Riders of the Green Line el or drivers along the same Lake Street route on the West Side may have noticed something that looks like a giant psychedelic skull sitting behind the fence while riding past the Garfield Park Conservatory.
Your eyes were not deceiving you.
The skull, standing 14-feet tall and weighing 6 tons, is one of about 30 larger-than-life sculptures that will be housed over the summer at the conservatory, 300 N. Central, part of an exhibit opening there next month.
Beginning on May 4, the grounds of the conservatory will more closely resemble a surrealist Salvador Dali painting than a botanical garden.
The “Niki in the Garden” exhibit will run until the end of October. The skull, called “La Cabraza”, was one of the first to arrive early this month. So large is the skull and some of the other artworks that flatbed trucks and cranes were needed to deliver and install the pieces. A total of 35 in all will be on display outside on the conservatory grounds.
The works are from late French sculptor and painter Niki de Saint Phalle. The pieces range in subject and design but maintain much of the artists’ signature touches. They’re made mainly of glass, large and small stone pieces, and ceramics. The sculptures represent animals, mythical figures and famous people.
One of the largest “non-human” pieces is an alligator-like sculpture, called Nikigator, that’s about 25-feet long, big enough for maybe a child to walk through some of its openings.
“The great thing about this exhibit is that it is both fanciful and accessible,” said Nathan Mason, curator of special projects for the city’s department of cultural affairs.
Phalle’s “Black Heroes” collection, also featured in the garden exhibit, showcases such famous blacks as Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.
One of the sculptures show two figures, one covered in black glass tile and leaping in the air with a basketball. The airborne figure is pressed up against another figure covered in white glass tile and standing on the ground. The one in the air has tile resembling red trunks and has the No. 23 on its chest. Any idea who that’s meant to represent?
Niki in the Garden is the most elaborate exhibit the conservatory has hosted since the Chihuly glass sculpture exhibit in 2001. Some of the garden pieces had various inspirations.
Phalle, who turned to fashion modelling in the 1950s while still an artist, used her art to challenge conventional notions of female beauty.
Her “Nanas” sculptures feature several female-shaped figures of various colors and wearing silver-mirrored tiles in the form of a one-piece bathing suit. The Nanas are even more eye-catching because of the accentuation of the hips, breasts, legs and buttocks.
“She was really interested in embracing all levels of physical beauty, and the Nanas are a wonderful expression of that,” said Mason. “Her art shows the beauty in nature and brings it into light in a way that is still very fresh and inviting.”
The black heroes collection was created with her biracial grandchildren in mind, according to Mason. Much of the art was inspired from Phalle’s home and upbringing in France.
Phalle was born near Paris, France in 1930. Her parents moved the family to America when she was three. During her annual summer visits to her grandparents back in France, Phalle became fascinated with French artists. She was particularly interested in the work of Andre Le Notre, who was one of the prominent “garden designers” of the 1940s. She began to practice sculpting, painting and mosaics before her teens.
She continued with her art into her teens while also pursuing a modelling career. Phalle would appear on the covers of French and American magazines, including Vogue, Life, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle. She would, however, continue with her sculpting and painting.
Born Catherine Marie-Agnes Fal de Saint Phalle, she was the second of five children. By the time her family moved to New York in the 1940s, she would be called Niki.
Before moving to large-scale sculptures, she made life-sized dolls made of polyester, a wire framework and paper mâché. Her Nanas were first done this way in the 1960s.
Phalle died in 2002 at the age of 71 of pneumonia. However, her work is kept alive through her daughter, Bloum Cardenas, born in 1971, who runs a charitable arts foundation in her mother’s honor.
Phalle’s “Niki in the Garden” exhibit has appeared all over the world.
“Niki Phalle wanted her art to be accessible amongst a variety of nationalities and age ranges,” said Mason. “She wanted viewers to be able to interact with her sculptures. That’s what makes it stand out.”
The exhibit began life at the Garfield Park Conservatory when Chicago Park District director Adam Schwerner saw an Atlanta showing of “Niki & the Garden”. Schwerner enjoyed what he saw so much that he contacted Luis Weisberg, commissioner of the Chicago Park District’s department of cultural affairs, about bringing the show to Chicago.
“Most of the art that is on display in the exhibit was taken from the work she did later in her career,” said Mary Eysenbach, director of conservatories for the park district. “She was in her 50s to mid-60s when she did most of the pieces on display here. It’s amazing that she was able to maintain that level of passion for her art that late in life.”
“Retirement,” Mason added, “isn’t for everyone.”
For more information about the exhibit, call 312/746-5100 or visit www.garfield-conservatory.org.