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See This Art: Lost and found at Laguna Gloria

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Nicole Eisenman's 2019 "Man at the Center of Men," made of bronze and stainless steel and staged in a glade away from the water's edge, is new to Laguna Gloria.

Glimpsed peripherally through the brush at Laguna Gloria, the new sculpture appears like a malevolent spirit from the brilliant 1961 psychological horror movie, “The Innocents.”

Looking longer and more closely, Nicole Eisenman’s 2019 “Man at the Center of Men,” made of bronze and stainless steel and staged in a glade away from the water’s edge, is still disturbing, but more complicated.

But first: Getting lost.

I was looking for the wrong art on the forested peninsula that unfurls out into Lake Austin and its calm namesake lagoon. Back and forth, I took paths that I didn’t know existed among the tall cottonwoods, cypresses and palms.

Early thought: This might be one of the safest spots in Austin to view art and nature during the pandemic. There’s so much space and the Contemporary Austin staff carefully routes a limited number of guests at a time through the Marcus Sculpture Park.

Another thought: There’s room for a lot more art. The museum could keep collecting selectively and judiciously for another century and not run out of space.

Seeing so much of the park on an exquisite November day, it was easy to break down the types of sculpture that live here. Many might be classified as geometric or architectural — stacks, pipes, what look like pieces of machines or structures.

Others are more organic, chiefly distorted human forms — Eisenman’s two connected figures fall into this category — that seem more at home here.

Then there are the older traditional statues that relate well to the 1916 Clara Driscoll villa that once anchored the estate, but now seem out of place among the more distinctive and more recently acquired sculpture.

One piece that I’d never contemplated before, despite its prominent placement at the base of the park’s popular amphitheater on a small mound next to the lagoon, is Kenyan-American Wangechi Mutu’s 2017 “Water Woman.”

Seen from landside, the bronze creature is reduced to a curved fish trunk and tail gleaming in the sun, while the spiky upper body hints at the humanity on the other side. As one circles the figure counterclockwise, her supple yet muscular figure, as well as her noble features, topped by rippled and scalloped hair, take command.

Full-face, her features return to a piscine cast.

Miraculously, Mutu was able to take what could have been another iteration of Edvard Eriksen’s droopy “The Little Mermaid” statue in Copenhagen harbor and turned this siren, “nguva” in Swahili, into a woman of mythical power and stature.

Back to “Man at the Center of Men” — A man sits side-saddle-style on another man who kneels on all fours. The body of the man on top is scored and hatched in unusual ways. His chest opens up to reveal what appear to be guts. His triumphant face looks as if it is deteriorating. In his hands, he holds shiny trashcan lids like musical cymbals.

The kneeling man’s head hangs down, perhaps from the pain of supporting the other. His extremities are rendered in a darker color, as if burned, dyed or otherwise manipulated. Bits of brighter color mark his ears and other parts of his body.

What to make of this scene? One need not go far out on a limb to understand that this is about dominance, oppression and abuse. To plant such a substantial work in a natural setting surrounded by palms and native grasses goes further to suggest that this is an almost primordial state of human affairs.

It’s a powerful piece. I felt so even before I realized it was the sculpture I had set out to find. Luckily, while lost, I passed by it several times and viewed it from multiple angles.

There is no more entrancing spot in Austin than Laguna Gloria. The Contemporary Austin, which recently welcomed new Executive Director Sharon Maidenberg, has made a worthy steward of this little piece of paradise, still somewhat wild or at least overgrown in spots.

“Man at the Center of Men” belongs here.

The Contemporary Austin at Laguna Gloria is open to the public from 9 a.m. to noon Thursday-Friday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday with advance, timed tickets purchased online at thecontemporaryaustin/visit.


You Gotta See This is a recurring series about art around Austin that we think deserves a look.