Divided ‘Square Roots’ reaches its limit

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

After a two-year stay on the Front Green, Patrick Dougherty’s “Square Roots” will be dismantled and removed in January 2009.

When the University’s Public Art Committee acquired the work in 2006, it envisioned an installation of no less than one year, but there was “no agreed-upon amount of time” for the sculpture to remain, said Committee member and David Winton Bell Gallery Director Jo-Ann Conklin.

Dougherty said he is comfortable with the fact that the exhibition of “Square Roots” is nearing a close. He also expressed gratitude for the University’s efforts to keep it up in modified form even after last year’s damage – when the center portion was removed after being hit by a falling tree.

In “Square Roots,” the wispy harmony of gathered branches are manipulated to form a bulbous structure that counters the hard edges of the larger shapes, keeping with Dougherty’s other work. The saplings of each box are parted to form an irregularly round opening that invites students to explore the innards of the sculpture.

The Public Art Committee, which is a subcommittee of the Campus Planning and Design Board, is currently in between sources of funding and is not actively looking for new pieces at the moment. Conklin said the Committee chooses spots that are “good because they are prominent” and will not interfere with University events. Dougherty said he hoped that “Square Roots” would make “a destination of just a transition point on campus.”

Dougherty’s experimentation with the medium of branches began while he was still in college, he said. The choice was initially due to the sheer abundance of scrapped twigs in surrounding areas. Over the years, the sculptor said he has come to the realization that “this was mankind’s first building material,” and has decided to stay true to the twigs for their visceral effect.

For Dougherty, engagement with the saplings has elicited a remembrance of humanity’s hunter-gatherer past and of a childhood spent closer to nature. He said that the sculptures have garnered similarly positive reactions from “the Ph.D. in art history or the painter working on the house next door.”

“Square Roots” uses Dougherty’s usual spectrum of wood materials, but differs structurally from the greater part of the sculptor’s oeuvre. It is an assemblage of maple saplings wrenched and tangled into several hollow, distinctly boxy structures that contrast the usually fluid, organic shapes that Dougherty builds.

Dougherty said of this foray into a starker geometry recalled the shapes of modern buildings. Toying with harsh shapes was interesting, but his shapes still reflect the fact that”sticks have their own ways.”

The artist urges that he aims to affect the viewer on a very human level, rather than on an art-critical one. “It’s about the strong sense of smell, the physicality of it,” Dougherty said, and the vast difference in scale and perception that one has from outside versus within.

Sabine Zimmer ’09, who assisted in weaving the superstructure of “Square Roots” during her sophomore year, said that Dougherty’s works “all have movement to them.”

Zimmer said of the sculpture’s gradual unraveling and imminent departure, “I feel like it’ll bring things full circle and that’s fine. That’s the nice thing about the material.”

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