Updated: Jul 26
By Elizabeth Gracen:
I stroll through my favorite garden in Southern California and turn a corner to find a monumental assemblage resplendent in a summertime palette, bright yellow and pink, reflected in the hot summer sun. It’s the first of many tree-like sculptures along the gardens' "Snakeways" that lead to the galleries at the top of the hill.
What is that embedded in the plywood strips to look like organically textured tree bark? Why, it’s a golf club. No, wait. It’s an entire golf bag full of clubs, the bag comically hanging nearby. All sorts of flotsam and jetsam float in the air like reclaimed treasure. Defying logic and gravity, each new assemblage along the path is just ridiculous enough to make perfect sense.
Upon closer inspection, I spy wooden ducks piled on the boards above the massive garden archway. Neon-colored electrical cords and wires suspend from the boards like Disney moss. Visitors are encouraged to add to the mirrors, cords, and plastic waste . . . and this is just the entrance.
The wildly imaginative Your (Un)Natural Garden installation by Adam Schwerner at Descanso Gardens in Montrose, CA, has taken over the park and sparked a truly positive, immersive experience. An artist fascinated by the play of tension between the natural and the man-made world, Schwerner’s art is tactile, humorous, and joyful. Assemblages interspersed around the 150-acre park, the Sturt Haaga Gallery, and Boddy House explore the provocative blurred lines of what we deem as “natural” and what we define as human-made.
The viewer is encouraged to play, discover, and get inspired. Please, touch everything, squeal at the squeamish in "The Uncomfy Room," sit at "The Agora Room’s" dining table, and feast your eyes on a Mad Hatter’s dream of a meal. Let "The Boa Room’s" feathery strands brush against your face as you wonder just how hygienic it could possibly be in these times of COVID.
Since Descanso is a go-to for me when I need nature and decompression, I’ve seen the exhibit a couple of times. The second trip was full of children and families set loose for the summer, so the experience was high-pitched with laughter, running, and play; but a walk through my favorite room, "All the Bells," remained a solitary adventure.
The plaque outside the door tells a brilliant story of the artist’s parents:
Walking through a silver curtain, you will enter a large room with silver walls and a black floor. The room is illuminated by red light. Red ropes hang from the ceiling and end in brass bells. These hanging bells take up most of the room, creating hallways for you to follow in order to explore the space. The bells are in perpetual motion and microphoned, so that their sound is projected out into the larger gardens.
This installation is a very personal one to Schwerner. The red ropes reference the red cotton cords worn by Buddhists, like his father, and symbolize detachment from worldly distractions. The sounds of the bells hearken back to his childhood, which was filled with ringing bells and changing. The walls are painted silver as an homage to his artist mother, who painted the walls of their living room the same color when converting it into her art studio. “In this room I am finding a way to make my father and my mother inhabit the same space. They adored one another in real life, and it was torture for my brother and me. Here they have no choice but to be in conversation.”
Once you make your way through the entrance hall, gloriously crammed with wacky furniture assemblages, the Boddy House library is transformed into "The Manor Library"—a madhouse of oversized worms and warnings.
The Manor Library
Upon entering this room, you will find this historical space demystified. The books have been shrink-wrapped to prevent them from being read. Large, colorful cylindrical, worm-like sculptures fill the room, providing a strange and comedic twist to the somber space. Schwerner made the maquette for these sculptures while the pandemic was raging from supplies available in his home and studio.
The exhibit runs until January 8, 2023, and the artist expressly thanks the many collaborators who made it possible. Quinlan B Messenger of JUST Design, Kalie Achson and Claire McCracken of Art Mafia, Brayden Deskins (the Uncomfy Sympony), Julian Wilhack-Poyser, Luis Gomez, Anna Moulton of Pink Sparrow, Darren Ross from Tierra Verde industries, Keith Knueven of Ketih & Co., and last not but not least, Schwerner’s wife, Stephanie, for being patient as he destroyed their garage for the three years that it took to bring Your (Un)Natural Garden to life.
If you’re in the LA area, check out Descanso Gardens and this extraordinary installation that pulses with energy, good vibes, and joy. We certainly need as much of it as we can get these days.