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Branch Office: Patrick Dougherty fashioned his 'A Cappella' installation from native laurel and willow branches cut in Pescadero.

Two Houses

Villa Montalvo pairs Patrick Dougherty's inviting garden folly with images of some harsher homes in 'Dwelling' exhibit

By Richard von Busack

COUNTRY LIFE first started to sound like a better deal than city life almost exactly 2,000 years ago. In the poet Virgil's Georgics, the city-dwelling Roman serenades the happiness of the hicks, out there somewhere tilling the fields and tending the sheep: "O farmers excessively fortunate, if only they recognized their blessings!"

As much as we love the outdoors today, most of us conclude that it's better off tamed, in the form of a garden, preferably with a yellow-jacket trap in it. But the really rich--the ones who can afford some significant lawnage--enjoy lives to envy, especially in their ability to construct what used to be called a "garden folly."

The teakwood pergola or gazebo is the modern gardener's way of echoing structures made of marble or stone. In the 1700s, the great era of garden follying, a wealthy prankster like Sir Francis Dashwood could contract for grottos, pools and caves, as well as a fake Doric temple for whatever pagan purposes his Hellfire Club had in mind. (You can see Dashwood's estate in the recent film version of The Importance of Being Earnest. The second-rate actors keep getting in the way of it, unfortunately.)

Villa Montalvo boasts a newly built garden folly on its grounds, and spring is a choice time anyway to visit the art center and picnicking ground in Saratoga. The easy way to describe the new installation is to call it environmental sculpture, like Andy Goldsworthy's environmental art in the popular documentary Rivers and Tides.

Sculptor Patrick Dougherty's aim is different than Goldsworthy's, though. Goldsworthy goes to the wildest places, to far rivers and coasts, to build his creations. Dougherty--a former English major and hospital administrator turned artist in midlife--wraps his work around existing structures, brick walls and parks.

A Cappella stands on the large lawn outside the mansion of Gilded Age U.S. Senator James Phelan. This small structure teases the big house's ambitions to permanence and elegance. Flanked by a short line of citrus trees, Dougherty's folly rests at the base of the garden's 5-story-high bunya-bunya tree, a native of the Queensland rain forests in Australia. Dougherty wove A Cappella out of native laurel and willow branches, cut from the forests in Pescadero.

The artist writes that he modeled the piece on a small church he saw in Vienna, but it looks more like something Balkan. It has a square base, as square as a mud hut. The base supports a perforated egg-shaped dome, crowned with a small tufted architectural lantern. Woven-wood urns top the corners. Thick vines, drooping like a Mongol's mustache, frame the side doorways.

It's not quite symmetrical. The windows don't quite match, which keeps the structure from looking too cute. Built without nails, wires or screws to hold it up, the building is supported by the sideways flow of the vines that whirl around the four sides. The saplings Dougherty used have so much tension in them that it's understandable why he uses the adjective "gestural" to describe them.

A Cappella--in music, the name means "without accompaniment," but in this case it means "in the manner of a chapel"--evinces a sense of both weightlessness and strength. Its peacefulness drew the few midweek sunbathers on the Villa Montalvo's lawn like a magnet. The inside is inviting, and not just because of the satisfying springy feeling of redwood bark underfoot and the sprays of fuzzy, budding willow twigs arrayed against the walls.

Dougherty's folly possesses a central turret that supports the four exterior walls. Inside the central tower, the visitor finds security without imprisonment. You long to get on your back and look at the sky through the open ceiling. The bay fragrance is just slightly tangible; it is the smell of laurel wreaths, of eternal youth.

Cabin Fever

Inside the Montalvo's gallery are the other pieces in a group show titled Dwelling, which includes Todd Hido's large photos of gloomy tract houses. Usually, one ominous window is lit, like the old Bates Mansion when young Norman was staying up late talking to his mom.

Mildred Howard's installation of galvanized steel timbers and mirrors follows the show's theme of a house of inner space and inescapable surveillance.

What struck me the most, though, was the work of the fourth artist in the show. Richard Barnes displays four photos of Ted "The Unabomber" Kaczynski's shack--a quartet of gelatin silver prints titled Exhibits A, B, C, and D.

Shooting in hard, flat black-and-white, like a Weegee photo of a fresh cadaver, Barnes photographed the small, boarded-up house of the madman right after it was hauled from Montana to Sacramento for use in his trial. (The cabin is still sits in storage in Sacramento--presumably, some day the Smithsonian will have to figure out what to do with it.)

The fateful cabin is all the more sinister for its ugly orderliness; even the neat tenpenny nails holding on the roof's shingles seem obsessively-compulsively tidy. It would be easy to go mad in there, you think (and you're meant to think that; you can read a lot into these photos). This hut where Kaczynski lived 30 years isn't much larger than the SUVs that try to run you down on Highway 9 when you leave Villa Montalvo. I wondered if his cell is any larger than this?

Contrasting the Unabomber's hell shack with Dougherty's chapel is a curator's triumph. The two buildings provoke thought about the eternal architectural problem of keeping the world out and letting nature in.

Dwelling: Works By Richard Barnes, Patrick Dougherty, Todd Hido & Mildred Howard runs through May 11 at Villa Montalvo, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga. Hours are Wednesday-Sunday, 1-4pm. The Dougherty installation will remain through June 2004. (408.961.5850)

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From the April 3-9, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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