Pollen pies, milky marble, wax walls

German sculptor uses organic materials to create natural art

Pollen becomes art in the hands of German artist Wolfgang Laib.

Arranged in brilliantly hued heaps, mounds and geometric forms, this building block of nature becomes a fleeting study in organic beauty. Laib, one of the Europe's most unusual contemporary sculptors, also uses milk, rice and beeswax in luminous expressions of the natural world.

A major retrospective of Laib's work opened recently at the Dallas Museum of Art and continues through Sept. 2.

Exhibition curator Klaus Ottman says that Laib's work is unlike any other. "It stops a lot of people in their tracks," Ottman says. "It's very striking, but with a certain gentleness and beauty."

Laib (rhymes with "vibe") says that natural materials offer a purity often overlooked in art.

"It's material I didn't have to make," he says, while installing his work in Dallas. "I consider art not something I create but something I participate in."

Flower power

The flower pollen, which he collects near his home in southern Germany, is meticulously sifted into fuzzy-edged squares on the gallery floor, where it appears to float in a haze of pure color.

The rectangle "is the quietest and most anonymous of shapes," Laib says. "I wanted to show pollen in the most beautiful way without any distraction."

The pollen also is displayed in jars on shelves and in cones and piles on the gallery floors.

But allergy sufferers need not fret. Most of the pollen is protected by plastic glass dividers, and air flow is restricted into the exhibit rooms.

Ottman says he has never seen a visitor so much as sneeze from the pollen. "It's not airborne," he says. "It's heavier than dust and stays on the floor." Laib spends weeks collecting egg yolk-colored specks from dandelions, which produce little pollen. Hazelnut pollen, a buttery hue, is more plentiful but also must be collected individually.

The color theme is reflected in Laib's appearance. A soft-spoken man of slight build, he often wears yellow cotton clothing and peers through lemon-colored eyeglass frames.

A lasting impression

In other works, Laib uses beeswax panels to build honey-scented chambers and 12-foot-tall stepped pyramids. Each piece requires thousands of pounds of pure wax, ranging in color from canary yellow to blackish-orange.

Other wax pieces are shaped like boats and displayed on scaffolding, or molded into small entryless houses filled with rice. "It's like a tomb but contains food," he says of the wax houses. "It's death and life."

Some of Laib's most mysterious pieces are "milkstones," which draw upon his interest in Eastern spirituality and rituals. He pours milk into a thin lip on the top of a white marble rectangle. The milk is just barely held in check on the surface.

Viewers are left wondering if they are looking at light or liquid, or whether the marble is somehow glowing.

The milkstones "look alive and organic, solid and inert, all at the same time," said Charles Wylie, DMA's contemporary art curator.

Museum staff each day replace the milk and gather up stray pollen. For Laib, these rituals demonstrate life-giving through replenishment and renewal.

But while timeless in meaning, the pieces are short-lived.

At the end of the show, the milk will be mopped up, the pollen swept into jars and the wax walls packed away like so much leftover cheddar cheese.

The impermanence is intentional, the artist says.

"Something which is temporary is much more eternal than things that last forever," he says.

Beyond labels

The show debuted last fall at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Future venues include the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and the Haus der Junst in Munich.

The free exhibition includes 26 drawings that trace Laib's 25-year career.

Laib trained as a doctor but never practiced medicine, instead exploring art as therapeutic and healing.

His creations are hard to label, says Thomas McEvilley, an art historian and professor at Rice University. The pollen fields, while sculpted, resemble Mark Rothko's vibrant geometric paintings. Yet performance art is found in Laib's ritualistic gathering, sifting and pouring.

"It transcends the idea of genre or category," McEvilley says. "He seems to be trying to escape the art historians' net."


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