April 23 2003 12:00 AM

God of small things : Andy Goldsworthy finds nature's infinitesimal wonders

    artculture2

    An older man lumbered through the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla recently, trying to find something he liked. Nearly every room contained the same stuff: Ellsworth Kelly's massive but minimalist red, green and blue block canvases.

    Eventually, the man loudly appealed to his wife, "C'mon. This is just shit." Apparently, big paintings of rectangles and circles rub some people the wrong way.

    The lumbering older man might do better with MoCA's Andy Goldsworthy exhibition, which opens April 27. Goldsworthy has a 25-plus-year history of going down well with commoners and cognoscenti alike. The British artist's materials and themes, which focus on the outdoors and nature, immediately express something familiar and inviting to viewers.

    In any photo of a Goldsworthy work-say, a series of sticks arranged to twist like a snake in the woods-part of the appeal is thinking, "Hey, I could do that," followed immediately by, "but I never would think to."

    Goldsworthy has earned his reputation through his unfailing ability to evince some surprising or lovely quality from even the lowliest twig or leaf. In the MoCA exhibition, for example, expect to get a whole new outlook on boulders and stones.

    Most people think of rocks as heavy, solid bits of broken earth, fascinating only if highly colorized, immensely huge or carved in the visage of a dead president. Yet by melting them in a kiln, Goldsworthy shows that rocks can ooze and flow in a very un-rock-like fashion. And, as is typical of Goldsworthy's work, these "rock pools" suggest a connection to something beyond themselves.

    "I'm putting the melted stones in the room with the amazing view of the sea," Goldsworthy explains. "You look over the water and there's a swell and movement of the water, and then there's the swell of the stones.

    "They have a relationship."

    The melted rocks are the fruition of an on-again, off-again 15-year struggle for Goldsworthy. In his early attempts to liquidate stones, the artist destroyed the kiln belonging to his ceramicist father-in-law. It took him years to raise enough money to create a specially designed kiln that could do the job.

    Finally, after much experimentation, and with the help of his now-late biological father (a professor of applied mathematics), Goldsworthy cracked the physics code. The final process was tricky, but produced spectacular results.

    "They were heated for a couple of weeks in a kiln, very delicately brought up to temperature," Goldsworthy explains. "When they reach about 500 degrees they start to tear open, and it's the most extraordinary thing to witness. The inside of the stone turns fluid and starts pouring out, and the outside remains. It's a very violent thing, but you know, nature is violent, so there's this beauty and violence at the same time."

    The MoCA show will also feature large granite stones Goldsworthy covers in granite-based clay that then dries and cracks. "It gives and incredible sense of this wet, solid form becoming alive," he says.

    Goldsworthy considers fault-riddled California the perfect setting for his stone works, some of which are on view in America for the first time.

    "California itself breathes and is cracked and there's tension," he explains. "It seemed the right place for these boulders. And hopefully people from California will understand that when they see these pieces; they will resonate with a sense that they have about the fragility of the landscape and the underlying geological fissures."

    One of Goldsworthy's main themes is the relentless effects of time. Many of his works are ephemeral, like a haunting series of 12 sand arches that were built on a beach then swept away by the tide. Or giant snowballs transported to London and left to melt on the streets.

    "The works I make outside that get engulfed by the sea, or decay with time-there's this great sense of loss when they go. But learning to deal with loss and change are very important in life," Goldsworthy says. Included in the exhibition are extensive photos taken by Goldsworthy himself that show a range of his transitory creations.

    On May 8, MoCA will screen the full-length documentary, Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, which captures fleeting projects and takes viewers into the world of the artist. It shows how doggedly and obsessively the man toils over his deceptively simple creations.

    The entire exhibition will be named Andy Goldsworthy: Three Cairns. It's a nod to the three 8-foot tall, beehive-shaped forms Goldsworthy made from small slabs of Iowa limestone in three American locations. One of the cairns squats under a spreading fig tree in front of MoCA like a visitor from another world. Another sits engulfed in a "sea" of prairie grass in Iowa. The third sits next to the Atlantic Ocean in New York.

    "Repeating the form-sometimes that's the best way to show differences. Having a cairn here and a cairn on the east coast has been interesting. The east coast has such a sense of seasonal change that is absent here, " Goldsworthy explains.

    Goldsworthy's world-renowned popularity (your average British teenager might have a couple of his posters, much like Ansel Adams in the United States) is not hard to understand. His lifelong devotion to nature's secrets pays off in revelations you may not have found on your own.

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