I wish that, instead of being on display at Doylestown's Michener Art Museum, the show "Out of This World: Works by Steve Tobin" had been mounted across the street at the Mercer Museum. Henry Mercer's seriously fascinating and truly weird concrete repository of tools would be a fitting setting for the works of an artist for whom the process of making is often paramount.
Tobin has some things in common with Mercer, besides his Bucks County address. He makes "paintings" out of nails and pipe and other materials that the hardware-loving Mercer would appreciate. Like Mercer, he has been able to maintain a costly, labor-intensive art-making operation, often building new machinery to realize his intentions. He is a visionary tinkerer whose work at once embodies obsessive attention to detail, openness to chance, and impatience to move on to the next thing. And he stands apart from the art world, apparently selling little and keeping his major works for himself.
I realize that comparison of the two men is probably unfair to both. But at least it offers a point of view, a way of looking at Tobin's entire work and practice, rather than simply at one object after another. In fact, Tobin's most important shows have been at institutions, such as New York's Museum of Natural History, that are not art museums.
The Michener's show offers no vision or context. If you go, you will probably see a number of objects that intrigue you, that that you think are beautiful, or that leave you cold. But a museum show needs to do more. A show of this size should give us a sense of who Tobin is, why he does what he does, and why the curators, at least, find the work to be important.
This is particularly true for an artist such as Tobin, who has produced several different bodies of work in different media - glass, steel tubing, ceramics, and cast bronze among other things - that do not at first glance resemble one another. The visitor might want to know what the soaring black steel sculpture that stands outside of the museum has to do with the amazing ceramic vessels Tobin makes by embedding fireworks in blocks of clay, exploding them, and then firing them with shards of glass.
Yet the Michener show is parsimonious with information. The works are displayed entirely without labels - no dates, no titles, no anything. "The artist does not title most of his works and we didn't want to clutter the installation with a lot of text," Lisa Hanover, the Michener's director, and curator of this exhibition, explained in an e-mail.
Tobin lent all the works in the Michener show, so he bears much of the responsibility for it. It is good to maintain the focus on the art. Still, in a life's work, one thing often leads to another, so it is worthwhile to have an idea of the sequence in which the works were made.
Tobin was born in Philadelphia in 1957, grew up in Villanova, studied mathematics at Tulane University, where he became interested in ceramics, and started as a glass artist immediately after graduating. The local collector Philip Berman encouraged his move into sculpture during the 1990s.
His best-known work is probably Trinity Root, a casting in bronze of the root of the sycamore tree credited with saving historic St. Paul's Chapel, opposite the World Trade Center, on 9/11. He donated it to Trinity Church, which operates the chapel, and it stands outside the church. As you approach the museum, you can't miss Romeo and Juliet (2002), a pair of cast bronze roots, similar to Trinity Root, a couple of Tobin's simpler, more stylized Steel Roots sculptures, and one of the Syntax sculptures, made from the fusion of bronze letters and numbers.
But you might best begin, as Tobin did, with glass. One small gallery is filled with dramatically lighted examples of cast glass objects from the early 1990s that the artist calls doors, but whose size and shape recall luminous tombstones. Within each of these thick slabs are colors and shapes that conjure an otherworldly, three-dimensional space. It's a little bit like the movie Avatar without the 3-D glasses, but these are definitely worth a long, long look.
It is a short step from the artist's earliest enthusiasm to a more current one, those exploded ceramics. Here, a video of Tobin literally detonating blocks of clay, explaining as he goes, provides a context otherwise missing in the show. You can see how the chaos unleashed by the explosion shapes the clay pieces, while the chemicals in the fireworks provide much of their color. And although Tobin had announced he was through with using glass, it reappears to give these rough vessels gemlike contents.
Much of the Michener's largest gallery is taken up with more examples, in various sizes, of the Steel Roots series. These are not so much abstractions of plant forms as they are figurative pieces of couples dancing. The gallery is a great ballroom, and these big steel pieces are light on their feet.
Out in the museum's sculpture garden are the Earth Bronzes, a series that began with Tobin's decision to cast a seemingly random piece of forest floor, whose leaf litter and rotting logs sustain life but go unnoticed. Casting an eye on the unseen, unappreciated or thrown away is an important part of Tobin's aesthetic. But alongside these pieces are similar ones, featuring pumpkins and ears of corn, that look like Halloween kitsch. And there's one with fish that you almost expect to sing.
Such inconsistency raises anew the question: Who is Steve Tobin? An overgrown boy with too many toys and no editor? A treasurable Bucks County eccentric like Henry Mercer? An artist who has something important to say about our culture and times? All three? "Out of This World" provokes these questions but doesn't begin to help us answer them.
"Out of This World: Works by Steve Tobin"
Where: Through Oct. 26 at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown.
Hours: Tuesdays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 10-5; Sundays, noon-5.
Admission: Adults, $18; seniors, $17; students with valid ID, $16; children ages 6-18, $8; under 6, free.
Information: 215-340-9800 or www.michenermuseum.org
"Art" by Thomas Hine and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear in alternating weeks.