the ground itself. Charles Ray’s Father Figure, inspired by a child’s toy, is a large-scale painted steel sculpture of a man operating a tractor which seems right at home in the field. Upon closer inspection, the figure’s blank countenance, its overbearing scale and the work’s title creates an unsettling confrontation.
The white exterior of the gallery is a gleaming beacon in the distance which houses a collection with a broad mandate (post-WWII) but with certain areas of concentration – the development of conceptual photography from the 1960s-on, for example, is a particular focus. The Rales’ have also championed some artists in-depth with significant holdings of work by artists like Fischli and Weiss, Charles Ray and Jeff Wall. Currently on view is No Substitute, a stellar example of Emily Wei Rales’ curation featuring the photography, sculpture and installations of twelve artists including Thomas Demand, Robert Gober, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman who have challenged the divide between truth and fiction, the familiar and the alien, authenticity and authorship. The works assembled ask visitors to look closely and question that which they see with their own eyes. Katharina Fritsch’s, looming, intensely-hued sculptures – Mönch [Monk], Doktor [Doctor] and Händler [Dealer] – are jarring in their life-size presence. The three figures stand as a triptych, uncanny and uncomfortably real save for their saturated hues. Jeff Wall’s lightboxes, including his early ground-breaking, The Destroyed Room, and An Eviction, are important examples of Wall’s consistent probing of the potential of the photographic medium not only to represent that which is found in the world but to depict and create, straddling both documentary and cinematographic possibilities. Fischli and Weiss’ room-sized installation, commissioned specifically for Glenstone, includes playful replicas of all manner of everyday objects, hand-carved from polyurethane and painted. Painstakingly recreated, these faux readymades call into question the viewer’s ability to discern “the real thing” as well as any preconceived notions one might have held about art objects versus utilitarian ones.
What is most striking about Glenstone is the uncompromising way the art is installed: each room is an ideal space for the work it contains. This considered approach allows viewers to really contemplate and enjoy what they see in exemplary configurations without the usual disturbances of gallery-going – the crowds, the noise, the looming security guards and security stanchions and even the didactic labels telling you what to think before you have the opportunity to think it yourself. It was a true privilege to visit.