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Form and function meet on the green at Laguna Gloria exhibit

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jules Gilbreath, 10, celebrates a successful putt on hole No. 4, 'Chicken Ranch,' designed by Bob Wade for the Art on the Green exhibit.

'This is crazy!" squealed a little girl as she ran across the lush green lawn at Laguna Gloria on a recent Saturday afternoon, a golf club in hand.

Sure — it's a little bit mad to be romping around the grounds of an historic 1916 villa/art museum and its sculpture-dotted grounds while wielding a golf club.

Until May 20, however, that's precisely what visitors to AMOA-Arthouse's lakeside Laguna Gloria location are welcome to do.

Spirited, surprising, witty, the exhibit "Art on the Green" offers nine fully playable miniature golf holes sprinkled around the verdant 12 acres of the Laguna Gloria grounds.

A 10th hole resides at the Jones Center, the Congress Avenue location of AMOA-Arthouse, the recently merged entity that was formerly the separate Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse.

Each mini-golf hole has been designed by an artist, artist collective, team of architects or landscape designers. The exhibit was organized by Andrea Mellard, AMOA-Arthouse curator. Clubs and golf balls are available for rental. The exhibit's brochure doubles as a score card. And yes, each hole has a par.

The Italianate stucco mansion built by Texas legend Clara Driscoll (renowned for saving the Alamo from destruction), makes for a suitably quirky locale for such a whimsical endeavor. Driscoll was if nothing else willful and imaginative, and she set out to re-create the Lake Como environs of northern Italy where she had honeymooned on the banks of Texas' Colorado River.

Per the romantic ideas of Driscoll's time, the grounds nearest the villa sport formally stylized gardens dotted with both authentic and replicated Italian sculptures. The lower lakeside grounds are left more natural or "picturesque" in the parlance of early 20th century garden design.

Whether or how much the artists took the specifics of Laguna Gloria's history into concern, each hole nevertheless delightfully dovetails with the environment.

Underneath a graceful pergola just off the villa's main entrance sits "Polygolf," a challenging hole designed by architecture firm Thoughtbarn. An undulating course of 72 triangular shapes alternately covered in synthetic turf or left as plain plywood, "Polygolf" was designed digitally but rendered from the most ordinary materials. That makes for a pleasant dichotomy — high thinking with humble stuff.

And it's a trope that continues throughout much of "Art on the Green," most particularly in "Loop" by Legge Lewis Legge (the collective of Murray Legge, Deborah Lewis and Andrea Legge), which also resides on the upper grounds, close to where the gardens are more formal.

Using a standard-sized bundle of 208 8-foot-long 2x4's (available at any home improvement store), the trio crafted a mathematically precise circular structure that encloses a spherical pathway that loops in on itself. Miss the hole and you inevitably wind up back at the tee.

"Loop" offers the potentially endless mini-golf hole — a notion that is simultaneously delightful and unnerving.

After all, just about anybody raised in post-war United States has some kind of experience or memory — good or bad — of miniature golf.

Though the sport (yes, it's a recognized sport according to the U.S. ProMiniGolf Association) gained popularity in the 1920s — when dozens of rooftop miniature courses sprouted in New York City — it wasn't until the 1950s that mini-golf became an endemic feature of the American entertainment landscape.

A booming post-war consumer-oriented economy, the development of weatherproof synthetic turf and the burgeoning interstate system that had more Americans traveling the roadways than ever before, all added up to mini-golf's ubiquity.

Colorful, whimsical statuary beckoned families, attracting everyone with its weird admixture of the real and the fantastical.

Mini-golf is also something the entire family can play together. Or it's benign enough for children and teenagers to be left on their own to play. Either way, mini-golf has remained an American recreational mainstay, appreciated as much these days for its kitsch factor as for anything else.

And then there's the scale: Everything and anything becomes adorable when its rendered in miniature.

Like any other pop-culture meme, it's become fodder for artists: "Art on the Green" isn't the first art-exhibit-cum-mini-golf-course. Similar projects have popped up since the mid-1990s.

If "Polygolf" and "Loop" hint at something more cerebral in their origin, several of the holes on the less-landscaped lower grounds share a kind of playful irreverence.

From the Boozefox collective (Michael Phalan, Scott Eastwood, Drew Liverman and Jules Buck Jones) comes "Nutrioppossumus," a giant hybrid rodent that has seemingly crawled out of Lake Austin — part nutria, part opossum and perhaps the outcome of an environmental disaster.

Putt into the monster's mouth and watch the ball come out the furry backside. Yeah, "Nutrioppossumus" is ready-made to delight pre-teen boys.

Also making its way across Lake Austin is some imaginary group of teenagers out for a night of petty vandalism. Or that's at least what the nine-artist collective of Okay Mountain imagined when they conceived of "School Night." (And actually, that's not too far off — over the decades many a boatful of teens has landed ashore Laguna Gloria for a little nighttime mischief.)

At first glance, "School Night" looks like a typical mini-golf attraction — a wild-eyed clown, its mouth agape, its crazy pink tongue a putting-chute. And it looks a little roughed-up, too. There are plastic cups and bottles strewn on the green, cigarette butts thrown about, graffiti spray-painted on.

But look closer and you'll see everything is ersatz, the crumpled plastic cups individually cast art objects affixed to the green, the graffiti and scratches pre-made by the artists. Ditto with the cigarette butts — they're hand-crafted too.

"School Night" speaks to another mini-golf meme — the worn-out roadside attraction, the forgotten piece of Americana.

But like all kinds of pranksterish fun, "Art on the Green" has to come to an end.

And on many levels, "Parmaggedon," the course's last and ninth hole, makes for an ultimate coda for the impish exhibition.

Earlier this year, the young 11-member collective Ink Tank created buzz — and stopped traffic — around town when they transformed a derelict house in East Austin with a clever Armageddon-themed installation that included arranging a mass of used lumber to seemingly tumble out one end of the house.

Again with Armageddon on the mind, Ink Tank sportively presents us with a diminutive landscape under cataclysmic destruction.

A tiny roadway and bridge leads past a small collapsing oil derrick to a little desert landscape that then leads to a miniature cityscape ringed by a pile of itty bitty discarded tires that then leads to a looming but small-scale black hole into which you direct your putt.

Lingering off to the side and challenging the Lilliputian scale is an actual van outfitted with a crazy bunch of found objects, ready to defend itself in some kind of "Mad Max" dystopia.

But "Parmaggedon" is mostly the end of the world rendered in charming miniature with mind-boggling detail and utterly delightful, clever whimsy.

Yes, mini-golf is alive and well in America.

Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at 445-3699